The 12 Greatest Horror Directors Of All Time

By: Jonny Hughes
A mans silhouette stands out on a winters night in the UK Edward Crawford / Getty Images

While the horror genre may not always command a huge amount of respect, it is a genre that boasts many of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. It is incredibly challenging to thrill and scare people through film, and all of these fantastic horror directors were able to do this in their own unique and distinctive fashion.

Many of these directors have had an impact on film outside of the genre, while sadly, a couple remain somewhat unknown and unappreciated. Whatever the case, these are the horror directors who have excelled at bringing your nightmares to life.


12. Tobe Hooper

Before Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees haunted people’s nightmares in the 1980’s, the biggest horror icon of them all was Leatherface, from Tobe Hooper’s immensely influential horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Prior to this, no horror had ever felt quite so believable, which paved the way for the countless slasher films that followed. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a horror masterpiece, and is as terrifying today as it was upon its 1974 release. This is largely thanks to the film-making ability of Hooper, who made his movie feel claustrophobic and muggy through lengthy shoots in the sweltering Texas heat. Massacre might be Hooper’s magnum opus, but he also directed a handful of other fantastic horror films, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (an excellent sequel) and Poltergeist (another important horror film). While Hooper has also directed some less-brilliant films, his important and hugely influential contributions to the genre should not be overlooked.


11. James Whale

The horror genre is one which has taken many twists and turns over the years, and is now completely different to how it was in the early 1900’s. However, although it is different, it is important to not forget the roots of the genre, as they influenced what came later and set the blueprint for years to come. At the forefront of the fledgling horror genre was James Whale, who is best known for directing four classic horror films of the 1930’s: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale’s work in horror and a few other genres (he actually did not want to be labeled as a horror director, and therefore probably would not appreciate inclusion here) reinvigorated Universal Studios during the 1930’s, but his non-horror works took place during a down period for the company, and this is the reason why he is best remembered for his early work in horror.


10. Lucio Fulci

Known by many as the “Godfather of Gore”, Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci is famed for creating horror films that were certainly not for those with weak stomachs throughout the late 70’s and 80’s. Where his fellow countryman and horror director Dario Argento followed more in the suspenseful nature of Alfred Hitchcock, Fulci reveled in horrifying his audience with gory effects (without making it the main focus of the film). His most notable work is Zombi 2, which was an extremely violent zombie movie that introduced Italian horror to the masses. This film is still widely regarded as one of the most outrageous gore films ever made. Fulci is also famed for other contributions to the horror genre, including City of the Living Dead and The Beyond. In addition, although best known for his gore films, Fulci was also considered a successful director outside of the genre.


9. Terence Fisher

Hammer Films was a British production company that made dozens of horror films from the mid 1950’s to 1970, which dominated the horror market, and therefore played a key role in shaping the genre as we know it today. Terence Fisher worked for Hammer Films, and is one of the most prominent horror directors of the second half of the 20th Century. It is thanks to him that we have classic movies such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Mummy (1959). Fisher is considered to be the director that brought gothic horror, complete with sexual overtones, to the mainstream, concepts which are now huge aspects of modern day horror films. It is also thanks to Terence Fisher that famed actor Christopher Lee became a horror legend, as it was his roles in some of Fisher’s films that helped make him a household name.


8. Sam Raimi

For some people, the name Sam Raimi will conjure up images of the incredibly popular Spider-Man trilogy, but for horror fans, Raimi’s name will always represent something much darker. Sam Raimi as responsible for creating the cult Evil Dead series of films, which not only contains one of the great horror films in the form of the original installment, but also helped to develop an entire new genre: the horror comedy. Raimi brilliantly incorporated B-movie tropes and cinematic style along with genuinely scary stories, helping to create films which are both terrifying and highly entertaining. Although Raimi honed his skills through his Evil Dead series, he would continue to evolve his corner of the genre with his return to horror after the Spider-Man movies in 2009’s Drag Me to Hell. Although he may have moved away from the genre, he still remains an important figure in the history of horror movies.


7. Mario Bava

Italian filmmaker Mario Bava is famed for kick-starting what we know as the modern slasher film, as well as the giallo film genre (Italian produced murder mystery movies which contain elements of horror and eroticism). This began with hugely influential films including The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), whilst Bay of Blood (1971) is considered by most to be the movie that paved the way for the explosion of slasher films in the 1980’s. He was also known for creating fantastic gothic horror films such as Black Sunday (1960), plus 1965’s sci-fi/horror Planet of the Vampires, which was a thematic precursor to Alien. Anyone that considers themselves a fan of modern film or auteur directors including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton must check out his work, as they all cite his films as being very influential on their own.


