The 15 Best Horror Movie Directors Of All Time

The horror genre necessitates a personal touch. What is or isn't scary is very subjective, and auteur filmmakers are integral to highlighting personal fears and how they manifest. Whether it's best defined as a slasher, body horror, artistic work, or satire, the horror films that stand the test of time as cinematic classics are those that feel individualistic.

It can be challenging to define which great filmmakers are truly "horror directors." Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Friedkin all directed some of the greatest horror films of all-time with "The Shining, "Psycho," and "The Exorcist," respectively. All three are considered to be some of the most influential filmmakers in history, but their overall body of work consists of mostly non-horror projects.

The 21st Century has seen the rise of many young, exciting directors who will hopefully define the future of horror. Jordan Peele has highlighted social disparities with "Get Out" and "Us," Robert Eggers has crafted historical nightmares with "The Witch" and "The Lighthouse," Ari Aster has explored trauma with "Hereditary" and "Midsommar," and Mike Flanagan has popularized horror streaming with "The Haunting of Hill House," "The Haunting of Bly Manor," and this year's "Midnight Mass."

These are the greatest horror movie directors of all-time.

George Romero

George Romero defined the cinematic zombie with his groundbreaking work in practical gore effects. Romero's creative use of makeup would be imitated for decades, and cinematic zombies rarely strained from the template he'd defined. In fact, when Danny Boyle introduced fast moving zombies in "28 Days Later," it was a novelty that he wasn't simply replicating Romero.

Romero saw zombies as a reflection of what humanity left behind, and his undead represented societal fears. Although his long standing "Living Dead" franchise has varied in terms of quality, each entry was unique. Each of Romero's films is terrifying, but they also address the social climate with each installment.

Romero's debut film "Night of the Living Dead" examined the anxieties of '60s America; tensions were high due to the Vietnam War, the Red Scare, and the assassinations of key political figures. The characters in "Night of the Living Dead" constantly question who has been infected, and ultimately mankind is the scariest danger of all. 1978's "Dawn of the Dead" attacked consumer culture, setting its band of survivors in a mall. 1985's "Day of the Dead" satirized militarism and the refusal to listen to scientists; it was a grim warning in the Reagan era that resonated strongly throughout the Trump presidency.

John Carpenter

"Halloween" was hardly the first slasher movie; Hitchcock's "Psycho" helped inspire the genre, and Italian giallo filmmakers had fleshed it out amidst the '60s and '70s. 1974's "Black Christmas" was already a hit when "Halloween" hit theaters four years later, but Michael Myers became synonymous with the term. The striking image of an unkillable monster wearing a William Shatner mask identified a primal fear; what if a killer could reach you anywhere, even in the comfort of your home?

Creating Myers alone is impressive, but Carpenter has crafted many horror classics. 1980's "The Fog" is a haunting ghost story, 1982's "The Thing" is a masterfully tense dissection of anxiety, and "Christine" stands as one of the strongest Stephen King adaptations. Although not all of Carpenter's films were immediately hailed as hits, films like 1994's "In the Mouth of Madness," 1978's "Prince of Darkness," 1995's "Village of the Damned," and 1998's "Vampires" have garnered cult appreciation that improved their reputation.

Wes Craven

Like Carpenter, Wes Craven is responsible for creating one of the essential cinematic screen villains. Compared to many post-"Halloween" films that simply tried to replicate Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger was a unique character. The concept of a killer that could invade dreams stole any sense of security, and gave Craven a unique way to execute his kills. Like "Halloween," the tension in the original 1984 "A Nightmare on Elm Street" doesn't falter for its entire 91 minutes.

Craven returned to the character with his 1994 sequel "New Nightmare," which commented on the way horror films had changed over the decade. Freddy had grown sillier in later installments in the "Nightmare" series, and Craven made him scary once more. Freddy broke out from the confinements of the silver screen, and begins haunting the actors from the original film.

