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A Bloody Good Time 8.19.10: Top 20 Horror Directors (#10-1)

August 19, 2010 | Posted by Joseph Lee

Opening Logo courtesy of Benjamin J. Colón (Soul Exodus)

Welcome to A Bloody Good Time. Before we hit part two of our list, let’s look at some feedback.

SanguineSymphony replied: I want withhold judgment until I read the final ten entries but so far this is a horrible list that is going exclude too many talented Horror Directors for guys who barely have a Horror Resume (Holland, Miike, Marshall). Fulci should be in the Top Ten at least. Castle is more a Canival Barker than accomplished Director. I get that you were trying to put a spotlight on some more unknown directors for 20-11 but there are plenty more accomplished and unique entries you could of have went with (Tourneur, Marins, Fisher, Baker, Francis, Hennenlotter etc.)

Okay, Frank Henenlotter is just as accomplished as Tom Holland, perhaps less so since I would call Fright Night and Child’s Play much more effective horror films than Basket Case or Frankenhooker. I admit to not featuring a variety of Hammer directors because I’m not as well-versed in that as I should be. I just made a list of what I like, which is what these lists always are.

Volourn says: Hey, maximum Overdrive was a fun little movie. 🙂

Fun, yes. I love watching it. I wouldn’t call it well directed though. Even King admitted he was in over his head. It’s why he hasn’t directed anything since.

Last week we had the first part of our list, and in case you missed it let me give you a quick run down. In order, the first ten were: Neil Marshall, Lucio Fulci, Stuart Gordon, Tom Holland, William Castle, Robert Wise, Don Coscarelli, Clive Barker, Takashi Miike and Tod Browning. Some big names already out of the way, and some lesser known guys too. Hopefully that continues here, but you probably already have an idea of some of the guys who will make it. They’re obvious choices for a reason.

Let’s get into it.

#10: Mario Bava

Notable Horror Films: Black Sabbath(1963), Blood and Black Lace(1963), Twitch of the Death Nerve(1971)

First up on the list is Mario Bava, one of the finest and most influential Italian filmmakers of all time. Don’t believe me? Try watching Alien or the first two Friday the 13th movies. Bava’s influence is all over them. Although his movies aren’t as mainstream as others, he was clearly ahead of his time and the fact that several filmmakers went on to either copy his style or lift whole scenes from his films is a testament to that. Let’s take a look at two of his films that directly influenced the slasher genre: Blood and Black Lace and Twitch of the Death Nerve

Blood and Black Lace was described by many as one of the first slasher films ever, only being beat by Psycho. Even then, Psycho‘s body count hit two while this has seven deaths. In addition to influencing slashers, it also helped create the Italian giallo genre, which are essentially a mixture of horror and whodunits. Twitch of the Death Nerve was Bava’s most violent and had more influence than his others. I probably don’t credit it enough compared to the Halloweens and Black Christmases of the world, which both came after it. Try watching this film and Friday the 13th Part 2 back to back some day. It’ll blow your mind just how many deaths were re-created shot for shot. Bava’s work lives on any slasher movie with a high body count and lots of gore.

Check out this cool comparison to see what I mean about Friday Part 2.

#9: James Whale

Notable Horror Films: Frankenstein(1931), The Old Dark House(1932), The Invisible Man(1933), Bride of Frankenstein(1935)

James Whale is responsible for bringing not one but two of Universal’s iconic monsters to life in Frankenstein’s monster and The Invisible Man. Frankenstein was a classic on it’s own with a terrifying (for it’s time) monster, a fantastic performance by Boris Karloff and of course it wouldn’t have been half as good without Whale’s direction. His follow up, Bride of Frankenstein was even better. wasn’t really played for scares so much, as a dramatic tale of the lonely life of a monster. Everyone hates him, so he wants a bride, that will be just like him and therefore accept him. Of course, it turns out that she doesn’t want him either. The last moments of this film are haunting and beautiful, something you wouldn’t expect from a horror film about a man playing God.

James Whale also managed to do a brilliant bit of casting when he put Claude Rains in the role of the increasingly insane Dr. Jack Griffin. While it could be said that The Invisible Man isn’t really horror, I call your attention to the finale where the titular character gleefully unwraps himself while cackling constantly. Finally, if you want another good Boris Karloff role and a largely forgotten classic gothic horror film, you really need to check out The Old Dark House. Whale grew tired of horror and shortly after, film directing in general. This was probably due to his disputes with Universal over a number of different issues. His legacy lives on though thanks to his brilliant resume in early Gothic horror.

