31 Days of Hell: Ten of the Best Horror Directors

To close out 31 Days of Hell, we present ten of the best horror directors ever. 

William Friedkin
While not ostensibly a horror film director by nature or ouvre, the irascible, confrontational William Friedkin has managed to create some of the most deeply disturbing and unsettling films in cinema history.  From the legendary horror film The Exorcist, the nightmarish industrial fever dream Sorcerer, the gay undercover cop thriller Cruising, and most recently, his two collaborations with playwright Tracy Letts’ Bug and Killer Joe, Friedkin has managed to fearlessly push the envelope with respect to what’s acceptable in mainstream cinema.  In almost every film mentioned, there’s a moment of pure shock that is so strong it’s likely to take some viewers out of the film as they try to deal with what they’ve just witnessed.  Almost as powerful, if not more, is Friedkin’s unique use of subliminal imagery, implanting an image in the viewer’s mind they’re not consciously aware of and thus sneaking past preternatural defense mechanisms.  Equal to his provocation on filmgoers and the general media is his toughness with respect to his cast and crew.

In all three of his late 70s and early 80s works, Friedkin’s actors can’t help but walk away weary and worn from the ordeal he has subjected them to.  In an outtake shot on the set of The Exorcist, you can hear him barking at his crew.  The nightmare Friedkin put his cast, crew (and himself) through to realize his remake of The Wages of Fear isn’t far off from the mayhem caused by Francis Ford Coppola’s production of Apocalypse Now.  Elaborate sets had to be built, torn down and relocated, and the locations got the entire cast and crew sick with Malaria.  In Cruising, with its rampant, illicit gay sex happening all around a clearly mortified Al Pacino, Friedkin tested the boundary of what sorts of situations you can drop your actors and viewers in.  And most recently with the NC-17 rated Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey sexually assaults Gina Gershon with a fried chicken drumstick. 

Unlike other directors who buckle under the weight of financial pressure or public opinion, Friedkin charges through undeterred with a clear vision in mind.  There’s a matter of fact realism to the shock factors in Friedkin’s work that’s penetrative and manages to burrow itself into the viewers’ psyche.  People come away from his films shaken for how they transgress and shatter softer sensibilities.  While the demonic possession film became a genre here to stay, there’s a reason they all take from The Exorcist and why films influenced by it feel childishly inadequate in comparison to the wrath Friedkin has wrought.

David Lynch
Nothing in life is more frightening than what we dream about?  Whatever fears we harbor in our daily routine is sorted out during sleep, in which the human mind confronts these fears and either manages to wake us from sleep or leave us feeling very afraid the following day.  David Lynch, one of the most popular and influential film surrealists in the world, knows this condition all too well and has managed time and time again to create images and scenarios that are, simply put, scarier than anything.  Like William Friedkin, Lynch is not overtly a horror director, but his work gets so far under the skin of viewers that they actually trump more than half of the terrors envisioned by most horror films.  With Eraserhead, Lynch took our average personal fears about parenthood and created one of the most horrifying treatments of the topic of all time.  Anyone who has dealt with bringing a child into the world, having their life abruptly change with the newborn, will recognize the anxiety and apprehensions Lynch is tapping into.  The way our mind can shift from serene calm to unequivocal fright in the blink of an eye within dream states is also exploited to marvelous effect by Lynch. 

Take for instance, a scene in his final work, Inland Empire, in which a flashlight pointed at grinning actress Laura Dern running towards the camera in the dead of night in slow motion.  Seconds before she reaches the camera, Lynch drops a few frames to speed her jog up before the soundtrack roars to a furious shriek, Dern’s face filling the screen with her wicked grin.  It’s a simple image that plays completely like a real nightmare, crawling towards our mind’s eye before erupting into a scream.  Scenes like this are difficult to explain but are more terrifying than anything in experience.  When Lynch isn’t pushing grotesque contortions upon his viewers, he’ll envision some of the scariest reptilian creatures of the night such as Frank (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet, Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) from Wild at Heart, the guy in black (Robert Blake) from Lost Highway and probably the most frightening of all, the demon Bob (Frank Silva) from Twin Peaks.  Unlike other antagonistic villains gracing the silver screen waving a gun or knife at us, Lynch’s characters could approach us in broad, open daylight and still manage to scare the living Hell out of us.  They don’t leave us alone well after we’ve finished watching the film and continue to haunt us as day turns into night. 

