Monday, July 30, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #16: Best and Most Promising Horror Directors, Now?

A reader, Jerry, asks:

“Part 1, who are the best directors working right now in the horror genre?  And part 2, who are the most promising directors? 

P.S. Don’t just list your favorite ‘classic’ directors who you have written books about, i.e. John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Tobe Hooper.”

Very interesting question, Jerry. Thanks for sending it along.

I’m going to interpret your use of the word “now” to mean a director who has either just had a film in the genre released, or is in the process of having one released in the next few months.

By that definition, I’d have to assert that the best directors working in the horror genre -- or its vicinity -- right now, circa late 2012, are.

Ridley Scott.  Scott boasts a painter’s eye and a philosopher’s mind.  As a director, he reveals an almost unequaled capacity to frame his stories in symbolic ways.  Certainly Prometheus reveals his visual acumen, and his unswerving ability to forge a horror story that impresses and makes itself available to interpretation on many levels simultaneously. 

There’s a chilly, intellectual quality to Prometheus that makes it a legitimate horror genre corollary to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  I have a feeling that Scott doesn’t view himself as a “horror” director, per se, but certainly the artist gave us this summer’s most high-profile, most visually-accomplished, and most intriguing fright film.  You have to take the nitpickers with a grain of salt here.  In ten years, Prometheus will be remembered as an absolute apex of the form.

Brian De Palma. We can look forward to this directors’ next psychological horror effort, Passion in early 2013, so we’ll know more about how, precisely, he’s doing at that point. 

But for my money, no contemporary film director is better able to arouse fierce passion, scintillating fear and mind-shattering anxiety via the brilliant application of film grammar.  De Palma’s films are intellectual exercises – almost like games or puzzles, to be precise -- but also lush, ecstatic affairs that revel in poetic and, yes, manipulative imagery.   

If Ridley Scott gazes at and considers the pitfalls we face when reckoning with great human issues (like immortality and the existence of God), I see De Palma as an artist who knows how to viscerally exploit our frailties and emotional weaknesses as a species.  Together, these two directors are almost a perfect yin-yang, actually.

Part 2 of your question involves “promising” horror directors.  By promising, I mean that their most recent work reveals the seed of future artistic success.

Right now, I put Ti West at the top of that category.  His two recent genre films, House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2012) are brilliant works of art, and perhaps even neo-classics of the form.  Time will tell for certain.  I know some folks consider West overrated, but a director who made those two films – back to back, no less – deserves all the hosannas the press can think up.

I am also keeping my eyes on Gregg Holtgrewe, the director who gave us the low-budget and deeply unsettling Dawning (2009).  With almost no resources available to draw upon, and a familiar setting to contend with (a cabin in the woods), Holtgrewe made unconventional cutting and composition choices that breathed vivid life into his film. There’s no monster Dawning and yet it is filled with dread and disquietude.

I just screened Mike Flanagan’s Absentia (2011), and came away similarly impressed by that director’s capacity to forge feelings of apprehension and even panic, also with very little by way of production values.

I hope that answers your question!  

Don't forget, send your questions for me at  I'm about a week behind at this point, but working through them. Keep 'em coming!


  1. Hi John and readers,

    While I wouldn't consider myself a horror movie nut, I do like the form. My pick for best director working in the horror genre, in recent years, would be Maurice Devereaux. See End of the Line (2006). That's enough proof, for me... even if the director has not followed up since then.

    1. Hi Barry,

      I must admit, I am woefully ignorant about both Maurice Deveraux and End of the Line (2007). I will read up on it, and see the film. My curiosity is aroused, now...


  2. Well, John Carpenter’s The Ward was 2010, and despite its dismissal by critics and the general filmgoing public alike, I for one really dig that film; an admittedly generic premise elevated by assured filmmaking/storytelling craft, and yet another endeavor from the director that deserves study by fans of the genre. So Carpenter’s still my fav’ from the established roster. And though he’s not a horror director per se, I think Scorsese deserves special mention for Shutter Island, which I thought was a whole lotta fun. For that matter, there’s also Cronenberg and Lynch ...but I digress: Carpenter it is.