#8: Wes Craven

Notable Horror Films: The Last House on the Left(1972), A Nightmare on Elm Street(1984), Scream(1996)

It may seem hypocritical of me to include Craven, given how I spoke out on him in the past (short story, I only like three of his films: the first Nightmare, Scream and New Nightmare) but he is very accomplished and well-respected in the genre and even though I may not like The Last House on the Left, I have to begrudgingly admit it’s influence and impact on the horror genre and it wouldn’t have happened without Craven. I’m not going to go into why I dislike him because this is a column about praising what I do like. So let’s do that. Craven needs to be commended in general just for creating Freddy Krueger. In fact he could have stopped making movies right there and probably would have ended up somewhere on this list for that feat alone.

Robert Englund as Freddy is one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time and wouldn’t have been made had Craven not read about kids dying in their sleep or remembered the time a homeless man scared him as a child (two anecdotes he loves to tell in all Nightmare documentaries). Then there’s Scream. It has it’s detractors (which I don’t get, as it’s easily his second best film) but it revitalized both the slasher genre but horror in general with it’s release. It had the right combination of mainstream appeal and a whodunit story to become a huge success. In addition to that, it created the self-referential horror film in a time that was just right. People were growing tired of formula, so this film came along and poked fun at that formula and paid homage to it at the same time. It was just the boost horror needed. Wes Craven deserves the credit for that.

#7: David Cronenberg

Notable Horror Films: The Brood(1979), Scanners(1981), The Dead Zone(1983), Videodrome(1983), The Fly(1986)

Other Notable Films: A History of Violence(2005), Eastern Promises(2008)

While he doesn’t use his out there approach so much any more, it’s hard to argue that Cronenberg is one of the great directors in the horror genre. There’s the films above, but there’s also films like Dead Ringers(1988) or eXistenZ(1999). Cronenberg used to be known as a guy who made some real mind-blowing horror. His movies weren’t for everybody. While I consider The Fly one of my favorites of all time, I find Scanners to be not my cup of tea (awesome headsplosion aside).

Cronenberg has really reigned himself in lately, making serious dramatic films. Maybe he’s felt he’s done all he can in the horror, or maybe he’s waiting on the right idea, who knows. But the man’s influence (like many here) can’t be denied. A movie or director that follows close to what he does is usually called “Cronenbergian”. Not many directors get their name turned into an adjective. Whether you like his bizarre stuff or dislike it, you have to admit it’s different from what a lot of directors past and present have done.

#6: Tobe Hooper

Notable Horror Films: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre(1974), Poltergeist(1982)

Tobe Hooper is exceptional on this list in that he has rarely went mainstream with his films. With the exception probably being Poltergeist. Everything else has been very low-budget and usually independently released (again, there are exceptions). This means nothing in terms of quality because he’s made some of the greatest of all time (the two above) as well as a few that may not be great but are still decent. Movies like The Funhouse or Lifeforce are cult classics that have a lot of fans.

Even if Hooper is not more influential than some of these other guys (although you can still say he has some influence), he does make some horror films that do what they are supposed to: scare people. Poltergeist frightened many people with it’s clown scene, for example. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre scared the life out of me when I first saw it. Obviously the man loves horror as he’s been working in the genre for the majority of his career. When he stepped away it was usually for a sci-fi film that bordered on horror anyway.

#5: Alfred Hitchcock

Notable Horror Films: Psycho(1960>, The Birds(1963)

Other Notable Films: Notorious(1946), Rear Window(1954), Vertigo(1958), North by Northwest(1959)

This entry may catch me some grief because either people will claim Hitchcock is too low or some will claim he shouldn’t be on this list at all. Here is my explanation. He’s on this list because he did direct a couple of horror films. He’s not any higher because it was only two. However he makes #5 out of 20 because of how good those two horror films were, and because of how his work in suspense did influence many horror filmmakers afterward.

But let’s talk about the two films that can be called horror. Psycho and The Birds are both masterpieces that still hold up fifty years later. Psycho, along with the films of Bava previously and a few American films later on created the slasher genre. Norman Bates was the first Hollywood serial killer. As for The Birds, who would have thought you could make birds scary to begin with? Hitchcock evidently did, and he went on to make audiences scared of the titular animals. Hitchcockian suspense (another director whose name became an adjective) can be seen in many horror films. Even if he didn’t work directly in the genre, he had a big impact on it. I will be doing a full series on Hitch a little later in September, so be sure to look forward to that.

