John Carpenter. Wes Craven. George Romero. Tobe Hooper. Since the late 70’s this dream team of directors have been the undisputed legends of modern horror. The title is well-deserved, of course, but these guys are also getting quite long in the tooth (and sadly, one of them is no longer with us). I always found it a little odd that we got all the way through the 90’s and the 2000’s without any new directors taking up that sword and becoming the new masters.
I mean, obviously there have been younger directors making exceptional horror all these years, but if you think about the trends dominating the medium post-1980’s – the slasher rebirth, J-horror invasion, torture porn – there haven’t been many consistent names in the director’s chair. To wit, it was the old master Wes Craven that was responsible for the 90’s slasher rebirth, and he was the only constant name continuing to produce hit horror films among the scores of imitators. Gore Verbinski did his The Ring remake in 2002 and then ducked out of horror entirely, and Takashi Shimizu remade his own Ju-On as The Grudge, then returned to his native Japan and is still most famous for the Ju-On franchise.
Of course, no discussion of the so-called torture porn subgenre (a label I’ve always hated) can be had without mentioning Eli Roth. On the many, many films he’s credited as producer, he is usually referred to as “the master of horror”, and while I wouldn’t begrudge him the honor, as a director he hasn’t actually had any mega-hits. Does anybody have an annual Halloween viewing ritual for Hostel, for example? That’s all I’m saying. And Roth is arguably the most important name in horror directing of the entire aughts decade. M Night Shyamalan came out of the gate as strong as could be at the edge of the millennium, with many calling him the new Hitchcock, but a long string of epic flops tainted his name, possibly beyond repair. He seems to be angling for a comeback though.
Then there’s Rob Zombie… I plan to devote an entire article to the strange space he inhabits in horror cinema, but to briefly sum up: Rob Zombie has directed 6 feature length horror films to date, and none have been bonafide hits with both fans and critics, even though most folks (including me) tend to be of the belief that he has a masterpiece in him somewhere. While he has his die hard fans and certainly has his own stamp as a director, it doesn’t feel appropriate to label him a Master of Horror just yet.
That brings us to the 10’s. I believe we’re in the first years of what will one day be known as a horror renaissance. Yes, we have the haunted house/demonic possession thing going on pretty hard, with Blumhouse Productions dominating from a financial perspective, but there’s another sub-trend I’m starting to see that makes me pretty hopeful about the future of horror: the auteur club.
I’ve written about how every year there seems to be a breakout horror hit released in the Spring. Oculus, It Follows, You’re Next, Hush, The Witch, et al. And the more I read about these movies the more I see familiar names coming up. These directors may not be producing blockbusters just yet (with one exception), but they’re remarkably consistent and reliable, and seem to be genuine lovers of the horror genre. Their work is elevating the overall quality level of horror beyond the cookie cutter schlock machine that always drives genre blockbusters, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if a couple decades from now these people are the new Mount Rushmore of horror.
Known for: Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring
James Wan is the exception to everything I wrote above, in that he’s now fully operating in the Blumhouse/blockbuster horror space, but his work is of high enough quality and his name notable enough to warrant a spot as a new Horror Master.
He helped break open the whole “torture porn” thing with the first Saw movie, leading to the whole “annual Halloween sequel release” trend that continued with the Paranormal Activity movies. He also directed the underrated Dead Silence, but it was the one-two punch of Insidious and The Conjuring that earned him his horror bonafides. In addition to recent stints in Summer tentpole directing, he’s a prolific producer, putting his name on the Annabelle spinoff and this year’s Lights Out.
Known for: You’re Next, VHS, The Guest
It’s possible Adam Wingard will be the next director after James Wan to break into the blockbuster arena. You’re Next and The Guest were both extremely well received horror/thrillers, and the guy seems to be a directing machine for the relatively brief period of time he’s been on the scene. He’s contributed shorts to VHS, VHS2, and The ABC’s of Death.
But at the time of this writing, the big question mark is his upcoming Blair Witch reboot-quel. This is his chance to break into the mainstream in a big way, and possibly score that lucrative Halloween season box office, as long as he’s able to deliver his usual high level of quality operating in this franchise space.
Known for: The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, VHS
Ti West is another mainstay of the new horror anthology scene alongside his contemporary Adam Wingard. West contributed shorts to the first VHS and ABC’s of Death films, and prior to that made a big splash with The House of the Devil, an 80’s set slow burn satanic horror film that I loved. His latest project is a Western called In a Valley of Violence, coming this October. Hopefully his next horror feature breaks him into the mainstream.
Known for: Oculus, Hush, Before I Wake
Mike Flanagan’s been busy in 2016. Hush played to film festival crowds in the Spring just before releasing on VOD and getting strong buzz among horror fans, and this Halloween season he’s got two theatrical releases in the pipeline: Before I Wake and the Ouija sequel, Origin of Evil. I’m assuming the latter is sort of a director-for-hire job.
The thing I liked most about Oculus and Hush is their strict adherence to logic and refusal to give into the “terrible decisions made by protagonist” tropes. It’s a specific niche I hope continues to define Mike Flanagan’s films going forward.
There are so many other exciting directors working in horror right now, I’m certain to accidentally snub a few in this article. Many have exploded on the scene with one impressive hit but have yet to prove themselves more than one hit wonders.
Last year’s The Babadook was a huge win for Jennifer Kent, known then mainly as an actress. She has yet to direct another feature. Same for David Robert Mitchell and his excellent It Follows. Robert Eggers blew critics and many horror fans away last year with The Witch, to date his first and only feature.
Michael Dougherty gifted us an instant Halloween classic in the superb Trick R Treat, but didn’t receive quite the same rapturous reception for his followup Krampus. Trick R Treat 2 was announced a couple years ago, but there hasn’t been much movement on it since, at least from what I’ve read. He’s one to keep an eye on, and I’d love it if he ends up having a long career as a horror director.
I’ve been hearing more and more about a trio of directors with roots in Spanish language horror. Nacho Vigalondo directed shorts for VHS Viral and ABC’s of Death, and the American feature Open Windows, which was a well-received thriller. Adrian Garcia Bogliano (also an ABC’s of Death contributor) has been building a strong following in his native Spain and really impressed me with his recent Scherzo Diabolico. And Fede Alvarez delivered surprisingly well on the unenviable task of remaking Evil Dead in 2013. His latest feature Don’t Breathe received pretty strong reviews.
It may be overstating the point a little, but my gut tells me we might be in the midst of an auteur revolution in horror cinema mirroring the mainstream film industry of the 70’s. Horror has so long been the junk food of movies – the genre that repels critics and doesn’t win Oscars. But the Babadook, The Witch, It Follows, and other recent surprises are starting to turn the tide. In 30 years it will be interesting to look back at this time and see the new Masters of Horror finding their legs, just as John Carpenter was doing with Halloween, Wes Craven was doing with Last House on the Left, and George Romero with Night of the Living Dead.