6. Dario Argento

The third Italian filmmaker to grace this list, Dario Argento has had a huge impact on modern horror films, and is legendary for his work in the giallo subgenre. Dubbed “The Italian Hitchcock”, Argento has made some astonishing horror films, beginning with his first “animal” trilogy. This consisted of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972). After that came his most famous film, one that any horror buff must see, 1977’s Suspiria. Moving away from the constraints of giallo, Suspiria saw plot and character as secondary to sound and vision, creating a film that was as much a surreal piece of art as it was a horror movie. With stunning use of color and sound, it is a feast for the senses, and is now a cult classic that cemented him as one of the elite horror directors.


5. David Cronenberg

Famed for his very obscure films which blended horror and science fiction, David Cronenberg is considered to be one of the principal originators of a subgenre known as body horror, or venereal horror (and sometimes bio-horror). This style of film explores the fear of bodily transformations and infection, with the most famous example being Cronenberg’s The Fly, which is a hugely important film in the horror genre. Prior to this, Cronenberg had shown glimpses of his talent to make horrifying and unique films through Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and Scanners. All of these films contained wild and gruesome makeup, with The Fly earning an Academy Award for its unforgettable makeup. Since these fantastic films from the 70’s and 80’s, Cronenberg has taken his career in a slightly different direction and shown his diversity by delving into more dramatic movies, such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.


4. George A Romero

Zombies are immensely important to the horror genre, and we have witnessed a resurgence of zombie horror both in film and TV in the last 10 years or so. However, zombies would not be what they are today if it were not for George Romero. Widely considered to have invented the zombie movie, Romero horrified audiences with the enormously influential Night of the Living Dead in 1968. This launched a very successful zombie franchise, with Romero being attached to the majority of these projects (the last so far was in 2009). Not only did these films help define zombies, but the clever use of POV shots and use of verite was almost unprecedented in horror before (though they are now staples of the genre). Romero’s fingerprints are all over the horror genre, and we have him to thank for the many excellent zombie films out there.


3. Wes Craven

Wes Craven sadly passed away in 2015, which meant that horror and the entire film industry lost a true legend. He was prolific in the horror genre, and particularly the slasher sub-genre. Craven has a stunning body of work, with his most notable contributions being the famed A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Scream franchise, The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, The People Under the Stairs and Deadly Blessing. Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger is one of the most iconic horror villains, as is Ghostface from the Scream films, which brilliantly saw Craven satirize the sub-genre that he helped elevate. This shows that Craven knew how to create fun and thrilling horror flicks, but also terrifying ones that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Horror directors do often not get much credit, but Craven will always be remembered as one of the great filmmakers.

2. John Carpenter

A true horror visionary, John Carpenter is a remarkably influential horror director who has contributed some of the best horror and science fiction films of all-time. Many would consider his legendary Halloween (1978) film to be the greatest and most influential horror movie ever created, and it is still heavily studied and discussed to this day. Other masterpieces include The Thing (1982), and The Fog (1980) (as well as the Escape franchise outside of the horror genre). It is largely due to Halloween, however, that is why he is considered such a master, as this birthed the possibility of horror franchises and the ability to create fantastic and deeply affecting horror films on a shoestring budget. Not only was his use of Steadicam and POV shots seminal, but Carpenter is also famed for scoring his films. This includes the iconic Halloween theme which is so crucial to the franchise, and now the entire genre.

1. Alfred Hitchcock

It is hard to put into words just how much of an impact Alfred Hitchcock has had on the thriller and horror genres, and his influence can also be felt outside these genres. “The Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock pioneered many elements of psychological thriller and horror films, and his movies remain more thrilling and terrifying than most released today. Too often horror now relies on jump scares and special effects, but Hitchcock instead used slow building tension and suspense to create edge of your seat films which impacted audiences at the time like no other film. This is most notable with his most famous piece, Psycho (1960), which set a new level of acceptability for violence, deviant behavior and sexuality (horror staples) in American cinema. The Birds, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo and Dial M for Murder are just a small selection of his gripping, thrilling and terrifying movies.