Because Lynch’s films aren’t fantastical but are reflections of the world around us filtered through the minds of his characters, they are essentially nightmarish visions of the world we live in.  While most villains prefer to hide in the shadows, much like Robert Blake’s grinning, pale faced devil with no eyebrows in Lost Highway, they approach and address us directly.  When Blake’s demon explains to Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) they’ve met before and he’s standing in front of him as well as residing in his house there and then, Fred scoffs.  The demon hands him his cellular phone and asks that Fred dials his house number, and when Fred does, the demon answers on the other end.  Simply put, in Lynch’s nightmares, there is no escape from the captive evil winking and smiling right at us. 

Sam Raimi
Pioneering the cabin-in-the-woods theme, Evil Dead has seen countless attempts to be replicated to the point of spawning a film decades later that both pokes fun at the genre's clichés and turns them on their head. That film's title alone suggests its tongue-in-cheek tribute to Evil Dead and the clones that came after it. Cabin in the Woods owes its success mainly to Sam Raimi. While Raimi isn't commonly known as a horror director, there is no doubt he was a trendsetter. His Evil Dead trilogy began as a fresh amalgam of demon possession and zombies. Not to be confused with a mash-up. Evil Dead is more than that. It's a perfect hybrid where the line between zombie and demon is blurred into something new.

A great, fresh idea would be nothing by itself, however, if it weren't for Raimi's uniquely wild method of capturing these concepts. Raimi is a director with a particular flair for driving, wide-lensed, visceral movement. There is physicality to the camera work and his direction of action that brought heightened vigor to not just what appears on screen, but how the audience feels as we zip, dive, and swirl around the characters and scene like we're riding a miniature rollercoaster through the violence. It is a style rarely copied, and when copied, nails the same beats and swings with even more rarity. It is a signature that Raimi would pull through his career into a film that set another standard—this time in the form of the superhero genre, in his Spider-man.

Before Spider-man, Raimi set in motion an evolution from 1981's traditional horror of Evil Dead, to Evil Dead II, which saw yet another hybridization of genres. Raimi began melting comedy into the horror elements, seeing Bruce Campbell as Ash maniacally severing his own possessed hand and chasing it around the cabin. In its final form, Army of Darkness adds yet another major genre into the mix, blending the previous horror and comedy under the guise of a medieval epic. There's nothing quite like it out there. Raimi kept introducing bigger, newer elements while never shedding what was great about the past, and maintaining his kinetic touch throughout.

Raimi would later take on western, drama, thriller, summer blockbuster, and fantasy films returning only once so far to his signature horror comedy roots in Drag Me to Hell. Raimi was a true innovator of horror, attaching, tearing off, and reattaching varying genres and technical applications to his method. I can't wait to see Raimi return to the director's chair for another original horror film.

David Cronenberg
If anyone can be called a maestro of the grotesque, it has to be the prolific horror/sci-fi director David Cronenberg. No other director has so meticulously explored the disgusting limits that a human body can be put through. In his earlier films such as Shivers (1975) and The Brood (1979) he explored the subversive qualities of human sexuality--centering on the rampant hedonistic casual sex of the late seventies and the fetishistic nature of motherhood and childbirth. The images were shocking and lurid but at the same time alluring and provocative. This view of sexuality would prove to be a theme in almost all of his horror films, up into much later in his career.

