Last month I argued that the title “Masters of Horror” should have been bestowed upon a brand new generation of filmmakers a long time ago. So I put a handful of the most obvious names into the hat just to get the conversation started (folks like Guillermo Del Toro and James Wan, for example) but of course I didn’t want to make that list “official” because declaring the new Masters of Horror shouldn’t be up to me, and it shouldn’t even be up to this website. These are decisions that should be made by everyone in the horror community, as a collective group of fans and filmmakers. So instead I asked our readers to fill out the ranks by commenting on the article on social media.
I have been paying close attention to the reactions, and taking note of the filmmakers whose names seemed to come up most often in those comments, in order to prepare this second installment. The original rules were that in order to be declared a new “Master of Horror,” all of the filmmakers in question should have risen to prominence in the last 20 years, and directed multiple feature-length horror movies, most of them good, including at least one masterpiece. In other words, they all need to be dedicating their careers to this genre.
There are several filmmakers who were nominated, by a lot of people, but who only have one horror credit on their resumé so far. That impressive list includes artists like Leigh Janiak (HONEYMOON), Jennifer Kent (THE BABADOOK), Ana Lily Amirpour (A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT) and Robert Eggers (THE WITCH). All those filmmakers have directed one masterpiece already, that’s for certain, but calling them a “Master of Horror” feels a little premature, if only because we’re still waiting to see whether they commit their whole career to the genre or whether they decide to branch out of it, like so many promising filmmakers before them (e.g. Kathryn Bigelow, Bill Condon, James Cameron, etc.).
Either way, this was always intended to be an ongoing conversation. As more horror films come out and as more horror filmmakers find their audience, we are definitely going to be able to expand on the ranks of our contemporary “Masters of Horror” as time goes on… which is as it should be.
What follows are the six qualifying directors whose names seemed to come up most often, and with the most fervor, in response to the previous column. Congratulations to all of these filmmakers! They have earned our respect and admiration.
Masterpieces: JENNIFER’S BODY, THE INVITATION
Karyn Kusama was originally slated to be on our original list of Masters of Horror, but only two of her many directing credits (so far) technically belonged in the horror genre, leading to some internal debate about whether that averages out. What became clear from the fan response, however, was that JENNIFER’S BODY and THE INVITATION are amazing enough to qualify her for Master of Horror status. Besides, with her installment of the horror anthology XX on the horizon, it seems Kusama is now making the horror genre a regular fixture in her filmography.
JENNIFER’S BODY and THE INVITATION are both exceptional films. The teen succubus story JENNIFER’S BODY didn’t find a very large audience upon its original release, but its smart and satirical portrayal of adolescence is aging very well. With each passing year it seems more and more like JENNIFER’S BODY will be our generation’s HEATHERS. And Kusama’s most recent film, THE INVITATION, was released earlier this year to ecstatic reactions. The movie tells a mature and disturbing story about the way different people cope with grief, filled with exceptional performances and at least one unforgettable moment that nobody should ruin.
Kusama is an undeniably masterful horror filmmaker, and we all clearly want to see her work even more often in the genre.
Mike Flanagan has been directing since the early 2000s, but he finally segued into the horror genre with the 2011 thriller ABSENTIA. His short film OCULUS: CHAPTER 3 — THE MAN WITH THE PLAN eventually paved the way for the acclaimed feature length supernatural thriller OCULUS, which was ostensibly about a haunted mirror, but more pointedly captured the nightmare of living with abuse. It’s a twisted tale, equally sad and frightening.
Mike Flanagan also received rave reviews for his Netflix Original movie HUSH, about a deaf woman fighting off a homicidal maniac. He has two other anticipated horror features — BEFORE I WAKE and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL due out later this year. His panache for character-driven scares led him to be a popular fan choice to take over the now-available HALLOWEEN franchise, even though he has recently debunked those rumors. Either way, he’s a master on the rise.