Although "New Nightmare" wasn't immediately celebrated for its subversiveness, it led Craven to create another satirical masterwork. 1996's "Scream" introduced a universe where characters were aware of the genre's clichés; they reference what illogical decisions standard slasher victims would make. "Scream" gave Craven a new franchise, and he directed the next three installments.

Outside of those two franchises, Craven explored different elements of horror with his other beloved classics. He helmed exploitation films "The Last House on the Left" and "The Hills Have Eyes," and examined family strife with "The People Under The Stairs."

Sam Raimi

Sam Raimi helped craft the early stages of the splatter horror subgenre with his inventive use of practical effect and makeup. Raimi showed the potential for independent horror films to reach a wide audience, and was creative with his low budget. He and his childhood friend Bruce Campbell had made the short film "Within the Woods" together in 1978 with a loyal crew of makeup artists, and landed a larger budget to create the feature film "The Evil Dead" in 1981.

This spirit of inventiveness permeates the film, which became a surprising hit with a certain cult audience. While the kills were shockingly violent, they were also amusing in their absurdity, and Campbell's protagonist Ash became an icon with his one-liners and chainsaw. Raimi would continue to heighten the absurd humor with later installments in the franchise.

Both "The Evil Dead" and 1987's "Evil Dead II" follow Ash and his friends as they spend their vacation at a lonely cabin in the woods, encountering demonic creatures from the mythic Book of the Dead. The third film, 1992's "Army of Darkness," took the premise to the medieval era when Ash travels through time. While best known for "Evil Dead," Raimi's other horror credits include the underrated satire "Crimewave," supernatural thriller "The Gift," and a return to splatter in "Drag Me To Hell."

James Whale

Beginning in the 1930s, Universal Pictures began creating monster movies that adapted classic literary characters. The Universal Classic Monsters series launched many sequels, continuations, and crossovers, and the characters have been rebooted and relaunched many times. Recently, Universal attempted to launch the failed Dark Universe with 2017's "The Mummy."

British director James Whale was integral to defining the Universal Classic Monsters. With 1931's "Frankenstein," Whale took Mary Shelley's novel and crafted a supernatural tragedy about the relationship between the demented Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creature. The first of two Universal horror films released that year (alongside the original "Dracula") was essential in defining the modern conception of the character.

Although many of the Universal Monsters films spawned low quality sequels, Whale continued his humanistic approach with 1935's "The Bride of Frankenstein." His romantic tragedy became one of the greatest horror sequels ever made, rivaling the acclaim of the original. He also helmed 1933's adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel "The Invisible Man." Whale used the surprisingly humorous, insightful story from the famed author to craft the film — one that would inspire the acclaimed 2020 remake starring Elisabeth Moss.

 A wartime veteran and closeted gay man, Whale's story is chronicled in the 1998 biopic "Gods and Monsters," which starred Ian McKellen in an Academy Award nominated performance.

David Cronenberg

With his twisted psychological stories of the human condition, David Cronenberg explores his characters' latent desires. The Canadian filmmakers often incorporate challenging philosophy into stories that mix science fiction and fantasy, and utilizes graphic dismemberment images. While filmmakers like Raimi and Peter Jackson took a comedic approach to body horror, Cronenberg's work is purely nightmarish.

Although Cronenberg showed his potential with early films "Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future," it was his 1979 masterwork "The Brood" that defined his signature psychological torment. Cronenberg uses his violence for a point. The head explosions in his 1981 film "Scanners" are sickening and the themes of dehumanization in 1983's "Videodrome" are disturbing, but they speak to Cronenberg's fascination with viewers' desensitization to violence as a result of media consumption.

Although his modern classics "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises," "Cosmopolis," and "Maps to the Stars" don't strictly fall within the horror genre, Cronenberg incorporated the same unnerving quality that characterized his earlier films.

David Lynch

The surrealist movement is closely associated with the development of David Lynch's career. Surrealism can often feel aimless or purely experimental, but Lynch infused memorable characters, thematic commentary on identity, and off putting musical choices to inspire a cult fanbase.

