Brian De Palma 1940 -
“My view of the world is ironic, bitter, acid…” Son of a surgeon, De Palma is often accused of favouring technique over characters. His movies spark violence-against-women debates.
And he’s accused of superficiality because he reworks Hitchcock with added irony and gore.
But few sculpt suspense like De Palma, and Carrie – its feverish style balanced by Sissy Spacek’s tender, heart-rending performance – guarantees him a place on any list.
Must See: Carrie (1976), Dressed To Kill (1980)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa 1955 -
No relation to Akira, this prolific Japanese master is horror’s best-kept secret.
Kurosawa’s slow-burn, warm-hearted pictures are distressing studies of identity and isolation, usually set in Tokyo and comprising dilapidated buildings and empty spaces littered with ghosts, loners and serial killers.
Must See: Séance (2000), The Cure (1997), Pulse (2001), Retribution (2006)
Tobe Hooper 1943 -
Since fantasising about chainsawing his way out of a packed mall, this Texan has spent his fascinating, if checkered, career exploring the primal urges of outsiders, from aliens ( Lifeforce ) to carnies ( The Funhouse ) to vampires (TV’s Salem’s Lot ).
He’s often been one himself – when Poltergeist posited an ordinary American nightmare, producer Steven Spielberg got the credit.
It matters not, because The Texas Chain Saw Massacre bestrides horror history like a colossus.
Must See: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Poltergeist (1982)
Guillermo Del Toro 1964 -
Clockwork, insects, creatures, Ron Perlman – some of the things that make Mexican maestro del Toro’s work so darkly distinctive.
He’s proved himself the master of twisted fantasy and fairytale, wrangled a menagerie of monsters, and become a mentor to the next generation of nightmare makers, producing and endorsing projects from newcomers – see The Orphanage , Julia’s Eyes and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark.
He’s a workhorse too, with a crammed slate of beautiful freaks in the making.
Must See: Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Roger Corman 1926 -
With 300+ producing credits, Roger Corman’s strategy was always pile ‘em high, make ‘em cheap.
The king of the Bs made his mark as a director on drive-in creature features like Attack Of The Crab Monsters in the '50s.
Later, he entered classic territory with his fever-dream Poe adaps; Corman’s vivid use of colour and Vincent Price’s deranged descents into madness elevate these quickies into genre art.
Must See: A Bucket Of Blood (1959), The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1960), The Masque Of The Red Death (1964), The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964)
Steven Spielberg 1946 -
Spielberg has run the horror gamut, from comedy ( Temple Of Doom ) to real-life ( Schindler’s List ) to unintentional ( The Terminal ).
He’s great with monsters big ( Jurassic Park ), small ( Gremlins ) and diesel-powered ( Duel ).
Like his hero Hitchcock, he’s a master of suspense, and he made a shark tale so definitive it’s never been safe to go back in the water. Especially if you’re Renny Harlin.
Must See: Duel (1971), Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993)
Michael Haneke 1942-
Euro cinema’s most vicious clinician makes chilly, self-lacerating art films that call for “insistent questions instead of false answers…”
Benny’s Video featured a TV-obsessed child committing a murder just because. Hidden showed a middle-class couple under surveillance.
Home-invasion horror Funny Games (twice) eviscerated the genre from within. And The White Ribbon is Village Of The Dammed with added cruelty and embryonic Nazism. “Why are you watching this?” Haneke asks. Because it’s impossible not to…
Must See: Funny Games (1997), Hidden (2005), The White Ribbon (2009)
Jacques Tourneur 1904-1977
Tourneur’s mastery of mood lent itself to RKO producer Val Lewton’s '40s run of fear flicks.
Hiding budgetary constraints in the shadows, his films are full of ambiguity – Cat People is littered with subtext, while I Walked With A Zombie spirits Jane Eyre to the realm of voodoo mystery.
Not even the monster imposed on Night Of The Demon could stop Tourneur from evoking ineffable evil.
Must See: Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), Night Of The Demon (1957)
Martin Scorsese 1942-
Consider: the unhinged Travis Bickle’s descent into hell; the family under siege dynamics of Cape Fear , and the snowballing menace of After Hours .