THE SOSKA SISTERS
Masterpiece: AMERICAN MARY
Jen and Sylvia Soska have some of the most dedicated fans in the horror community, and it’s easy to see why. Their horror films are all energized with a rare sympathy for outcast characters, inviting audiences to find common ground with the types of people who are otherwise frequently marginalized. Their stories and also their collective personae are welcoming to all… especially if you’re twisted.
Their crowning achievement (so far) is AMERICAN MARY, a demented tour through illegal medical practices, surgical addiction and the mind of a woman who – through victimization and then empowerment – appears to be transforming in front of our very eyes into something akin to a classic Batman villain. It is a story about personal devolution, but ironically it’s the story of a woman who helps her patients evolve into whatever they wish to become. AMERICAN MARY is sad and distinctive and powerful filmmaking, and the work of not one, but two masters.
Masterpiece: THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL
Ti West doesn’t make typical horror movies. His best films – the ones he seems to have the most control over – are measured and suspenseful dramas that just happen to have horrifying elements. THE INNKEEPERS ostensibly has ghosts in it, but it functions even better as a tale of friendship and workplace malaise. THE SACRAMENT is the story of a cult, but it lets the audience live in an otherwise idyllic place for a very long time before it finally reveals whether or not we should even be scared.
The filmmaker’s most masterful tease, however, comes in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, a 1980s period piece about a woman who ignores all the red flags of a strange babysitting job, and then reaps unexpected consequences. The film consists largely of its heroine ignoring and failing to pick up on horrifying clues that make the audience want to scream for her to flee for her life. It could have been interminable. Instead, it’s riveting. And when it does finally kick in, it kicks like hell.
At his best, there aren’t any contemporary filmmakers quite like Ti West. And that’s why his fans love him, and consider him a master.
Eli Roth can be a polarizing figure in the horror community. His films have passionate fans but also some passionate detractors. Whatever side you land on, he has made his presence known, and he has arguably become a brand unto himself, directing a series of confrontational motion pictures about frequently unlikable people, who then suffer brutal torment at the hands of karma, or at the hands of even more unlikable people, or both.
While CABIN FEVER and THE GREEN INFERNO have their supporters, it seems as though HOSTEL is the film for which Eli Roth is most consistently praised. It’s particularly fitting material for his sensibilities, challenging audiences to sympathize with oversexed, irresponsible “dude bros” after they are made into the helpless victims of rich sociopathic monsters. We are forced to re-contextualize our responses to their behavior in HOSTEL, and acknowledge the humanity of characters who might otherwise have been unappealing. It’s a sickening but potent tale, and to many, it has made Eli Roth a Master of Horror.
Masterpieces: THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, THE LORDS OF SALEM
Another polarizing figure, the heavy metal musician known as Rob Zombie segued from the stage to the director’s chair in the early 2000s, embracing an in-your-face carnival aesthetic that could be scary, could be abrasive, and could sometimes be brilliant. His grindhouse stylings and uncomfortable empathy for ultraviolent maniacs reached an apex in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, a sequel to HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES that has since dwarfed the original in popularity, thanks to its extreme dedication to scuzz and amorality, as well as some particularly impressive performances.
Rob Zombie’s two HALLOWEEN remakes have some serious detractors, however, who argue that his attempt to rationalize Michael Myers’ madness missed the point of the series. But of late the two films have been experiencing a critical reevaluation, one that may improve their popularity over time, because if nothing else they are clearly their own entity and the work of a director with his own distinctive vision.
But perhaps his true masterpiece is THE LORDS OF SALEM, which stars Sheri Moon Zombie as a radio DJ who falls prey to a witch’s curse, and is forced to endure a particularly unsettling detachment from reality. Zombie films this story like a drug-addled anxiety attack, and the rich characterization of the protagonist gives Sheri Moon Zombie the material she needs to deliver her best and most nuanced performance.
What Rob Zombie perhaps boasts more than anything else is the stamp of a genuine auteur. His movies may not appeal to everybody but they are unmistakably his own personal artistic expressions. That’s a big part of why they have found such a dedicated audience of horror fans, who consider him to be a true master of the genre.