Every film genre takes skill to realize. A good drama is just as hard to make as a good comedy, convincing sci-fi as difficult as exciting action. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of horror. Frightening people, like making them laugh or sing along, is an individualized and rare commodity. Doing it consistently means you’ve not only cracked that particularly difficult nut, but you’ve found that elusive skill of worming your way into people’s exceedingly jaded and cynical psyche time and time again. It is only then when you can be called a true horror maestro, one of the few fear manufacturers who the devoted rely on to deliver the goods time and time again. Sure, there are anomalies here and there, but for the most part, their reliability overcomes the occasional lapse.
So who are these brave, brazen souls, these explorers in the realm of the supernatural and the paranormal? Well, that’s up for debate. Some suggest schlock masters like Roger Corman belong in this company, though he and his ilk were clearly more interested in the bottom line than things that go “Boo!” Also, we’ve left out the truly gifted directors whose rare entry into the genre (read: William Friedkin and The Exorcist) failed to carry over to other attempted terrors. No, for us, this is it, the 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time. Of course, we could have forgotten a couple and we can’t claim to see every scary movie ever made, but with a combination of lasting legacy and enduring titles make them the cream of the creepshow crop.
In a close race with fellow horror geek Guillermo Del Toro, Wan wins out, if only because he’s made three amazing examples of movie macabre—Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious—and ended up jumpstarting three new fright franchises. While some want to pigeonhole him as the Titan of Torture Porn (that title goes to Eli Roth, sorry), he’s actually the filmmaker who salvaged old school scares from their lame PG-13 perch. His latest bloodless, sexless offering was so scary, the MPAA gave it an “R” just because.
Why so low down on the list? After all, this is the guy who gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s sensational sequel, and the did-he-or-didn’t-he delight known as Poltergeist. The answer is the rest of his creative output, including decent misfires like Lifeforce and outright offenses like Spontaneous Combustion and The Mangler. In fact, he may be the best example of how the once mighty can fall and fall hard that the entire horror genre has ever seen (except for maybe the guy sitting at number four on our list…).
While he’s gone on to expand his repertoire to feature dramas, comedies, and the occasional oddity (Pirates, anyone?), Polanski got his start mimicking Hitchcock, delivering a string of sensational thrillers with varying degrees of horror influence. From 1962’s Knife in the Water to his take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, he’s offered up such classics as Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, and of course, Rosemary’s Baby. Though he hasn’t been back down the fright path in a long time (let’s just forget The Ninth Gate, shall we?) his early genre work remains incomparable.
If his fellow fright filmmaking countryman, Dario Argento, is the Italian heir apparent to a certain Mr. Hitchcock, then Fulci is the foundling of the Master’s gory, gratuitous counterparts. Wallowing in arterial spray and splatter excess as a way of differentiating himself from the rest of the pack, this incredibly uneven director gave us everything from wooden splinters in the eye to cats in the brain. For such seminal offerings as City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and Zombi, he belongs on a list of any macabre maestros.
He began his career in silents before tragedy and alcohol almost killed his career. A chance pairing with early Hollywood’s horror king, Lon Chaney, lead to a return to form, resulting in such early genre greats as The Unholy Three, London After Midnight, Freaks and finally, the original Bela Lugosi version of Dracula. For his use of actual human oddities in the aforementioned circus themed terrors, he was more or less blackballed, leading to limited opportunities and his “retirement” in 1939. His limited time in terror doesn’t dampen his import.
After the success of the World War I themed play he directed entitled Journey’s End, this UK novice came to America and was given charge of Universal’s struggling genre division. Choosing Frankenstein as his first foray into fear, he reinvigorated the brand, begetting other creepshow classics like The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and perhaps most famously, The Bride of Frankenstein. While his later years would meet with critical and creative disappointment, Whale clearly defined how the burgeoning medium dealt with monsters and the macabre.