In Shutter Island , Scorsese goes further, his love of classic black-and-white chillers like Isle Of The Dead creating a creepy '40s RKO homage.
Must See: Taxi Driver (1976), The King Of Comedy (1982), After Hours (1985), Cape Fear (1991), Shutter Island (2010)
Roman Polanski 1933-
Paranoia runs rife in Polanski’s best movies, as claustrophobic homes are put under threat by hostile forces.
In his own life Polanski was touched by true evil – Auschwitz, the murder of his pregnant wife – but, on-screen, terror sometimes lurches into black humour: the last resort against a meaningless universe. The Fearless Vampire Killers features Jewish vampires impervious to crucifixes…
Must See: Repulsion (1965), The Tenant (1976), Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Terence Fisher 1904-1980
Fisher was in his fifties when he became Hammer’s go-to guy for gothic horror, and his work is often accused of being static and fusty.
But The Curse Of Frankenstein and Dracula are potent, peppy movies, and Fisher was a master of blending the vivid work of Hammer’s ace department heads.
Must See: The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1959), The Mummy (1959), The Brides Of Dracula (1960), The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Wes Craven 1939 -
Craven started in porn then jumped to torture porn with The Last House On The Left . He hit paydirt with Freddy Krueger and the Scream franchise.
His movies love eviscerating boundaries as well as bodies: from the dream/reality burring of Elm Street to the self-referential nitpicking of Scream .
Must See: The Last House On The Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996)
Alfred Hitchcock 1899-1980
The Master of Suspense knew how to dial H for horror too. Psycho , a seedy story of mother-love, peeping toms and sexual perversion, virtually invented the modern slasher movie, while The Birds informed all subsequent revenge-of-nature flicks.
In Hitchcock’s hands, horror became grounded in everyday mundanity and murder birthed cinematic art. Suspense thrillers like Rear Window and Vertigo prove it’s possible to scare just through process: nerve-jangling anticipation and mental disintegration built up through music, off-kilter camera-angles and playful misdirection.
No latex gore here; just a master filmmaker manipulating his audience.
Must See: Shadow Of A Doubt (1943), Psycho (1960, The Birds (1963)
James Whale 1889-1957
Whale’s gothic horror Frankenstein took its shadows from German Expressionism but refused to rip out the beating heart of Mary Shelley’s novel: Karloff’s monster remains, forever, an outsider.
The British-born, effete director was playful, too: tongue-in-cheek humour (re)animates The Bride Of Frankenstein .
Must See: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bridge Of Frankenstein (1935)
John Carpenter 1948 -
The little boy who grew up trapped in Kentucky went on to make movies about entrapment. Carpenter is a master craftsman with a fondness for silky tracking shots and roaming Steadicam.
His best films are the spare suspensers of the '70s and early '80s, but he went on to direct a run of underrated gems ( Christine , The Prince Of Darkness , They Live , In The Mouth Of Madness ).
Must See: Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982)
Mario Bava 1914-1980
Son of cameraman/special effects supreme Eugenio Bava, Mario invented gialli (murder mysteries that emphasise the murders), helped shape slashers ( A Bay Of Blood is the blueprint for Friday The13th ) and birthed Alien (though Planet Of The Vampires is a good deal more camp).
His work favours vivid colours, icy atmospherics, scary jolts and masterful in-camera effects.
Must See: Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), Blood And Black Lace (1964), Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966), Shock (1977)
David Cronenberg 1943
A fascination with the corporeal in all its icky, stick actuality, coupled with a preoccupation with science and transformation, made Cronenberg the godfather of body horror, unflinchingly exploring themes of sexuality, disease and aging as well as the dissolution and transgression of society.
Cronenberg’s catalogue probes the mind as well as the body, exploring mutation through drug addiction and alternate realities.
Latterly he’s moved into dramas and thrillers, yet he remains the (exploring) brains behind of some of horror’s most disturbing imagery.
Must See: Shivers (1975), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Crash (1996)
Dario Argento 1940
“This Italian chap is starting to worry me,” said Hitchcock of this former critic turned screenwriter (he collaborated with Bertolucci on Once Upon A Time In The West ) turned director.
