Top 10 – Modern masters of horror cinema

James Wan made one of the best horror movies of recent years with The Conjuring

It’s easy to take a look at the state of horror cinema and say that its best days are behind it. It feels like a long time since the likes of David Cronenberg, Wes Craven and John Carpenter were creating instantly iconic movies in the genre.

Now, the genre seems full of a glut of below-par found footage movies and lame haunted house flicks. However, there are a number of people working in horror that stand a cut above the rest.

These people are the new “masters of horror” and they show that the genre still has a bright future. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the cinema…


10. Elliot Goldner

Elliot Goldner directed found footage horror movie The Borderlands

Why do you know them? Writer-director – The Borderlands (2014)

Before he made The Borderlands, Elliot Goldner did not describe himself as a horror fan. But his tale of Vatican investigators exploring supernatural events at a secluded British church is a real triumph of genre filmmaking.

Relying on chills and a slow build-up rather than the instant catharsis of loud jump scares, the film is a real contender for scariest film of the year so far. Goldner’s direction is stellar, making the cavernous insides of a church just as terrifying as the claustrophobic tunnels that house the film’s terrifying climax.

The Borderlands is a very promising feature debut, mixing comedy with scares to great effect. Elliot Goldner is certainly a man worth watching in the horror genre.


9. Mike Flanagan

Mike Flanagan directed Doctor Who star Karen Gillan in Oculus

Why do you know them? Writer-director – Oculus (2014)

In a year that has mostly struggled to produce entertaining mainstream horror, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is a real stand-out. Adapting the tale of a malevolent mirror from his own short, Flanagan fought against the pressure to make a found footage movie, instead crafting a reality-bending tale that chills, confuses and terrifies in equal measure.

Oculus establishes Flanagan as an auteur with a distinct vision and a desire to make horror films that differ from the standard formula. His horror challenges the audience to think, which is something that’s all too rare nowadays.

His next film – Somnia – tells the story of an orphaned child whose nightmares manifest physically as he sleeps. With Flanagan at the helm, it’s surely set to be another hit.


8. Adam Wingard

Sharni Vinson played the strong heroine in Adam Wingard's home invasion horror You're Next

Why do you know them? Director – V/H/S (2012), You’re Next (2013), The Guest (2014)

The home invasion horror genre has seen some awful films in recent years, with James DeMonaco’s The Purge stinking up the genre last year. Fortunately, V/H/S alum Adam Wingard did something special in 2013 with the exhilarating and violent You’re Next.

You’re Next was a smart, witty and subversive slasher that really made an impact with its innovative kills and exciting premise. Wingard conjured up some impressive visuals throughout and ensured that, even in the blood-soaked melee of the third act, there was still a clarity to what was happening.

His next film, The Guest, featuring a mysterious household visitor, will appear in the UK next month and it’s sure to be an exciting one.


7. Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall made a real impact with claustrophobic horror The Descent

Why do you know them? Writer-director – Dog Soldiers (2002), The Descent (2005)

Geordie filmmaker Neil Marshall made one of the scariest movies of the 21st century with 2005 cave-based chiller The Descent.

Even before the group of daredevil women are stalked by the terrifying “crawlers”, Marshall creates an enormous amount of tension from the claustrophobic environment of the film’s cave. The entire film is a masterclass in how to make the most of setting.

In recent years, Marshall has moved away from horror cinema and has worked on TV, directing several episodes of Game of Thrones. Hopefully, he will return to making horror movies, because he’s really good at it.


6. Oren Peli

Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity franchise has been a box office juggernaut

Why do you know them? Writer-director – Paranormal Activity (2007), Producer – Insidious (2010), Chernobyl Diaries (2012), The Bay (2012)

Oren Peli is best known as the man who introduced the world to the now ubiquitous Paranormal Activity franchise. Whilst it was The Blair Witch Project that lit the fuse for the current found footage phenomenon, Paranormal Activity deserves a lot of the credit for keeping it going.

Whether you like the films or not, Paranormal Activity is a consistently profitable franchise that makes enough money to support more risky projects.

