Before we give our list for the Top 10 Horror Movie Directors, we want to warn you that it will include directors who have a body of work that is mostly horror. This means that guys like Alfred Hitchcock, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Takashi Miike, and Ridley Scott aren’t going to be in it, as they have a massive catalog of films covering all sorts of genres. What we are saying is even though they aren’t on the list, it doesn’t mean they haven’t directed great horror films. Naturally, your personal list may differ. Feel free to correct us (for example, you can yell at us for not including Jess Franco).
10. Frank Henenlotter
Frank Henenlotter is known primarily for his horror comedies of the 1980s. His movies are inspired by the grindhouse cinema that played on seedy 42nd Street in the 60s and 70s; they are low-budget, kinda sick, and hilarious. His three best-known films are Basket Case, Brain Damage, and Frankenhooker.
Basket Case, a low budget, creative, and gory film about a guy in NYC who carries his deformed twin around in a basket, is a cult classic, and has been called “the sickest film I have ever seen” by Rex Reed. It features a gritty, dingy look at New York City that rivals Taxi Driver. Basket Case spawned 2 sequels, also directed by Henenlotter – Basket Case 2 and Basket Case 3: The Progeny.
Brain Damage is kinda brilliant. It’s about a slug/parasite thing called Aylmer who talks (in this kindly old-man voice courtesy of John Zacherle), and also develops a symbiotic relationship with a poor guy named Brian. Aylmer secretes a hallucinogenic fluid into Brian’s brain (getting him addicted to it and thus susceptible to Aylmer’s influence). The flick being a metaphor for drug addiction, it features eye-opening scenes like a woman trying to give Brian a blow job only to have the worm-like Aylmer force his way into her mouth and pull out her brains. Scenes like that caused the crews of both Basket Case and Brain Damage to walk out of the production.
The Frankenstein-inspired Frankenhooker is about a guy who tries to save his girlfriend using spare parts from New York prostitutes. Bill Murray said this about it: “if you see one movie this year, it should be Frankenhooker.”
Henenlotter is a collector of lots of exploitation flicks, many of which are available on Something Weird Video. He expresses his love for old educational shorts and sexploitation movies in an interview he did with Re/Search. Henenlotter’s more recent output is Bad Biology, featuring Rugged Man with special effects by Gabe Bartalos, music by Prince Paul, and additional financing by Vinnie Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks.
Of all the directors in this list, it is Henenlotter who we think truly delivers the grindhouse experience.
9. Larry Cohen
Larry Cohen certainly has an eye for social commentary, like many other good horror directors. His flicks are low-budget, but they are extremely inventive and fun.
In Q – The Winged Serpent (1982), the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is resurrected and flies about New York City snatching human sacrifices off the skyscrapers. It features Michael Moriarty (a Cohen regular) and David Carradine.
Like Henenlotter, Cohen is a NYC fan – God Told Me To, also taking place in New York, features a Catholic detective (Tony Lo Bianco) who deals with an epidemic of murders carried out by apparently normal people who claim that God told them to do it. A mix of sci-fi and horror, the ending is completely bizarre (Richard Lynch – wow, dude) and is sure to piss off a lot of Christians.
Of course, there It’s Alive and its sequels, about a killer monster baby. The first movie plays upon the unknown dangers of various drugs administered to expectant mothers in the 50s and 60s, fertility drugs, pesticides, etc. There was a lot of fertile ground in the 1970s for satire and commentary on psychological (societal), environmental, and medical dangers, and Cohen knew how to tap into that.
In 1985 he turned his sights on consumerism with the amusing film The Stuff. Featuring Michael Moriarty, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, and Danny Aiello, it involves a sticky white substance discovered in the woods and turned into an ice-cream like product that turns people into mindless zombies.. or worse.
Get your Cohen fix if you like lots of social commentary with your horror.
8. Tobe Hooper
In 1974, with a small cast and budget, Tobe Hooper made the cult phenomenon The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (Hooper claims to have got the idea for the movie while standing in the hardware section of a crowded store. While thinking of a way to get through the crowd, he spotted chainsaws for sale.) The movie is a terrifying classic and seems to fit right in with the end of the Vietnam era, as it takes a look at the decay of the rural South. The sequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which wouldn’t come until years later, is stylish and features a good performance from Dennis Hopper.