#4: Dario Argento

Notable Horror Films: Suspiria(1977), Inferno(1980), Tenebrae(1982), Opera(1987)

I love Argento’s films. While he came along after Bava, he’s considered one of the great influences on slasher, horror and the Italian giallo (another genre I love). His (arguably) biggest film was 1977’s Suspiria, a supernatural horror film that kicked off what he called his “Mother” trilogy (followed by Inferno in 1980 and Mother of Tears in 2007). It was a very gory and violent film but also spooky and off-putting. Argento has a reputation for the violence he throws into his films and this is one of the films that cemented that reputation.

Some say Argento has lost a step in his later years. I completely disagree. I really enjoyed Mother of Tears and while I unfortunately haven’t seen Giallo (his most recent), I’m almost positive it will be good. I could be wrong, but I really doubt it. Argento is a master of this stuff and could direct an entertaining giallo film in his sleep. If you’ve never seen any of his works, I highly recommend you do so. You could start with Tenebrae like I did (featuring John Saxon!) or start with the best in Suspiria. You won’t be disappointed.

#3: Sam Raimi

Notable Horror Films: The Evil Dead trilogy, Drag Me To Hell(2009)

Other Notable Films: The Spider-Man trilogy

Sam Raimi is a horror director who went on to find success in mainstream Hollywood and now he’s probably one of the biggest names out there. He has achieved such a high level of success he can pick and choose whatever project he wants to and usually does. If he doesn’t like the way the studios meddle, he’ll just leave the project (which is why we’re getting a reboot of Spider-Man…stupid Sony). He also created Ghost House Pictures, a horror production company and Ghost House Underground which helps the independent horror scene by giving lesser known films and directors greater distribution.

But what has this Raimi guy done for horror with his own films? Well he gave the world Ash and the Deadites. Shouldn’t that be enough? Raimi introduced some camera styles all his own and it’s easy to spot his films among others. You can watch Spider-Man 2 for example and see some of the same camera tricks and close-ups he was doing in Evil Dead 2. His style has been imitated but never duplicated, as cliche as that phrase is. In 2009 he made his directing return to horror with Drag Me to Hell a perfect mixture of horror and dark comedy that was one of my favorites of last year. While he may never give us an Evil Dead 4, at least he still knows his roots and remains a producer for many horror films.

#2: George A. Romero

Notable Horror Films: The Dead series, Creepshow(1982)

The grandfather of the zombie film. The man who defined a monster and completely changed a genre almost overnight with one classic gem called Night of the Living Dead(1960). I’ve talked about the man at great length before (here is your blast from the past) but let’s add some more sentiment. Romero’s the master of all things zombie. I loved Diary of the Dead and even Survival of the Dead shows that even Romero’s worst zombie films are still better than most out there. He knows how these things work and still tries to stay relevant. Although I think he should use his talents for other horror films.

He can. He made Creepshow in addition to lesser-known greats like Martin and Monkey Shines. He knows how to make an effective non-zombie horror film too, in case you thought he was a one-trick pony. Just because he doesn’t make anything but zombie films anymore doesn’t mean he is incapable. Honestly, if zombies were what you were known for, wouldn’t you want to keep going back to the well? He obviously feels like he still has something to say through the zombies, as he’s always used them as a political allegory. His mastery of one specific genre is enough to get him on this list, but not quite the #1 spot.

#1: John Carpenter

Notable Horror Films: Halloween(1978), The Fog(1980), The Thing(1982), Christine(1983), They Live(1988), In The Mouth of Madness(1995)

Other Notable Films: Assault on Precinct 13(1976), Escape From New York(1981)

That would go to this man. Just John Carpenter’s notable horror films alone should be enough to convince you of why he should be #1 on this list. If you need more, you could go with his lesser known films that still have their fans, like Vampires or Prince of Darkness. The man is a legend. He’s made some of the greatest horror films of all time and some cult classics in other genres too. Everyone knows who he is and his influence is felt on all slasher films thanks to Halloween as well as his action films and post-apocalyptic movies. But this is a horror column, so let’s talk about his horror.

I’ve talked about Halloween enough here. It’s my favorite horror film of all time. How about The Thing, the greatest horror remake of all time? He’s able to make you afraid of the dark (as Michael Myers struck at night) as well as make you paranoid around your fellow human beings (both in They Live and The Thing). He can adapt Stephen King or faithfully create a tribute to the works of Lovecraft. John Carpenter is the greatest horror director past or present. You may disagree, but I think his movies speak for themselves.

That concludes my director countdown. I wanted to get this out of the way, along with the actresses list from way back when, because in October I’m counting down the top 50 horror actors! But until then, we have a whole other month of topics to get through. Next week, I’m going to present the dumbest moments in Romero’s “Dead” series! Leave some comments here or on my Twitter.

Closing Logo courtesy of Kyle Morton(Deviant Art profile)

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Joseph Lee
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