Lynch's directorial debut film, 1977's "Eraserhead" was made while his wife was pregnant. Lynch channeled his own parental anxieties to tell the story of an unlikely father shackled with an inhuman, ghoulish child. Lynch often subverts genre; 1986's "Blue Velvet" begins with a classical elegance reminiscent of fairy tales, but beneath the surface of a seemingly innocent small town there is a seedy underbelly. 1990's "Wild at Heart" is ultimately a "Bonnie and Clyde"-esque love story, but the romance is between two traumatized victims of abuse that survive a cruel western world.

Lynch was integral to bringing horror to television with "Twin Peaks." One of the predecessor's to the "peak TV" era, Lynch hooked viewers in each week with the mystery of high school prom queen Laura Palmer's (Sheryl Lee) murder. The 1992 prequel "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" was a straight up horror film, and showed Laura's experience first hand.

Tobe Hooper

Like Carpenter and Craven, Tobe Hooper would be an integral part of film history purely based on the game changing "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" in 1974. The film begins with a title card falsely claiming to be based on a true story, and the grungy environments were more realistic than most horror films of the era. The horror wasn't supernatural, and Hooper's depiction of humans as literal meat bags was too disturbing for many viewers. It became one of the most controversial films ever made and was banned in several territories.

Hooper brought back Leatherface twelve years later with "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2," but the tone was completely different. The original felt like a slice of reality with its banal nature, but the sequel was over-the-top and humorous. With its subtle commentary on gender archetypes, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" was similarly divisive, only later recognized for its satirical intent.

Hooper's career isn't only defined by Leatherface. He worked with fellow auteurs Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter on the unnerving "Poltergeist" and the dark comedy anthology "Body Bags," respectively. 1986's "Invaders From Mars" was a nuanced take on the alien invasion films of the 1950s.

Dario Argento

Also known as the "Master of the Thrill," Dario Argento is one of the most important figures within the Italian subgenre of giallo films. Not strictly adhering to the tenets of either slasher films or arthouse cinema, giallos feature striking colors, propulsive music, and unseen threats to create their auras of suspense. Giallo films bridge the gap between horror and noir, a recurring element of Argento's work. Argento only occasionally solves the mystery itself, stealing a traditionally satisfying ending from his viewers.

1977's "Suspiria" and 1975's "Deep Red" are among the most famous giallo films of all-time. Argento's filmography is fascinating because of his thematic collections; 1970's "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage," 1971's "The Cat o' Nine Tails," and 1971's "Four Flies on Grey Velvet" are known as the "Three Mothers" trilogy. Argento continues to be an active storyteller and is working on new projects to this day.

Terence Fisher

In the 1950s, the British production company Hammer Films became incredibly popular with their "Quatermass" films, and began adapting the same classic monster stories that Universal had two decades prior. Like Universal, Hammer produced many sequels that declined in quality, but its architects treated the characters with respect. Terence Fisher directed many of the franchise's best installments, and was renowned for his recurring collaborations with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Working together, Fisher, Lee, and Cushing redefined stories that viewers were already familiar with through their gothic approach. Although his films were far bloodier than the Universal series, Fisher took the inherent tragedies at the heart of each creature's origin seriously. The drama was almost Shakespearean. In 1957's "The Curse of Frankenstein," Victor Frankenstein is tempted by his failed attempts to become a god; the resurrection of an undead creature in 1959's "The Mummy" is only spawned by archeologists' refusal to let the dead lie still. Dracula has appeared in almost 300 films, but Fischer's 1958 classic "The Horror of Dracula" is perhaps the best.

Guillermo del Toro

It's always impressive when a filmmaker can steadily rise through the ranks of Hollywood and retain their initial spark. Guillermo del Toro is one of the few filmmakers working today who can spawn an audience based on his name alone, and his 2017 masterwork "The Shape of Water" was the first monster movie to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Del Toro's mystery thriller "Nightmare Alley" is one of the most anticipated movies of 2021.

