In the conversation of films that can rightly be considered art, those that fall into the horror genre are often ignored. Very few horror movies have been nominated for Academy Awards in categories other than Best Makeup or Best Special Effects. And unless it’s an established franchise, most studios are not in the business of investing large sums of money into scary movies.
Following the financial success of low-budget, indie movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the market became flooded with writers and directors looking to be discovered so that they could one day move up to making big-budget blockbusters. But the horror genre has a long history with first-class talent, having kickstarted the careers of some of today's most acclaimed filmmakers. Here are 12 well-known directors who cut their teeth on blood, suspense, and jump scares.
1. SAM RAIMI
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Sam Raimi is sort of the gimme on this list because he has not technically left the genre, yet still deserves to be mentioned. Before directing films like The Quick and the Dead (1995), A Simple Plan (1998), Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), and the Spider-man trilogy in the early to mid-2000s, Raimi created and starred in a horror comedy called It’s Murder (1977). He followed that project up with The Evil Dead trilogy, which is still regarded as one of the greatest and most influential film trilogies of all time.
2. JOEL COEN
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Speaking of The Evil Dead (1981): Joel Coen worked as Sam Raimi’s assistant editor on the original film in 1981, and the same year he also assisted on the Frank LaLoggia horror film, Fear No Evil. Joel, alongside his brother Ethan, would go on to create an eclectic slate of quirky films in a variety of genres, including Raising Arizona (1987), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).
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One does not simply direct Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), or JFK (1991) right out of film school. Oliver Stone fought in Vietnam for the United States Army, and when he returned he studied under Scorsese and others at New York University. He wrote and directed a short about Vietnam in 1971, and two of his next three projects were horror films: Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981).
4. PETER JACKSON
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Best known as the director and producer of The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, Peter Jackson’s first three films were horror, though he admits that he did not take them seriously. In a 2010 interview with The Telegraph, Jackson spoke candidly about Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989) and Braindead (1992): “I call them splat-stick," said Jackson. "To me, they were a joke. We enjoyed being crazy and anarchic and upsetting the people we wanted to upset in those days. But, big puppets having sex? It’s harmless, surely.”
5. JAMES CAMERON
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Before Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), James Cameron was developing his directing style with bites and frights. His theatrical feature film directorial debut was Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), which he followed up with two little films called The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986).
6. KATHRYN BIGELOW
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In 1987, Kathryn Bigelow (who was married to James Cameron from 1989 to 1991) found herself knee-deep in vampire lore while making her second feature, Near Dark. Of the film and the director’s efforts, Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club writes: “It’s a thrilling demonstration of how deftly Bigelow can take a subgenre as overharvested as the vampire film and make it seem fruitful once again ... Bigelow finds a way to reconcile two very different kinds of vampire stories: the seductive, all-consuming romance of the Dracula myth with its promise of eternal love, and the fang-bearing, blood-soaked viscera of an out-and-out horror movie.”
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After making a low-budget sci-fi film called Firelight (1964) as a teenager, Steven Spielberg moved to Los Angeles and started working in television. In 1971, Spielberg got the opportunity to direct Duel, a TV movie about a driver being stalked by a tanker truck that walks the line between thriller and horror. A reviewer for The Guardian wrote that the climax of the film “sent shivers through even my generally unsusceptible spine. The best horror story in town.” The Sunday Telegraph praised Spielberg’s work and saw his potential, writing that “the director, Steven Spielberg, new to me but starred for future reference, has made in effect a striking horror film out of everyday ingredients.”
8. ZACK SNYDER
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Before becoming one of the go-to directors for superhero and comic book films, Zack Snyder directed TV commercials. In 2004 he directed the remake of George A. Romero’s zombie flick Dawn of the Dead, from a script by James Gunn. Roger Ebert said the film was “slicker and more polished” than the original, but did not have the same “mordant humor." Speaking of James Gunn ...
9. JAMES GUNN
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Though Gunn is best known these days as the guy who wrote and directed Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and is currently working on the sequel, Gunn got his start at legendary horror house Troma, where he wrote the script for Tromeo and Juliet. In 2006, Gunn wrote and directed his first film, the horror-comedy Slither.
10. J.J. ABRAMS
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As a kid, J.J. Abrams loved movies and would write in to his favorite magazine, Cinemagic, to request articles and ask the editors questions. In the early 1980s, the magazine’s founder offered him a job making music for the 1982 Troma film, Nightbeast.
11. BOB CLARK
A Christmas Story (1983) will be a lasting part of Bob Clark’s legacy, but for horror fans, the work he did in the 1970s is just as important. Films like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) and Deathdream (1974) got him notice, but Black Christmas (1974), one of the first slasher films, became a cult classic and earned him a dedicated following.
Clark said in an interview that John Carpenter asked him if he had considered making a sequel to Black Christmas. “I was through with horror," Clark explained. "I didn't come into the business to do just horror.” Carpenter asked him what the sequel would be like if he did want to make one, and Clark gave him an idea that should sound very familiar to fans of the genre: “I said it would be the next year and the guy would have actually been caught, escape from a mental institution, go back to the house and they would start all over again. And I would call it Halloween."
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In an interview with The A.V. Club, Oscar-winning filmmaker Curtis Hanson said that his first professional writing job was for a Roger Corman film called The Dunwich Horror (1970). He and producer Tamara Asseyev later collaborated on the Sweet Kill (1972). Hanson then moved more toward mysteries and thrillers, directing The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), L.A. Confidential (1997), and 8 Mile (2002).