In the 1970s and 1980s, a horror renaissance rocked the film industry, riding on the wave of George Romero’s 1969 low-budget zombie breakout Night of the Living Dead. There was a general feeling that something special was happening, where even directors as esteemed as Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg, and Peter Medak were flocking to the genre, while others more dedicated to horror, like Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven were pushing the goal posts for scares. Even though the enthusiasm for innovative horror waned somewhat in the past couple of decades, with notable exceptions from the likes of Craven and newcomers like James Wan, the special feeling of a “movement” in horror seems to have finally returned, and with it a new class of the Masters of Horror who will lead us through the dark.
Whittling this list to 21 was a near-impossible task when you’ve got so many visionary filmmakers working in the genre, including queen Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), the Soska sisters (Rabid), Julia Ducournau (Raw), Coralie Fargeat (Revenge), Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer), Chelsea Stardust (Satanic Panic), Ana Asensio (Most Beautiful Island), Nia DaCosta (the upcoming Candyman), Na Hong-jin (The Wailing), Ti West (The Innkeepers), Jorge Michel Grau (We Are What We Are), Jennifer Wexler (The Ranger), Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves), Mattie Do (Dearest Sister), Gigi Guerrero (Culture Shock), Xander Robin (Are We Not Cats), and Demian Rugna (Terrified). (That’s not to mention producers like Jason Blum, dedicating their professional lives to scaring us stupid; but we’re limiting this roll call to directors, though some of those produce, as you’ll see. )
The list goes on and on, but here’s 21 that have made our blood pump and eyes pop recently, and are pushing the genre forward with every new work they make.
Ari Aster, much like George Romero, did not see himself as a horror director before his breakout debut. Hereditary, starring Toni Collette in an awards-worthy performance, is a family drama that plays out like one long exhilarating gasp for breath. Aster’s follow-up, Midsommar digs around in the same psychological playground, though this time covering the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Both films recategorize the meaning of “scare,” as Aster mines the terror of simply being uncomfortable with other people to a nearly wacky psycho-comedy effect.
What else is there to say about Jordan Peele? He single-handedly proved that black people want to see themselves in horror films and that other people all over the world would like to see it too. His films stray so far from what many would deem commercially acceptable — a lengthy monologue about inequality delivered amongst a bunch of rabbits in a kind of magical basement world? And yet his stories are compelling because they’re unlike anything else in theaters, their cinematic influences evident but not overbearing. Peele’s making horror weird again, and he’s making it matter.
When Jennifer Kent’s debut horror The Babadook shocked audiences, the potential for horror to mine desperate grief came into 20/20 view. Not only that, but distinctly down-and-dirty, terrible, feminine grief. It’s not unusual for horror films to star women — this has been a defining characteristic of the genre — but it was unusual to see a heroine slowly morph into a highly relatable villain in such a visceral manner. In her newest film The Nightingale, Kent continues to push her heroines past a point of likeability with an eye on doing away with the “strong woman” trope that has rendered so many female characters into caricatures of femininity.
Mike Flanagan has toiled in the genre fields for almost two decades, writing, directing, and editing his own films, which included Ghosts of Hamilton Street, Absentia, Oculus, and Hush, before he got his name-making box office hit, Ouija: Origin of Evil. Flanagan has a rare ability to please mainstream audiences while still pushing boundaries of horror, as he did with the wildly popular Haunting of Hill House Netflix series, which, among other cool tricks, hid a number of ghosts in the frame. That kind of subtle innovation comes from a filmmaker who’s familiar with all tools at their disposal, and his adaptation of a sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, is much anticipated for that reason.
Mexican director Issa Lopez made a name for herself in her native country by directing a series of comic films, but her debut horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid (trailer above) couldn’t have been a bigger departure from her earlier career. Filled with wonder and grit and meaningful insights into childhood, trauma, and the human soul in the harshest environment imaginable, the film has been racking up fans and awards long before its U.S. release on Shudder. Guillermo del Toro luckily saw the film and immediately signed up to produce her next movies, so this Master in the making is already well on her way.
Speaking of Guillermo del Toro, it’s difficult to overstate how much of a boon for horror this visionary director has been, but del Toro was pioneering new directions for horror years before it came back in fashion. From Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone all the way up to Pan’s Labyrinth and the slept-on Crimson Peak, del Toro’s body of work feels so ingrained in the culture that it’s almost easy to take him for granted. Not to mention that he’s spent a great deal of time championing the newer generation of horror directors like Issa Lopez, Scott Cooper, and André Øvredal, producing double the number of films he directs himself. He is, for all intents and purposes, the godfather of the new Masters of Horror.
This pair of collaborators burst on the scene with last year’s Netflix horror hit, Cam (pictured above), about a cam girl sex worker whose identity is stolen and used against her. In a novel twist, the film was also respectful of women, Johns, and sex workers, never resorting to staid clichés, signaling that the pair could inclusively expand the frontiers of horror. Announcements for their next project with Blumhouse have been thin, but the film is certainly driven by women, and they’ll also be wading into TV horror with a segment for Quibi’s new 50 States of Fear.