In the eighties he began his “body horror” era with films such as Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986). Each of these films focuses on the denigration and mutation of the human body—often into forms that were unrecognizable and disgusting to behold. Human bodies are frail and susceptible to many diseases, and Cronenberg is a master to playing to the viewer’s deep seated fear of infection and disfigurement. Just take a look at the recent Ebola hysteria to get an idea of how scared people can get about that concept. In both Videodrome and The Fly, the main protagonists become casualties of their own ego and aspirations and suffer a very visual and graphic fate because of their hubris.

As Cronenberg advanced into the nineties, his horror became more metaphorical and nuanced. With films such as Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996), and eXistenZ (1999) he chose to explore the personal turmoil of the characters as they dealt with their many inner demons. Sexual obsession, drug addiction, and existential crisis were the subjects more so than straight gory horror. These films are no less frightening and in some ways more unsettling with the added subtleness. That is not to say that Cronenberg completely revised his style, as Naked Lunch in particular has some of the most bizarre imagery ever put into film. It was merely the result of a director maturing and expanding his filmography to its logical conclusion.

David Cronenberg has seemed to move away from horror in his later years, instead choosing to direct thrillers and crime dramas. Even though he is taking a new direction with his films his contribution to the horror genre has been considerable and far-reaching.

John Carpenter
Was there any director in the 80s as on fire and unstoppable as John Carpenter? In retrospect, it sure seems that way. In reality, most of his films from that era were box office flops. It’s hard to believe when you look at the canon of this horror icon who practically kickstarted an entire genre with Halloween. He followed that up with The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and They Live, all in the span of a decade. Yet his last wide theatrical release was 13 years ago, with Ghosts of Mars. Let’s all say it together: Where are you when we need you?

While not all of those time capsules are what we would call masterpieces, many of them are now regarded as underrated classics. The Thing is now considered to be one of the very best remakes of all time. In fact, Carpenter stated that he made the audience-friendly Starman straight off the heels of that film’s failure so he could keep working in Hollywood. Big Trouble in Little China made a genre icon of Kurt Russell and is the kind of B-movie love letter mashup that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino have spent a lifetime emulating. Carpenter not only could make these films, and make them well, but he made it look easy because he did it so often. Until the 90s, when he still gave us the single best Call of Cthulhu movie ever made, In the Mouth of Madness. But it began to dry up from that point, all Vampires aside, even though James Woods redefines “bad ass” in that movie.

So what happened to this masterful director who was clearly at the top of his game for so long? The term “burned out” very well may apply. Or perhaps it is simply because Carpenter believes there is no longer as high a demand for the kind of film he is interested in making. If that is how the man feels, we couldn’t disagree with him more. While the average American is certainly dumber than the hammered feces stuck to the box of rocks people are pointing at as a reference, the world could not be more ripe for the sociopolitical commentary Carpenter was so adept at lacing throughout his later 80s works. All Masters of Horror episodes and The Ward aside, this young millennium is sorely lacking John Carpenter, and we think it’s about time this modern master remind us why he was once known as the best.

Dario Argento:
This week on a special episode of “What in the Flying Fornication Happened Here?” we have Dario Argento, once called the “Italian Hitchcock.” For those of us unfortunate enough to sit through Mother of Tears and his newest cinematic magnum opus, Dracula 3D—and I couldn’t even finish typing that sentence without laughing—calling this nickname a stretch sounds like a kindness. Once upon a time, the moniker not only applied, but was embraced fully by fans and critics. Once upon a time, there was Deep Red, Tenebre, Suspiria, and Inferno. Anyone who has seen these films has felt what it is like to be in the hands of a master manipulator who played his audience like a piano.

One of the big names responsible for bringing the Giallo genre of Italian horror overseas—as well as executive producing one of the greatest films of all time, Dawn of the Dead—Argento specialized in highly stylized mystery thrillers, often with a supernatural edge. Drawing in his audience through the use of carefully crafted suspense, then volcanically erupting into a fireworks display of extreme violence, Argento played his notes with surgical precision. Maybe it had been done before, but seldom—if ever—had it been done so well that the images were burned into our collective conscience. Just try to get the image out of your head of the young woman’s amputated arm firing a perfect, bloody arc on the wall at the end of Tenebre. Try to think of Suspiria without envisioning Argento’s surreal colors highlighting a ghoulish smile that sends chills down your spine. Think of the palpable terror, played out in contrast with insanely beautiful cinematography, as a woman swims within the wreckage of a flooded abandoned home at the beginning of Inferno. These images are the stuff nightmares are made of.

