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The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who’ve made scary movies that much more meaningful.

13. James Wan

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.

12. Tobe Hooper

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).

11. Roman Polanski

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.

10. Lucio Fulci

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.

9. Tod Browning

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, led 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.

8. James Whale

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.

7. Sam Raimi

Like any kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Sam Raimi liked certain things: the Three Stooges, slapstick, and scary movies. He translated those affections into a string of sensational fright flicks that crafted a whole new genre offshoot, the horror-comedy while preparing him for a future as a major league mainstream filmmaker. While some see Raimi as rejecting his Evil Dead B-movie heebie-jeebies, anyone who has seen Drag Me to Hell, or the more sinister parts of Oz The Great and Powerful know he still loves to scare.

6 . David Cronenberg

He is the king of bio-horror, a man who makes the nastiness of nature and its various scientific schisms the stuff of pure nightmares. His first few films — Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, and Scanners — seemed like a wanton warm-up for something truly magnificent. That finally came in the form of the 1986 remake of the classic schlock property The Fly. Turning the ordinary into something operatic, Cronenberg delivered an undeniable masterpiece and proof that he was one of the true auteurs in the world of fear.

5. Wes Craven

Wes Craven began his career on one of the most controversial and celebrated high notes in all of horror, the “it’s only a movie” phenomenon known as The Last House on the Left. From there, he gave us The Hills Have Eyes, and Deadly Blessing before unleashing one of the most inventive and memorable movie “monsters” of all time, Nightmare on Elm Street‘s razor-fingered child killer Freddy Krueger. He then took the piss out of the genre he helped elevate with the satiric Scream franchise.

4. Dario Argento

From 1970 to 1990, he made the following films: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Profondo Rosso, Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera. Few in fright filmmaking can claim such a list. Sure, he’s slipped as of late, but with an early resume that amazing, Argento easily earns his Italian Hitchcock moniker. He’s also helped foster a few fright knights of his own, including Michele Soavi (who created his own contemporary classic, Dellamorte Dellamore).

3. John Carpenter

Though he claims numerous influences within the horror and thriller genre, few can argue that Carpenter is a mere mimic. In fact, over the course of a fascinating career, he’s done everything from sci-fi to Asian martial arts, comedy to crap. But it was his 1978 homage to Hitchcock, Halloween, which established Carpenter as the true postmodern horror pioneer, a visual stylist who could craft suspense out of a Steadicam and an unseen killer with a butcher knife in hand. The rest of his resume contains equally effective gems (The Fog, The Thing).

2. George Romero

If he is remembered for only one thing, George Romero deserves near the top of the list kudos for creating and contributing the modern version of the zombie to the entire horror lexicon. Before him, the creature feature was nothing more than a voodoo afterthought. Once Night of the Living Dead hit, few were thinking about the undead as some offshoot of an island religion. Instead, Romero created the original cannibalistic corpse, and the rest is fright film history. In fact, all his Dead films are near definitive.

1. Alfred Hitchcock

This was a tough one. It’s hard to really peg Alfred Hitchcock, a true filmmaking maestro and auteur theory icon, as a “horror” director. Then you visit such seminal films as Psycho, The Birds, and Frenzy and you instantly change your mind. Add in borderline offerings like Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, or Shadow of a Doubt and, suddenly, the fine line between thriller and terror is blurred even more. As the artist who defined onscreen suspense and chills, Hitchcock’s place here is confirmed. His placement preempts any discussion pro or con.

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.

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This article was originally published on 29 October 2013.