In 1977 he directed Eaten Alive, which is kinda-similar to Texas Chainsaw in plot. The local fleabag hotel is run by a psycho who kills people with a scythe and feeds them to his pet crocodile. Robert Englund’s in it. Quentin Tarantino used this movie’s character Buck for the line in Kill Bill, “My name is Buck, and I like to fuck”.
The Stephen King adaptation Salem’s Lot was well received and has been an influence over later vampire movies like Fright Night and The Lost Boys. The Funhouse, a stylish entry in the slasher genre, also received positive feedback. (Even Gene Siskel liked it).
With Spielberg, Hooper would go on to direct Poltergeist, a movie which hopefully needs no introduction here. (There is some controversy over how much of the film was directed by Hooper and how much was directed by Spielberg). Many critics discussed the role of the white American middle class family in the film. Andrew Sarris wrote that when Carol Ann is lost the parents and the two older children “come together in blood-kin empathy to form a larger-than-life family that will reach down to the gates of hell to save its loved ones.” Poltergeist has been referenced in several films, television shows and music videos. It spawned two sequels.
Lifeforce is a space-vampire movie that takes place mostly in London and gleefully brings on a kind of Armageddon by the end. It’s got Patrick Stewart in it, and features Mathilda May as a very hot (and very nude) vamp who spreads an “infection” to the whole town, turning everybody into vampires. Hooper himself says it’s the most underrated of his films. Lifeforce was made for Cannon Films in a three pic deal that also includes Invaders From Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
In 2004, Hooper directed a remake of The Toolbox Murders.
7. Lucio Fulci
Like a much sleazier version of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci focuses less on framing of shots and more on money-shots. In other words, extreme gore. In a way, this makes Fulci films “fun” to watch, if that’s the right word. Horror can be a very visceral, nightmarish experience and Fulci is good at delivering that. In addition, some of Fulci’s stuff is smarter than you think it is.
Take Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). It’s a pretty good giallo about murder, superstition, and corruption in a small Italian village. Like some other of Fulci’s movies, Don’t Torture a Duckling has been called anti-Catholic, even though Fulci himself was Catholic. Because of the criticism of the Church, the film was banned, and it wouldn’t be seen again until the early 2000s, when Anchor Bay released it uncut. The scene where superstitious villagers kill a woman (believed to be a witch) with chains is disturbing to watch and a good example of Fulci’s unwillingness to pull the camera away.
A year prior he did a giallo called A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which follows the daughter of a politician who experiences a series of vivid, psychedelic nightmares consisting of sex orgies and LSD. In the dream she commits a graphic murder and awakes to a real life criminal investigation into the murder of her neighbor. The film is infamous for a a scene involving dogs hanging in a room and cut open with their hearts and guts still pulsating. Fulci was almost jailed because the scene was so realistic that people thought real dogs were used.
In 1979, he directed Zombi 2, marketed in Europe as a sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which was called Zombi over there). Confusing matters is that Zombi 2 was released in the states as Zombie. (Incidentally, Dawn of the Dead was partially produced by Dario Argento). Zombi 2 is equal parts gory and funny. Funny because of the way the New York City police are portrayed (you gotta see it to know what we are talking about). Gory because there are gross zombie makeup effects, a battle underwater between a zombie and a shark, and a disturbing bit where a woman has a wooden shard slowly driven into her eye. (Fulci loved eye violence). (Read our review here)
Some of his other gore movies with that good old ultraviolence include City of the Living Dead (AKA Gates of Hell), The Beyond (AKA Seven Doors of Death), The House By the Cemetery (1981), and The New York Ripper (perhaps one of his sickest entries, it features a serial killer in NYC who quacks like a duck over the phone. But there’s nothing cartoonish about the way he slices through his female victims. The film’s nastiness got it banned in many countries). These flicks played many drive-ins and grindhouses, and garnered many fans when they appeared on video later.