With this body of work, it boils down to that single question: What the hell happened? Well, us at Movie Sleuth believe it began in 1987. This year marked the release of Opera, a phenomenal piece of filmmaking… if you stop the film before the director’s original ending. This is one instance where “American studio tampering” not only made the right call, but was the welcome bit of slap-chop editing the film needed. The American-released version of Opera ended on a perfect note; Argento’s ending takes what is essentially a masterpiece, and dilutes it through a filter of skunk piss. This ending is so absurd, so nonsensical, so completely and utterly inept in its storytelling, that it no doubt represents the spring board Argento leapt off to the death of his career. Oh, he’s still making movies? Well, he shouldn’t be. Take our word for it, and file the name Dario Argento in your grey matter with a firm 1987 cutoff date. Not only will you not regret it, but you’ll save yourself the heartbreak of seeing exactly how far the high and mighty have the insane capacity to fall.

James Wan
There's no two ways about it, James Wan got lucky by bringing out the right movie at the right time. The original Saw, when you boil it down, is a basic horror mystery with a pretty good—though logically perplexing—twist ending, and a marketable villain. After Darren Lynn Bousman and his ilk had their way with Wan's original vision, putting out an annual dose of torture porn for a grand total of six sequels, there wasn't much respect remaining for a franchise that began with Wan’s unique style.

His followup, Dead Silence, or as I like to call it, James Wan’s Night of the Living Dummy, really showed what he could be capable of. There is a marriage of cinematography and production design at work here that provide moments of true awe-inspiring atmosphere. The images snap, crackle, and pop with the loving touch of a director doing his damnedest to help his friend's script resemble something less than garbage. And therein lies the problem: Leigh Whannell, frequent writer and collaborator of Wan's (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious) has been riding Wan’s coattails since 2004, and he doesn’t seem apt to ease his death grip on them any time soon. This is a writer without an original thought in his head. His process seems to begin with an implausible twist ending, and then work backwards, telegraphing every punch down the road. When that isn’t his modus operandi, he’s almost plagiarizing Poltergeist to fill out every paint by numbers stop along the road to Darth Maul’s reveal at the end of Insidious.

Mr. Whannell, you are the weakest link. Bye bye.

What happens when you take Leigh Whannell out of the equation? You get The (mother-effing) Conjuring: immaculately crafted, well acted, impeccably scripted, and pants-fudgingly frightening. It not only represents the true arrival of an exceptional talent, but is the definitive bookend on the demonic possession genre. Between The Exorcist and The Conjuring, it’s over. Everyone else can pack it in. This is a born filmmaker finally living up to his full potential. With his previous films, the whip-snap editing and eye-popping vistas came across as little more than an attempt to divert the audience from the weakness of the story. Here, everything is fluent and damn near perfect. James Wan makes a solid case for being the most visually gifted horror director working today. His use of wide angle lenses spins apprehension and claustrophobia out of thin air, and the horrifying beauty of the palette he paints with them is second to none. It took almost a decade, but Mr. Wan, you have finally come into your own, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Clive Barker
There aren’t too many people that can say they are accomplished writers and directors but Clive Barker wears both of these hats well. Barker is considered a juggernaut in the horror industry having penned many popular horror novels and anthologies. He is best known for the Hellraiser movie series and his penchant for S&M tinged horror themes. Unfortunately, Barker only directed the first Hellraiser film and the quality took a sharp decline with each successive sequel.

