Sommerleigh Pollonais, Horror Head Writer
A 1967 Mustang, vintage comic books, your great-grandmother’s jewelry. You just can’t beat the classics, and horror movie directors fall in the same category, or at least they do when it comes to horror fans.
So many modern day directors have been kicking it out of the park in terms of horror movies that will someday become classic themselves. But ask any of them and they’ll tell you they were inspired by the work of the ones that came before. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of my favourite directors being mentioned time and time again.
I’ve already told you guys who my favourite modern horror movie directors are, so it’s only right I stop and give much deserved praise to the ones who turned me into the Uber Horror Fan I am today. And because there was no way I could keep it at five, here are my TOP 10 FAVOURITE CLASSIC HORROR DIRECTORS:
#10 James Whale (Frankenstein <1931>/The Invisible Man <1933>/The Bride of Frankenstein <1935>)
Last year I decided to watch and review horror movies going right back to the beginning of the genre. And one of the best things to come out of that experience was being able to learn more about the creators of these classics.
James Whale is a name you may not be familiar with, but even if you’re not a horror fan you’ve heard of the monsters he’s brought to life. Frankenstein and The Invisible Man have both been remade and reimagined a dozen times over, yet it’s Whale’s vision that has remained the gold standard. So let’s all raise a glass to the man who helped start it all, Mr James Whale.
#9 Richard Donner (The Omen/The Twilight Zone <TV Show>/Tales from the Crypt <TV Show>)
Richard Donner is not really known as a horror director per se, but he’s on my list because he has the honour of making the only horror movie that ever truly freaked me out. So badly in fact, I didn’t rewatch it again until I was all grown up.
The Omen is considered one of the finest in the genre and Donner was in no small part responsible for the impact it made. He was also the man behind the lens on a few episodes of Tales from the Crypt, specifically The Ventriloquist’s Dummy (it’s like he knows me personally and taps into another of my “triggers”, creepy-ass dolls). Donner has a knack for injecting horror in places you wouldn’t expect to find it (have you seen Scrooged or Ladyhawke?) and at 90 years of age he is still giving us entertaining films of every genre. Thanks for the nightmares Mr Donner.
#8 Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre/Poltergeist/Salem’s Lot)
A true Master of Horror, Tobe Hooper’s most iconic film is without a doubt The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Before Michael, Freddy and Jason, there was Leatherface. And of all the slashers that were out back then none felt more visceral or more “real” than this movie did.
It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking and Hooper showed us he was no one trick pony with follow-ups like Poltergeist and the Salem’s Lot television mini-series. You can see his style all over modern day horror movies with the BFI (British Film Institute) naming him one of the most influential horror filmmakers of all time. Yes, there is no denying, Tobe Hooper is a titan of genre.
#7 Dario Argento (Suspiria <1977>/Tenebrae/Phenomena)
I watched a ton of horror movies growing up, but Suspiria was the first one that made me go looking for the director behind it. I had to know where something so surreal, so strange, and so sublime came from. And that’s how I discovered Dario Argento.
Unlike the others on this list, Argento tends to tell his stories mainly through his visuals. And those visuals are the kind that bore themselves into your brain, leaving an impression that lasts a lifetime. Considered by some to be the Italian Hitchcock, Argento’s films may not appeal to broader audiences, but there is no denying the impact they’ve made, especially when you’re watching modern-day horror movies like Mandy, Hostel or Midsommar. I may not know art, but I know what I like, and I like me some Argento!
#6 George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead/Monkey Shines/Creepshow)
He has the face of your kindly grandfather and a smile that says “I give great hugs,” so it’s astounding someone who looks so sweet could bring such terrors to life.
The late George A. Romero is considered by many to be the granddaddy of horror and the creator of one of the most popular sub-genres—the zombie movie. Night of the Living Dead left such an impact on the world it has gone on to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Spawning direct sequels as well as remakes and reboots, his zombies are still shambling on to this day, leaving their undead mark on not just the big screen but on television as well.
The Walking Dead probably wouldn’t exists if it wasn’t for Romero. And if you think all he was good for was zombie movies you should definitely check out Monkey Shines and Creepshow as well as one of the better Stephen King adaptations out there, The Dark Half, to see just how talented George A. Romero truly was.
#5 Sam Raimi (Evil Dead Trilogy/Darkman/Drag Me to Hell)
If I say “Sam Raimi” some, if not most people, will think Spider-Man. But for those among us who love horror, there’s another trilogy of films that will pop into mind, and that’s The Evil Dead Trilogy.
Raimi proved that you didn’t need money to make an instant classic, but just passion, drive, and the kind of friends that don’t mind being tossed left and right in the name of iconic cinema. Raimi would continue to hone his craft in later films like Darkman and Drag Me to Hell and we’ll soon see his return to the world of superheroes with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. His frenetic energy and crazy style should be the perfect addition to Marvel’s world of magic, and I for one can’t wait to check it out.
