“Horror films don’t create fear. They release it” so said the master of the genre, Wes Craven. With the genre having an extraordinary ability to tap into the very conscience of the human psyche and elicit a visceral response. Unlike many other genres, the finest films in the horror universe are often considered to exist in the 20th century, with the likes of The Exorcist, Halloween, Night of the Living Dead and more still holding considerable cultural pertinence.
As The Thing director John Carpenter said, “What scares me is what scares you. We’re all afraid of the same things. That’s why horror is such a powerful genre. All you have to do is ask yourself what frightens you and you’ll know what frightens me”. Horror is a universal genre that speaks to the very soul of the viewer regardless of culture, class or race.
Whilst there are certainly modern masters of the genre, including the likes of Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, James Wan and Jennifer Kent, the majority of the finest filmmakers to ever take to horror were at their peak in the late 20th century.
Though filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick often dabbled in the horror genre, this list will look at the considerable game-changers, charting the ten best horror directors of all time.
The top 10 horror directors of all time
10. Mario Bava
Joining fellow filmmakers, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, Mario Bava would go on to help define the Italian Giallo sub-genre in the 1970s with films typified by bloody violence, shadowed killers and surreal camerawork.
Responsible for the likes of Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace and Black Sabbath, Bava was frequently referred to as the “Master of Italian Horror” with his low-budget genre films showing off a stylish ingenuity featuring themes of illusion vs reality. As Bava once said, “movies are a magician’s forge, they allow you to build a story with your hands–at least, that’s what it means to me. What attracts me in movies is to be presented with a problem and be able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, an effect, with almost nothing”.
9. Guillermo del Toro
Bringing his own brand of fantastical horror to the forefront of the horror genre, watching a Guillermo del Toro genre film is to peer behind the branches and leaves of a fantastical land and stare into the heart of darkness.
Responsible for the terrors of Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has a unique ability to conjure the darkest of monsters, creatures and spirits that extend well beyond his own filmography. Having had a hand in the development of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Orphanage and more, del Toro’s holds an untold significance to the legacy of modern horror.
8. Hideo Nakata
From an individual partly responsible for bringing Italian horror to the mainstream, to Hideo Nakata, who became almost solely responsible for the sharp rise in J-horror popularity throughout the late 20th century.
Having directed Ringu in 1998 alongside Dark Water in 2002, Nakata popularised Japanese and Asian cinema in general. Spawning sequels, spin-offs, remakes and re-releases, Ringu and its following series has become a horror trailblazer for all things grungy, supernatural and long-black-haired. The film birthed a new fear of technology and was, for many western audiences, their first taste of eastern horror. Its influence has been evident ever since.
7. Tobe Hooper
Whereas with many horror films, the genre is often bound to the walled limits of its celluloid boundaries, in the case of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a certain tone is achieved that is so visceral that it infects your mind and environment, settling like a layer of smog in your living room.
Perhaps the greatest horror film of all time, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a masterpiece of atmosphere that preceded the popularising slasher genre that would come to fruition in the 1980s. This success was, of course, not enough for Hooper, who spiked Steven Spielberg’s seemingly family-friendly horror, Poltergeist, in 1982 with genuine terror. Planting the seed of the genre’s later obsession with technological mistrust.
6. George Romero
Responsible for sparking a whole subgenre of horror cinema, Romero has been called the “father of the zombie film” thanks to his classic movies including, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.
Directly responsible for the zombie-craze that spawned in the early 21st century in programmes like The Walking Dead and films such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, George Romero is truly one of the most influential horror directors of all time. Whilst he was well known for his ‘dead’ trilogy, Romero also helmed the compelling 1973 flick, The Crazies. Quentin Tarantino was one of the director’s most vocal fans, even stating in a rambling speech, that the ‘A’ in George A. Romero stood for “A Fucking Genius”.
5. David Cronenberg
Typifying the style and extravagant nature of 1980’s filmmaking, Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a visual rollercoaster that utilises the very best effects of its time, showing a director in the crux of his career, flexing his muscles to show off the body-horror ingenuity that would go on to typify his filmography.
Joined by The Fly, Scanners and Dead Ringers, Cronenberg built an impressive filmography that pioneered body horror special effects as well as the ingenuity of future science fiction cinema. Beloved by filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, the former even exclaimed in a Criterion interview that Videodrome was “one of the best films ever made”.
Explaining his love for the iconic director, Josh states, “Existenz as well, Scanners too, they’re all dealing with this deep deep untrust with how life is presented and how you can usurp them with art in a weird way but at the same time it will destroy you”.
4. William Friedkin
The 1970s was a far more innocent time than the contemporary world, as a result, in a similar way to which audiences ran from The Arrival of a Train in 1896, in 1973 people fainted, experienced anxiety and even reportedly suffered heart attacks from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
Layered atop of groundbreaking special effects, bringing a satanic Linda Blair to life, as well as a rich subtext of growing women’s independence, The Exorcist’s longevity and impression on horror cinema make it a classic of the genre. A filmmaker of many talents, Friedkin would go on to make Bug in 2003, a grotty, anxiety-inducing paranoid horror about a flesh-eating parasite. Though few discuss it, Bug too remains a modern classic.
3. Dario Argento
There are few horror directors with the same eye for the spectacle of cinema as Dario Argento, bringing together clever sound design and emotionally resonant cinematography to constantly convey an uneven sense of distortion.
Dario Argento’s Giallo masterpiece, Suspiria, certainly falls into this stylistic bracket—a bright fantastical dream world of saturated reds and neon blues. Bolstered by a creeping progressive rock soundtrack, narrating the film from its mysterious introduction to its violent conclusion, Suspiria is a hellish trip into a sinister, alternate reality. Also responsible for Inferno, Deep Red, Opera and Tenebrae, Argento brought an entirely new type of horror to the silver screen.
2. John Carpenter
With an incomparable effect on the legacy of 20th-century horror, John Carpenter’s knack for cult filmmaking allowed films such as Halloween, The Thing, The Fog and Village of the Damned easily suffuse into the mainstream conscience.
Remembered for his ongoing Halloween franchise featuring a town as defiantly postcard-American as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, John Carpenter’s film brought a sense of unease to every small town U.S suburb—suggesting something fantastically abnormal could be lurking in the shadows. Setting the standard for modern horror cinema, Carpenter’s film is underscored by his own, timeless creeping score. A synth-led nightmare that has you instinctively checking over your shoulder.
1. Wes Craven
Revolutionising the horror genre not once, but twice, the late horror master Wes Craven was a filmmaker with a stranglehold of the genre, with both an unparalleled knowledge and love for horror.
Responsible for countless influential classics including, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, Wes Craven’s legacy in the genre is undisputedly impressive, helping to sculpt its popularity through the 1980s and ’90s whilst pioneering its 21st-century future. With the genre needing a sagacious voice to lead it forward once more, the recent horror revival from filmmakers such as Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, threading a rich social subtext through their films, echoes with the same great innovative spirit as the great mastermind of horror.