And well he might – Argento is one of cinema’s most astonishing stylists and his films are characterised by excess: sex, violence, black humour, show-stopping camera moves…
Admittedly, plausibility was the first casualty of twisty gialli like Deep Red , but Argento solved the problem by going supernatural with delirious witch-hunt Suspiria .
His later work has been oddly timid, but Argento’s best films as writer, director and producer (Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead among others) remain mad, bad and beautiful to behold.
Must See: The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980), Tenebrae (1982), Opera (1987)
David Lynch 1946
What’s David Lynch’s secret? Mystery. “To me, mystery is like a magnet,” he says. “Whenever there is something that’s unknown, it has a pull to it. When you see a part, it’s even stronger than the whole.”
It’s this affinity for the unknowable that gives his films their uncanny power – whether it’s demonic forces, splintering identities or the freaky shit people get up to behind closed doors.
No wonder curtains and corridors are two of his big motifs, alongside strobing lights, crushed innocence, nightmare logic and ghastly head wounds.
His painter’s eye is matched by the most dread-sensitive ear in the business; even The Straight Story , the only one of his movies that doesn’t disturb on some level, opens with an ominous thud.
Must See: Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (TV, 1990-91), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2011)
George Romero 1940
Once upon a time, zombies were the monsters who did voodoo wetwork down in Haiti. After Night Of The Living Dead – a downbeat take on the social convulsions ‘60s America – ghouls were transformed into flesh-eating cannibals.
Overnight, Romero retooled the zombie movie into an unlikely platform for social critique. Every z-flick since shuffles in his footsteps.
Like Bela Lugosi forever typecast as the Count, the ghouls became Romero’s millstone. There’s more to his films than the dead or the jokey, slapstick gore they encouraged (blame his childhood reading EC Comics).
His themes are all-American: the loss of individuality ( Bruiser , The Dark Half ), consumerism ( Dawn Of The Dead ) and a radical anti-authoritarianism (in The Crazies , the army is more dangerous than the “monsters”).
His method is to strip back genre conventions: take Martin, a modern vampire movie that flits between its hero’s Gothic daydreams and the banal reality of his crimes. For Romero, the everyday is horrific enough without supernatural trappings.
It’s a bleak vision, although not hopeless. Like Howard Hawks, Romero loves the drama of group dynamics and his survivors are always within reach of salvation… if they could just stop bickering long enough to work together. He may be the master of the American Nightmare but Romero, coming of age in the era of peace’n’love, longs to see it end.
Must See: Night Of The Living Dead (1968), The Crazies (1973), Martin (1977), Dawn Of The Dead (1978), Day Of The Dead (1985)
Next up, Total Film’s number one talks influences, accolades and the future…
George Romero talks
So, you’re number one…
Somebody made a mistake! I mean, honestly… I’ve got a lot of gratitude that people think this way of me, but I think there’s also a little bit of me that is more myth than substance. I’m still learning how to make movies. I don’t know that I’ve done anywhere near a masterwork yet. Martin is my best work. Unencumbered. I really was set free. But it was a little early. If I’d made that film three films later…
What would the kid who set out to make Night Of The Living Dead have made of this accolade?
I think that kid might have said, “Well, of course!” The arrogance of youth… But really that’s all it would have been. He did not know what the business was like. In those days there were no film studies that you could take that were in any way close to a professional experience. So you had no idea, you had to learn everything absolutely from the bottom.
Growing up, who were the directors you looked up to?
Michael Powell was my main man. I thought he was sensational. An aunt and uncle of mine sent me to see The Tales Of Hoffman, kicking and screaming. And I landed up loving it… I didn’t see Peeping Tom for a long time. I’d love to remake it. I would treat it with the utmost respect.
Which horror movie shook your world?
The Thing From Another World – people were talking over each other, you couldn’t hear any of the dialogue! It was so natural, hyper-natural. I though, “That’s the way to do it.” No holds barred, not apologetic in any way. And people have used the reading-it-on-a-Geiger-counter, here-it-comes gimmick ever since.
Looking back, is there anything you’d change?
I’m very happy with my life. I just wish I could have made more movies. That’s the only thing. It’s such a slow process and you never earn your gold credit card; you have to go in and pitch every time. But I hope that I maybe have a couple of movies left in me…
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