While there are cinematic greats in every genre, there’s nothing quite like the relationship between horror fans and the “Masters of Horror” — filmmakers who have remained loyal to the genre throughout their prolific careers, churning out memorably macabre movies that helped shape the fandom and identities of fright fans around the world. In return, the horror crowd continues to support these filmmakers and their eerie endeavors — following their work into theaters, on home video, VOD & streaming, and even into the worlds of TV, video games and comic books.
Sometimes, the Masters are synonymous with the genre — such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Guillermo del Toro. Other times, they’re less prominent though equally proficient filmmakers — such as William Malone, Brian Yuzna and Jennifer Lynch.
Yet with the recent announcement of David Gordon Green and Danny McBride earning the reigns to the HALLOWEEN franchise, the polarizing fan reaction caused this writer to reflect on several prolific horror filmmakers who haven’t quite received their due respect from the horror community.
With that in mind, here are five filmmakers better known for their work outside the genre, but who truly deserve the label “Master of Horror”…
5. Clint Eastwood
Yes, that Clint Eastwood. The iconic actor who once filled the roles of Dirty Harry, The Man With No Name, and William Munny. The Oscar-winning filmmaker whose directorial efforts have garnered an accumulated $2.7 billion dollars. And, yes, a tried-and-true genre filmmaker, whose very first outing behind the camera was none other than PLAY MISTY FOR ME — a low-budget horror effort starring Jessica Walters (whom modern audiences may best recognize from ARCHER and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) as a murderous stalker targeting a radio DJ played by Eastwood himself.
But beyond PLAY MISTY FOR ME, Eastwood has not only furthered his horror filmmaking skills with intense thrillers and the occasional horror effort, but he’s also tipped his hat to his fandom of horror flicks as well: Whether it’s the dark turns in action flicks like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and SUDDEN IMPACT, the casting of PALE RIDER (which featured THE THING actors Richard Dysart and Charles Hallahan, THE FURY actress Carrie Snodgress, and Q THE WINGED SERPENT star Michael Moriarty, among others), or his own acting turns in horror offerings like TIGHTROPE (a film he co-directed without credit) and THE BEGUILED, Eastwood has long kept a candle lit for the horror genre.
Yet before you go thinking Eastwood is a one-hit horror wonder, not worthy of the “Master” crown, one might want to revisit such Eastwood directorial efforts as CHANGELING, BLOOD WORK and ABSOLUTE POWER — films that absolutely head into horror territory — as well as Eastwood’s episode of the genre anthology series AMAZING STORIES.
4. Tony Scott
While Ridley Scott certainly has high credentials in the horror world, having helmed ALIEN, HANNIBAL, PROMETHEUS, and the upcoming ALIEN: COVENANT, the late, great Tony Scott (Ridley’s brother) was a fantastic talent within the genre as well — even if he’s best known for his high-octane action fare. Of course, Scott’s most memorable horror offering was THE HUNGER, the hypnotic and bloody David Bowie-starring vampire film that has experienced a resurgence of late, due to the tragic passing of The Thin White Duke. THE HUNGER is a legitimately haunting and moving genre effort, and one that helped define Scott’s unmistakable visual style for years to come.
While Scott would employ suspense and bloodshed of a horror variety in many of his subsequent projects — including TRUE ROMANCE, REVENGE and MAN ON FIRE — his next explicit horror effort would come 13 years later with THE FAN, a film about a psychotic sports fan who becomes obsessed with a popular baseball player. Starring Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes, THE FAN was a critical and commercial failure upon its release in 1996, but time has been kind to the intense stalker flick, with De Niro’s performance and Scott’s direction making THE FAN worthy of a second look.
But Scott wasn’t done with the genre just yet — he would go on to direct two episodes of the horror anthology series THE HUNGER (the latter of which reunited the filmmaker with Bowie), while Tony and Ridley’s production entity Scott Free would go on to produce Joe Carnahan’s THE GREY, the television remake of Michael Crichton’s COMA, and Park Chan-Wook’s English-Language debut STOKER before Tony’s untimely passing.
3. Bob Balaban
For many film fans, Bob Balaban is best recognized as a talented and hilarious character actor who has worked with the best of the best — Steven Spielberg, Ken Russell, John Schlesinger, Wes Anderson, Frank Darabont, and many, many more. But what few know is that Bob Balaban has had a storied relationship with the horror genre that doesn’t nearly get the credit that it deserves.
In terms of his career at large, Balaban made his directorial debut behind the camera on the pilot of a little horror series called TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, and would later go on to helm small-screen scare fare such as EERIE, INDIANA, AMAZING STORIES, the 2002 revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and DEAD LAST. But where Balaban really made his mark on the genre was on the big screen, with two twisted horror comedies he directed back-to-back: PARENTS and MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK.
