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Top five horror-movie directors

Directors Oliver Stone, Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro.
Directors Oliver Stone, Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When it comes to filmmaking, movie directors have received the most visibility, second only to actors. The principal reason directors have attained rock-star vibes is that a good, talented director literally “brings to life” a story on paper. It is up to the film director to visualize a writer’s script, telling a compelling story visually and through motion. The best directors show rather than tell, an edict common in writing classes around the world.

The best directors working in the horror genre are able to evoke deeply held emotions in their audience. Like directors who work in the comedy genre, horror directors must walk a fine line, as what is scary for one may not be all that scary to another. The worst horror directors rely on sleight of hand to generate what are called “jump” scares, fake scares that do nothing to advance the story. The best directors create chills, evoke uncomfortable tension, and of course generate bloodcurdling horror.

Talk about a hard list to compile. There have been many great horror directors, from the obvious like James Whale, Sam Raimi, Mario Bava, and Tobe Hooper to the less-than-obvious like Frank Henenlotter, Larry Cohen, Lucio Fulci, and Michael Haneke. For me, the best horror directors are the complete filmmakers, those capable of writing their own scripts and bringing them to life. Few can consistently produce success after success, but there are those who have made a successful career in the horror genre by establishing a cadre of hardcore horror aficionados who consistently flock to watch their movies.

The following list chronicles the top-five horror directors in no particular order. These men have a knack for the darker visions in life. More importantly, they have been able to consistently communicate those dark visions to audiences in screens all over the world.

James Wan
James Wan Kevin Winter/Getty Images

James Wan

Born in 1977, James Wan is one of the younger directors on this list. Of Malaysian Chinese descent, Wan is perhaps best known for directing Saw and creating its signature Billy the puppet. However, Wan has gone on to produce other horror films that have met with more mainstream success, as Saw was limited to those who enjoyed hardcore horror fare. Three standout films include Insidious and its sequel, Insidious: Chapter 2, as well as The Conjuring.

What makes Wan a compelling director is his aversion for jump scares and his emphasis on creating original rather than cliché characters. By making the audience are for his protagonists, Wan makes his horror sequences much more intense and horrifying. Wan also enjoys creating variations of horror, combining subtle scenes that chill with showcase pieces designed to electrify and terrify.

Dario Argento
Dario Argento Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

Dario Argento

Born in 1940, Italy’s Dario Argento has managed to influence horror worldwide as a director, producer, and screenwriter. Along with Mario Bava, Argento proved instrumental in developing the genre known as giallo (Italian for “yellow”), which in movies blends horror with eroticism (the term goes back to the literature genre of crime fiction/mystery—paperback mystery books often were printed with trademark yellow covers to denote the genre).

Argento has evolved as a horror filmmaker, moving from early experiments in mystery and slasher movies like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red to supernatural horror masterpieces like Suspiria, Phenomena, and Inferno. Argento also lent a hand to George Romero in producing the sequel to Night of the Living Dead: Dawn of the Dead. Argento was even allowed to cut his own version of the film for the European market.

Agento’s visual style is what has set him apart from all other directors. Vibrant colors, elaborate sets, distinctive music scores (with band Goblin as frequent collaborators), precise editing, and at times incoherent plotlines all make Dario Argento one of the best in the horror genre.

David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

David Cronenberg

Born in 1943, Canada’s David Cronenberg has established himself as the king of visceral body horror. This approach involves exploring deep-seeded fears related to bodily transformation or invasion of some kind, such as by a parasite. Although his earlier films explored the physical results of such fears, Cronenberg’s later movies also incorporated psychological transformations and their horrific effects. Both approaches have yielded chilling dividends, making Cronenberg one of the most consistently chilling directors ever.

Body horror plays a pivotal role in many of Cronenberg’s early movies, such as Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, and of course Scanners. In 1983, Cronenberg expanded his exploration by adding psychological transformations, making movies like Videodrome and adapting Stephen King’s The Dead Zone for the screen. After making a stellar version of The Fly, Cronenberg made various deeply disturbing movies, namely Dead Ringers and Spider. Although more mainstream efforts, movies like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises still manage to explore, albeit subtly, the ramifications of psychological and emotional transformations.

Cronenberg’s penchant for disturbing ideas, coupled with fearlessness when it comes to disturbing images and gore-ridden effects, makes him an ideal filmmaker for the horror genre.

John Carpenter
John Carpenter Alberto E. Rodriguez

John Carpenter

Born in 1948, America’s John Carpenter has dabbled in numerous genres, creating successful films in several of them. Carpenter has never really achieved mainstream success, with most of his films considered cult classics in their respective genres. However, Carpenter’s contribution to these genres makes him one of the most successful directors, screenwriters, and producers in genres such as science fiction and of course horror.

Arguably Carpenter’s greatest contribution to the horror genre is his film Halloween, which helped spawn the slasher genre that thrived in the 1980s and continues to this day. Other horror films include The Fog, The Thing, an adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, Vampires, and The Ward.

Carpenter uses minimal lighting and camera movement to tell his stories. This approach works really well during shocking moments, as Carpenter prefers to let his antagonists “hide in plain sight” to evoke his frights. Carpenter is also known for his synthesizer-driven scores, which he composes. His minimalist approach has proved successful in films like Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13, the latter a conventional exploitation film that riffs off Night of the Living Dead.

George Romero
George Romero Malcolm Taylor/Getty Images

George Romero

Born in 1940, American-Canadian George Romero is of course best known for his zombie movies, namely the first three: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. It was Romero who transformed “zombies” from undead workers reanimated through voodoo to shambling creatures with a taste for living human flesh. Since the original movie, zombie films have proliferated in books, movies, and television.

What many people—even fans—forget is that Romero has contributed much more to the horror genre. His 1973 movie The Crazies established an alternate model for a “zombie apocalypse, later picked up on movies like 28 Days Later. His 1978 film Martin offered an alternative view of vampirism that every horror fan must watch. And then there’s Monkey Shines, which explores the ramifications of jealousy and dependence.

Romero’s key themes consist of the various societal failures that often contribute to the fall of humanity. So, it isn’t the zombies you should fear, but rather the living, as they are much more unpredictable. Do not fear the boy who thinks he is a vampire—fear his religious, stake-wielding uncle. And do not fear those under the influence of trixie—fear the government that created it.