#4 David Cronenberg (The Fly/The Dead Zone/Videodrome)
Richard Donner might have scared the crap out of me with The Omen, but he didn’t make me blow chunks. That dubious honour goes to David Cronenberg’s The Fly, a movie that asks the question, “Is it possible to make Jeff Goldblum un-sexy?” The answer of course being only if he’s one hundred per cent fly (at sixty per cent, I still wouldn’t kick him out of bed; it’s Goldblum after all).
David Cronenberg is the master of body horror and a man who seems to have made it his mission to make audiences squirm during every movie he makes. Even his non-horror films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises has moments that will make you cringe in shock and horror, yet none of it feels gratuitous or wasted, and therein lies the brilliance of what Cronenberg does. His films leave you wondering what he’ll do next and how far he can go. And the answer is simple really—to the depths of your worst nightmares and beyond.
#3 Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise/The Hills Have Eyes/Deadly Blessing)
Of all the horror directors out there Wes Craven stands apart for me in his ability to adapt to the changing landscape of horror.
Starting all the way back in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, a movie that was considered almost unwatchable when it came out due to its gritty and disturbing nature, Craven followed up his “societal” horror movie with “cannibal” horror, The Hills Have Eyes, and never stopped looking for new and unique ways to scare us.
Most famously known for his Nightmare on Elm Street slasher films and the creation of horror icon Freddy Krueger, Craven would further reinvent the wheel with his meta take on the genre as a whole. Scream was a movie no horror fan saw coming and it single-handedly changed the way Hollywood would tackle the genre in the 2000s, with movies like The Cabin in the Woods owing much of its success for approaching the genre the way Craven did with Scream.
Innovative and still very much in the game, here’s hoping Wes Craven keeps surprising us with his ever-evolving take on the genre for years to come.
#2 Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho/Rear Window/The Birds)
When you want to show off your love of horror, but still keep things classy, Hitchcock’s films are the ones you show your friends.
Now I was of two minds placing him on this list as I’ve always thought of his films as more thriller than horror. And as I’m all grown up now (paying bills and everything!) I’ve learned a lot more of who the man was. And well, let’s just say he wouldn’t make it very far in Hollywood if he was around in today’s climate. But putting aside the man for a bit and just focusing on his work as a director, it can’t be understated how much of an influence films like Psycho and The Birds have had on the genre as we know it today.
One of my favourite horror franchises is Friday the 13th, but Jason Voorhees may never have had the opportunity to hack and slash camp counselors to his heart’s content if Norman Bates never made it to the big screen. From his style of mimicking a person’s gaze, so you feel like you’re looking through the eyes of the killer, to framing shots in a way that ramps up your anxieties and fears, the “Hitchcockian” style of cinematography is still very much around. And the legacy he has left behind will probably still be here long after all of us are gone.
#1 John Carpenter (The Thing/The Fog/Christine/They Live/Halloween)
You know what I’m most grateful for when it comes to my love of this genre? It’s that John Carpenter is still alive and around to see his work garner the accolades and affection it most certainly deserves!
The reason I say this is much of Carpenter’s films weren’t well received upon initial release, but have now gone on to be considered iconic. And as someone who loved his movies from day one, I feel a sense of validation. You know, like when you loved a band’s music long before they became mainstream. John Carpenter is a living legend and I can say with all honesty, I enjoy ALL OF HIS FILMS to varying degrees. As I’ve mentioned before, 1982’s The Thing is my favourite horror movie of all time (yet to be dethroned) but I also love The Fog, I think Christine is one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever made, and of course it goes without saying Halloween is the slasher horror movie all other slashers aspire to be. It’s so good in fact, it’s now getting a second wind in this century, with Seth Rogen and David Gordon Green breathing new life into the legend called Michael Myers.
I could spend all day breaking down my favourite John Carpenter films, but I think it’s better to leave that for another time and another list. I’ll just finish by saying all of the directors here had a hand in shaping my love of the genre, but its John Carpenter who made me sit up and declare “This right here, THIS is why I will forever love horror movies.”
So who’s your favourite classic horror director? For my Top 5 Modern Horror Directors ranking you can click here. Or for Editor Jules’s ranking of all six George A. Romero zombie films you can click here.
Sommerleigh of the House Pollonais. First of Her Name. Sushi Lover, Queen of Horror Movies, Comic Books and Binge Watching Netflix. Mother of two beautiful black cats named Vader and Kylo. I think eating Popcorn at the movies should be mandatory, PS4 makes the best games ever and I’ll be talking about movies until the zombie apocalypse comes.
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