Some of Barker’s films have been financial flops (Nightbreed immediately comes to mind) but they always end up garnering a cult following. He fared somewhat better with Lord of Illusions and parts of that film are truly frightening. Demons and the occult are two themes that often run through his movies and he always does an excellent job in portraying unfettered evil and debauchery. Barker dabbles in other artistic mediums frequently (sculpting and painting) and his imagination leads to inventive and creative imagery in both his films and books.

There have been many great films based on Barker’s work: Candyman, Rawhead Rex, and Midnight Meat Train to name just a few. He was also the executive producer on the critically acclaimed Gods and Monsters, a thriller starring Ian McKellen in one of his most unsettling roles ever. Overall, Barker’s influence on horror is incredibly far reaching—he has his hand in many pots. Whether it’s films, novels, comic books or even video games you can be sure that if Clive Barker is involved it will be scary as hell.

Ti West
In a society where horror movies are rarely original and styles are consistently replicated over and over again, Ti West has made a name for himself with his fresh ideas and brilliant storytelling.  His 2009 retro-inspired piece The House of the Devil gained an instant cult following and pleased horror fans with its super dark and gritty style.  While West isn’t an overly visual director, the style conveyed in Devil feels straight out of the 70’s.  Grainy film effects, a tasteful use of violence and a haunting sound design created a wonderful old school package for the modern day.  His second major outing, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever is something that is going to go ignored – hey, we all make mistakes.  Moving into 2011’s The Innkeepers West proved to everyone that he can flawlessly tell an eerie and very memorable ghost story.  This film showcases why West is a modern day horror genius.  Shot in a very basic fashion, Innkeepers relies on its story, dialogue and atmosphere to drive the entire piece.  There’s no reliance on the cliché jump-scare technique and rarely do you get a glimpse of what’s haunting the hotel.  West does a phenomenal job at making audiences fear the unknown which when broken down, is the very essence of horror.

In 2012, West treated the world with two fantastic shorts for the V/H/S and The ABC’s of Death films.  While his “Miscarriage” segment was exaggerated and slightly over the top, both shorts still created a very real and honest sense of terror.  After experiencing his V/H/S segment, I became weary of ever having another girlfriend - to me that is horror.  Bringing all West’s work full circle is his 2013 masterpiece The Sacrament.  This is the peak of West’s career thus far and it’s essential horror movie viewing.  Highly inspired by the infamous Jonestown Massacre, the film is thoroughly believable and equally as terrifying.  Not only is this piece frightening, but it proves that West is a true artist behind the camera. 

There aren’t many modern horror directors that can tell a solid story while successfully playing with the minds of audiences simultaneously.  While other directors are busy pushing out copycat versions of the same old played out ideas, Ti West is developing original ideas to keep horror fans everywhere satisfied.     

Tobe Hooper
Mr. Hooper's career has spanned an illustrious 40 years in which he's created genre defining films that would push the envelope of terror while bringing one of the most legendary horror icons to the screen. His original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would become an influential piece of cinematic history that's spawned many imitators and numerous horror entries that pay homage to Hooper's highly original and uniquely brutal vision. Leatherface stands tall besides other well known legends like Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers but is probably the most misunderstood and twisted of the troupe.

While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would go on to spawn one Hooper directed sequel and several other lackluster continuations of the saga, his career expanded into numerous other horror projects. He directed the original television version of Salem's Lot, Eaten Alive, and the surreal space vampire epic, Lifeforce. But his true claim to fame is the domestic ghost movie, Poltergeist - a film that reinvigorated the haunting genre, introduced a family friendly type of horror, and gave me nightmares for years to come. As Poltergeist also fell victim to less than stellar sequel treatments, his original picture stands out as one of the best haunting movies ever made with great performances from a solid list of A grade 80's stars. 

Hooper hasn't made many movies but he made his mark early on with numerous modern directors citing him as one of their main influences. Rob Zombie used Texas Chainsaw as his main reference point with House of a 1000 Corpses while Hooper continues to direct lower budget horror fare. 


-J.G. Barnes
-Andrew Kotwicki
-Blake O. Kleiner
-Michelle Kisner
-Shayne McGuire