Del Toro's first films unquestionably fall strictly within the horror genre. 1993's "Cronos," 1997's "Mimic," and 2001's "The Devil's Backbone" were the rare international films to reach American audiences, each showing Del Toro's immaculate production design. He retained horror elements within his later work. This influence of is felt in his superhero films "Hellboy," "Blade II," and "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," and his underrated "Crimson Peak" in 2015 merged horrific imagery with gothic romance.

James Wan

Three of the most successful horror franchises currently running originated from the mind of James Wan. It was up to a new generation to launch new series after the "Halloween," "Friday the 13th," and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" franchises declined, and Wan crafted a future for the genre. Not only did 2004's "Saw," 2010's "Insidious" and 2012's "The Conjuring" demonstrate Wan's originality, but they provided other horror filmmakers the chance to continue their universes in subsequent sequels and spinoffs.

These franchises wouldn't have taken off if Wan's original films hadn't properly scared viewers. The original "Saw" still boasts one of the most shocking twists in modern horror, and holds up on repeated viewings. Wan managed to cut back on his brutality with "Insidious," a rare PG-13 horror film that is effective. The true crime element of "The Conjuring" made it particularly distributing, and Wan utilizes jump scares better than many of his contemporaries.

Mary Harron

Diversity is integral to horror, but female filmmakers are often denied the opportunities that they should receive. While directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Claire Denis directed horror classics, the majority of their filmography falls outside of the genre. In recent years, directors like Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, and Ana Lily Amirpour have shown an exciting future for female-centric horror cinema. Mary Harron deserves the same acclaim, as her commentary on toxic masculinity is a refreshing breath of fresh air.

Harron's 2000 film "American Psycho" was strangely divisive upon release, and it's strange to think that the film glorifies its main character in any way. "American Psycho" turned its titular antagonist Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) into a hapless buffoon; Harron imagined the greed of Wall Street and Bateman's murders as pretty similar. She recently took a look at one of history's most iconic villains with "Charlie Says," a 2019 biopic of Charles Manson told from the perspective of his female followers.

F.W. Murnau

The German Expressionist movement of the 1920s saw painters, architects, dancers, and sculptors break show the personal perception of reality instead of realism. The movement commented on the changing political landscape within Germany as it occurred. Films were important within the movement, and director F.W. Murnau used his experience in World War I to inspire landmark images of monsters, demons, and the undead.

Murnau's 1922 film "Nosferatu" was among the first cinematic depictions of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Max Schrek's striking depiction of seductive vampire remains one of the best. Nearly a century later, and "Nosferatu" is still one of the scariest movies ever made. Murnau also helmed the horror films "The Last Laugh" and "Faust" before heading to Hollywood with non-horror fare. His 1927 musical "Sunrise" won the Academy Award for Best Unique or Artistic Picture, a category only featured at the first ceremony. Unfortunately, many of Murnau's earlier projects have been lost or completely destroyed.

Park Chan-Wook

South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook is frequently drawn to disturbing material, and his work can be upsetting on both a visceral and thematic level. Even though his famous "Vengeance" trilogy of 2002's "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," 2003's "Oldboy," and 2005's "Lady Vengeance" falls closer in line with the thriller genre, each film evokes horror with their startling concepts. Park would adopt more explicitly horrific projects later in his career.

2009's "Thirst" drew from the religious horror subgenre, identifying key themes of Catholic guilt and emotional suppression, and examined their dehumanizing effects. Park shows an awareness of historical and cultural factors within his work. His 2013 English-language film "Stoker" drew from the work of Alfred Hitchcock, reinventing the "Master of Suspense" in the modern era; 2016's "The Handmaiden" gave insights on the Korean perspective amidst Japan's colonial rule with its explicit violence and sexuality. He continues to helm intriguing new projects.