City of the Living Dead (1980), like The Beyond, involves the gates of hell opening up with the undead attacking the living. An infamous piece of exploitation, it features scenes of a woman vomiting up her intestines and a rather nasty drill-through-the-head. The Beyond is probably his most well known after Zombi 2. It features many scenes that are nonsensical, but that’s probably ok as the whole film plays like a piece of somebody’s nightmare. (As Wikipedia says, the movie “has been praised for its oneiric incoherence”). Plenty of blood, zombies, tarantula attacks, melting faces, and in the end the protagonists go to hell! In 1998 Quentin Tarantino acquired the US distribution rights to The Beyond (through Rolling Thunder), and played it throughout the US as a midnight movie feature. Roger Ebert hated it, of course, but that didn’t stop it from earning a million dollars for Miramax.
In 1996, Fulci wrote and directed Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert), which is a self-reflexive, “meta” film, that has been compared to Fellini’s 8 1/2 (for the horror crowd, anyway). It features gory horror clips from several of his own films, and deals with the effects of horror film making on the psyche. Interesting that the person to do a film about the effects of violence on society would be one of the more infamous perpetrators of said violence. We always wondered about what went on in Fulci’s brain.
Fulci also did a fascinating spaghetti western in ’75 called Four of the Apocalypse, which is worth searching out. He passed away in 1996.
6. Dario Argento
The Italian Hitchcock. That’s what he’s called. And along with Mario Bava, he helped create the giallo.
In 1970, Argento debuted with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage about an American writer in Rome (Tony Musante) who witnesses an attack on a woman by a black-gloved assailant dressed wearing a raincoat. Police take his passport away, believing him to be an important witness who may have got a glimpse of the city serial killer.
Wiki: “Argento borrowed heavily from crime thriller literature and from previous Italian thrillers (like Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace) but he managed to make the end result fresh and provocative instead of derivative. Following murder movies from Argento would treasure these elements along with the recurring plot point of the protagonist seeing something of great importance but finding himself either unable to realize or remember what he saw (another favorite of some Bava movies).”
He directed two more giallos – The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which, together with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage form the “animal” trilogy.
Deep Red (AKA Profondo Rosso), would put Argento on the international map. With a soundtrack by prog rock group Goblin (who he would use in many of his movies), Deep Red is about a music teacher (David Hemmings) who investigates the violent murder of a psychic, which he witnesses in an apartment building. Featuring Daria Nicolodi as his love interest (Nicolodi and Argento were an item and had a daughter – Asia), the film is considered one of Argento’s best, and features elaborate set pieces and extended murder sequences. The film is full of Argento hallmarks: tracking shots and wide-angles, inviting the Hitchcock (and De Palma) comparisons.
Also considered among Argento’s best work is Suspiria (1977). The movie is a surreal masterpiece of sound and color, and is part of the “Mothers” trilogy (the other two are Inferno from 1980 and the more recent Mother of Tears). Starring Jessica Harper as a student at a dance school that is really a witches coven, Suspiria makes good use of vivid Technicolor, and again features Goblin on soundtrack. The beginning murder sequence is shocking and inventive.
Tenebre, about a serial killer who apparently takes cures from the pages of a murder/mystery novel, is also filled with inventive murder sequences. Themes identified in Tenebrae (and other Argento movies) include “impaired vision” (certain characters are outright blind, others either miss vital clues or misinterpret them), and sexual deviancy (which usually is a trigger for a murder).
Phenomena (1985) stars Jennifer Connelly as girl with psychic powers who attends a Swiss school preyed upon by a serial killer. With the help of a scientist (Donald Pleasence), she uses her powers to control insects which help her solve the crimes.
Opera (1987) also has a cult following. It concerns an opera singer stalked by a psychopathic killer, who ties her up and forces her to watch him kill others. He attaches sharp pins to her eyelids so that she cannot close her eyes (a joke on the viewer – Argento is “commanding” the audience not to look away from the on-screen carnage).
After Two Evil Eyes, a collaboration between Argento and George Romero (they had also worked together on Dawn of the Dead), Argento directed Trauma (1993) which was shot in Minneapolis, with effects by Tom Savini. The Stendhal Syndrome, starring daughter Asia Argento, concerns a female detective in Florence who suffers from the syndrome of the title, which causes people to become overwhelmed by great works of art. The killer uses this disorder against her. (This is the film that features Asia in a disturbing rape scene – probably because it’s daddy filming it).
Argento recently completed his “mothers” trilogy with Mother of Tears (reviewed here).
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