In recent years, he has moved further into a role as a producer, backing films like Insidious and Chernobyl Diaries. His films aren’t always the best, but there’s no doubting the fact that Peli sits high up the horror movie mountain.


5. Alexandre Aja

Alexandre Aja burst onto the scene with French hit Haute Tension (aka Switchblade Romance)

Why do you know them? Writer-director – Haute Tension (2003), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Director – Piranha 3D (2010)

French filmmaker Alexandre Aja burst onto the mainstream scene with twisty slasher Haute Tension (aka Switchblade Romance) in 2003. It wasn’t the perfect movie, but it married extreme gore with a tonne of suspense and a shocking twist ending.

He then moved on to become the master of the remake, taking on The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha and Maniac – with varying degrees of success. For horror fans, Aja’s name is now very familiar and his unique eye for depicting violence has made its mark.

His next film is Horns, starring Daniel Radcliffe, which seems very interesting indeed.


4. James Watkins

James Watkins directed Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman In Black

Why do you know them? Writer-director – Eden Lake (2008), Director – The Woman In Black (2012)

Anyone who doubts the ability of British filmmakers to craft a genuinely scary horror movie should immediately watch James WatkinsEden Lake. Starring an incendiary Jack O’Connell, it’s a mind-blowing compendium of grim violence and nail-biting suspense.

On the other side of the scale, The Woman In Black shows Watkins on more restrained form. It’s the perfect example of how a film can get under your skin by crafting a series of increasingly shocking jump scares.

Both films mark Watkins out as a real directorial talent, able to produce both a slick period piece and a grimy exploitation movie with equally stellar results.


3. Ben Wheatley

Kill List is the sophomore feature of British auteur Ben Wheatley

Why do you know them? Writer-director – Kill List (2011), A Field in England (2013), Director – Sightseers (2012)

Ben Wheatley is one of the most unique voices in modern British cinema. His work doesn’t really fit snugly into specific genres, but there’s certainly a horror influence in many of his movies.

Kill List shifts in its final act from a hitman movie to a horror in the vein of The Wicker Man. It’s a real sucker punch that forms a pay-off for the genuinely unsettling feeling of the whole movie. The same unsettling tone runs throughout the psychedelic A Field In England.

Wheatley works with tone above storyline, which is the perfect way to create tension. There’s nothing as scary as the unknown, and that’s where Ben Wheatley likes to live.


2. Scott Derrickson

Scott Derrickson directed the creepy hit Sinister

Why do you know them? Writer-director – The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Sinister (2012), Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

He’s about to helm Doctor Strange for Marvel, but Scott Derrickson earned his spot at the summit of Hollywood by virtue of some excellent work in the horror genre.

Sinister is one of the best horror movies of recent years and Deliver Us From Evil is currently doing decent business in cinemas. With Sinister, Derrickson took the suburban setting that has become so prevalent in modern horror and used it to craft a truly chilling tale.

Jump scares were used to great effect (that lawnmower) and the incredibly bleak ending was impressively brave. But the true star of Sinister was Derrickson, who conveyed the terror of the film perfectly.


1. James Wan

James Wan created the hugely successful Saw franchise

Why do you know them? Writer-director – Saw (2004), Director – Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013)

Alongside Paranormal Activity, the Saw franchise was one of the most popular and lengthy institutions of post-millennium horror cinema. Before the gore and plot contrivances became second nature, it all began in 2004 with director James Wan’s stripped-down chiller. Despite the film’s failings, it’s a great example of how to get a solid movie out of a simple premise.

Wan is now best known for his work in the haunted house genre, with the double whammy of Insidious and The Conjuring. The latter is the perfect modern haunted house movie, just as happy creating tension slowly as it is with cheap jump scares.

He is now stepping away from the genre to make the next film in the Fast & Furious franchise, but James Wan is without doubt a new master of horror and he will almost certainly return to the genre.

I certainly hope so.


Are there any important filmmakers I left off this list? Do you think these masters of horror will continue to make an impact in the future?

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