    As for up'n'comers, I don’t know, Mat Reeves maybe? Who directed The Woman in Black, James Watkins..? That one was a nice return to classical form.

    P.S. I'm not the biggest De Palma fan (sorta hit and miss for me) but I am looking forward to Passion

    1. Cannon,

      I'm with you 100% on The Ward. I also thought it was a great Carpenter film, and one that deserved a much better reception than it received. I also liked Shutter Island.

      I have it in my list to review The Woman in Black, which I screened recently, and I agree with your assessment that it felt like a "nice return" to classical form. Well said!


  3. Ridley Scott. Scott is among my fave director. I would agree undoubtedly that Scott does not think of himself as a genre director, and I myself am not sure that just 2 horror films in 33 years would qualify him as one. Even though those 2 are amongst the best ever made in any decade, by any director.

    Brian Depalma. Absolutely love B.D's work, he should definitely take a seat next to Scott, but it is also hard to see where he is a horror film director. It seems to me that his films slant to suspense thrillers as opposed to horror. Not a huge fan of his film 'Carrie', but the ending of that film did give one of films' great jump scares, tantamout to Jason jumping out of the water at the end of 'Friday the 13th'. Sisters, The Fury, Dressed To Kill, I would not classify any of these films as horror.

    Ti West. Loved both his films, he understands what makes horror films scary in a fundamental way that most new jack directors do not comprehend. Cannot wait until he has a real budget to work with. The kid has got skills.

    Gregg Holtgrewe. John I read your review of 'Dawning' & you gave it such a glowing review that I had to go out and rent it. Not as impressed as you were with it, but it was a interesting, totally ambiguous film and I did enjoy it.

    I would have added James Wan along with Ti West. 'Dead Silence' and 'Insidious', while flawed films, had some great set ups. IMO...Wan, like Ti West, understands what makes scary films scary.

    BTW....when are you taking questions again and where would I send one to you at?

    1. Hi Trent,

      I agree with your assessment here. I was trying to limit the possibilities by defining "now" in a very limited sense: six months back/release six months from now. In those terms, Ridley Scott just delivered a new classic, and De Palma is moving back to a form that I feel he's mastered.

      You get at an important point regarding how to define horror here. I mean, is Psycho horror? I say it is. Is Halloween? If Hallowee and Psycho are part of the horror genre, then certainly it must also include The Fury and Dressed to Kill. It's tough, in terms of nomenclature, I agree with you.

      We agree on Ti West too. He is a truly impressive director, and has two solid hits on his hand. I hope he continues the excellent work. I love Gregg Holtgrewe's Dawning, and think he's got a lot more to show us.

      I was also troubled psychically -- in a good way -- by Insidious. He was a good director to bring up as well.

      Send your questions to me, my friend, at I look forward to receiving them.


  4. Anonymous11:52 AM

    I wasnt sure where to post another question from a reader so here goes hoping you will receive it.
    Have you considered doing a review of the "seven" series? By that I mean a comparative review of The Seven Samurai, Magnificent Seven (original only), and Battle Beyond the Stars. Some have added other films to that category but begin to stretch it I think with films like Tears of the Sun by Antone Fuqua or the Dogs of War which was a novel by Forsyth. Certainly these films have inspired many others particularly with the mercenaries save the peasants theme and others.
    Thanks, a reader, Rick.

    1. Hi Rick,

      Thanks for sending along this question. I appreciate you taking the time to pose it, and I'm very intrigued by the idea you present here. I'll respond fully to this question this Thursday PM!


  5. This is somewhat of a necro-post, however I would like to amend my earlier post re: DePalma's filmography and his classification of his films. As I have stated before, I am reading your book 'Horror Films of the 90's' and I came across a review that has just changed my entire disposition. Your review of 'Pacific Heights', a film that I would not have considered horror at all, hit home for me with your astute observations. The idea of the 'interloper' as pure evil from the onset, well....I understand now that a film like 'Pacific Heights' can indeed be horror. A film, I might add that has almost no bloodshed and one death, then certainly the Depalma films can be considered horror. As usual, I have been enlightened.


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