While the latter has certainly built a small cult audience over the years — especially considering the film’s early showcasing of Matthew Fox and Philip Seymour Hoffman — PARENTS became a video and cable staple for horror fans throughout the ‘90s, and recently received the Blu-ray treatment earlier this year courtesy of Vestron Video. On top of that, Balaban himself looks fondly upon PARENTS and its legacy; in a recent chat this writer had with Balaban for the final issue of Gorezone, Balaban claimed PARENTS was his most fun directorial effort, and was inspired to tackle the film by David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET, as well as his own childhood experiences.
2. Joel Schumacher
Though Schumacher gets a lot of flack from film nerds for his much-derided entries into the BATMAN cinematic franchise, the filmmaker deserves credit for his ambitious and diverse entries into the horror genre. Of course, Schumacher has made at least one tried-and-true horror classic with THE LOST BOYS, with another eerie effort, FLATLINERS, often lauded as a genre gem as well. But he’s also made several horror efforts that, if not extremely fun, are certainly respectable in their insanity.
Following FLATLINERS, it would be nearly a decade before SE7EN scribe Andrew Kevin Walker would bring Schumacher back to the horror genre with 8MM, the Nicolas Cage-starring thriller about the seedy and dark world of snuff filmmaking. 8MM would become a cult classic in its own right, and put Schumacher back on the map following the critical disembowelment of BATMAN & ROBIN. The director would return to the genre less than three years later with PHONE BOOTH, written by legitimate horror master Larry Cohen (originally pitched as a concept to Alfred Hitchcock), which became a commercial and critical smash.
Post-PHONE BOOTH, Schumacher’s genre work gets a bit more divisive — although also much crazier in nature. Schumacher’s next explicit horror offering was THE NUMBER 23, a bizarre and super-sleazy story about murder and mathematics starring Jim Carrey in an uncharacteristically dark turn. The film was a hit, but polarized critics and audiences alike. Schumacher’s next film, BLOOD CREEK, would end up debuting as a direct-to-video title — gory, psychological, and swinging for the fences, BLOOD CREEK had Nazi mad scientists and Nazi zombies before either hit the zeitgeist, as well as early turns from Michael Fassbender, Henry Cavill, Emma Booth and Shea Whigham. Lastly, Schumacher’s most current genre offering to date is TRESPASS — a home-invasion thriller that reunited Schumacher with Cage, even though the film itself is commonly considered a cinematic misfire. Hopefully, Schumacher has one more crazy fright flick in him to cap off his solid slate of scare fare.
1. Robert Zemeckis
Zemeckis has certainly had a multi-faceted career during his 45 years behind a camera, making his name as an FX-shepherding guru with films like BACK TO THE FUTURE, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? and FORREST GUMP before attempting to bring in the mo-cap revolution with THE POLAR EXPRESS, BEOWULF, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Since he’s returned to live-action dramas such as FLIGHT and ALLIED, one shouldn’t forget that Zemeckis has also made a major impact on horror filmmaking as well — starting all the way back when he worked as a writer on cult TV series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER.
Zemeckis’ first horror effort as a director came in the form of an AMAZING STORIES episode penned by Mick Garris, Tom McLoughlin and frequent co-writer Bob Gale, and featured a horror fan who helps enact black magic on an egomaniacal teacher (played by Christopher Lloyd). As a producer, Zemeckis would also be instrumental in bringing about HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT — arguably the most successful horror anthology series of all time — with Zemeckis directing no less than 3 episodes himself, including the Fred Dekker-penned Christmas horror classic “And All Through The House…” But his first big-screen genre gem would be DEATH BECOMES HER, displaying a phenomenal combination of Zemeckis’ love for twist-of-fate chillers, witty comedy, and the boundary-pushing use of SFX and CGI.
While Zemeckis wouldn’t be done with the horror genre as a director just yet, his production slate is filled with horror titles: beyond TALES FROM THE CRYPT feature spin-offs DEMON KNIGHT, RITUAL and BORDELLO OF BLOOD (on which Zemeckis also received a writing credit), he would bring Peter Jackson to America with THE FRIGHTENERS, produce HBO’s PERVERSIONS OF SCIENCE, and the family horror title MONSTER HOUSE. Zemeckis was also a driving force behind the Dark Castle production company — which produced horror films like William Malone’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THIRTEEN GHOSTS, HOUSE OF WAX, GOTHIKA, GHOST SHIP and THE REAPING.
But perhaps the crown jewel of Zemeckis’ horror-heavy resume is WHAT LIES BENEATH — a critical and commercial blockbuster that earned nearly $300 million worldwide, currently ranked the fifth-highest-grossing horror film of all time at the domestic box office, topped only by GHOSTBUSTERS, THE EXORCIST, JAWS, and THE SIXTH SENSE.