Martyrs (pictured above) is not what many would call an easy film to watch. But Pascal Laugier’s most notorious feature is quite masterful. A story that opens like a revenge flick but closes with a hammer-to-the-nose of philosophical insights into perceived womanhood and spirituality, Martyrs follows in the New French Extremity footsteps of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. After Martyrs, Laugier tried his hand at American horror with Jessica Biel starrer The Tall Man, but returned to his roots in 2018’s Incident in a Ghostland. Laugier shows that gore with a brain is on the menu for horror fans.
In 2013, Argentine director Andy Muschietti had an international hit on his hands with Mamá, about a young couple who take in their two young nieces but find that a malicious supernatural entity has decided they’re her next victims of a haunting. The film starred Jessica Chastain, setting up Muschietti’s desire to make genre but with actors of high esteem attached, which led to his re-envisioning Stephen King’s It in a two-movie release, vaunted for its playful but serious take on the story. Next up, Muschietti’s going the monster route with an adaptation of Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan, and is rumored to be directing DC’s The Flash.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is not a newcomer by any means. He’s been working steadily in genre and outside of it since the 1980s, as a critic, commercial artist, and a creative filmmaker. In 2001, he released his most well-known cult film Pulse, but his recent return to genre suggests he’s not quite finished being a Master. In 2016, he released Creepy, a thrilling hardboiled mystery, which he then followed up with Before We Vanish, which is an alien invasion story equal parts horror and humor that opens with a risky, bloody bang.
The Eyes of My Mother (pictured above), Nicolas Pesce’s debut feature, bucks so many contemporary trends of horror, shot in black and white like a high-art film but with the creeping childishness of Tobe Hooper. He followed that up with a Cronenberg Crash-style film called Piercing that turns a sex-torture story into a screwball comedy of errors and power dynamics. Pesce’s films explore loneliness and connection with wry humor, and yet somehow it’s his visual style, evocative of classic films filled with texture and tactile pleasantness like every object has meaning and purpose, that make him a new Master.
Anna Biller’s version of horror feels akin to classic fairy tales. They are rife with artifice yet also completely honest. Focused on sex and sexuality but coy and childlike. There is the sense that the director is telling the story of the world as it is while simultaneously wishing the world to be different. Viva is more an off-kilter soapy drama, while her film The Love Witch (pictured above) more fully embodies horror. Rumor has it she’s been shopping another horror story based on the Bluebeard tale, but be patient for her next one: Biller’s obsessive about costuming, locations, and production design, and makes most everything herself, which is a time-consuming act but is ultimately the key to her success as a modern Master.
Half the fun of Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s debut feature The Lure (pictured above) is describing it for those who don’t know: a gritty, glittery Polish mermaid horror disco musical. The film was a time capsule of Cold War-era dancing clubs, mixed with classic fairy tales and contemporary rage-filled feminism. Music that’s as catchy as it is dark and an almost surreal, theatrical production design set The Lure apart, earning it an almost instant Criterion release. Her follow-up, Fugue, looks inward for a more cerebral melodrama of psychological terror, with the kind of innovative camera work and sensitivity that display Smoczynska’s ability to play with mind as well as body in her horror.
Peter Strickland digested decades of Italian gore and giallo films, then washed it down the exploitation work of Jess Franco and spit out such atmospheric insta-classics as Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy. His newest film In Fabric (poster above) had so much hype and magic behind it that A24 quickly snapped it up out of the festivals. Both eerie and ethereal, In Fabric tells the story of a murderous red dress; like a chilling version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, this thing will fit everyone but also kill them. And like his predecessors, Strickland squeezes every inch of terror out of sound design and trippy, mirrored effects, perfectly marrying the past with the present.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s low-budget indie hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (pictured above) thrilled for its simple but fully realized black-and-white graphic novel aesthetics. It’s not every filmmaker whose first film creates some of the most memorable iconography in recent horror film history, but Amirpour’s vision of a young woman gliding on a skateboard with her veil flowing behind her struck a chord for women, a seeming statement about feminine violence and traditional values butting up against Western ideals. Her follow-up The Bad Batch was a sunny apocalyptic trip through the desert, but in the meantime she directed a beloved episode of the new Twilight Zone and has been attached to the remake of Cliffhanger.
Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow (pictured above) broke new ground in folk horror and is a rare Certified Fresh at 99%. In it, he exploited the tale of jinn, those malevolent spirits of Islamic mythology, but grounded the story in the very real cultural conflict of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, as told through a belabored mother who’d much rather finish her medical degree than stay at home with the young daughter who acts almost like an anchor to a more traditional life. Vivid and tense, the film found an international audience, leading to his newest release, an American production called Wounds and a new television series titled North American Lake Monsters, where Anvari can further dig into local lore.
David F. Sandberg’s short “Lights Out” terrified audiences internationally with a simple light trick that harkened back to the early days of horror. That short, made for nothing and starring his charismatic wife Lotta Losten, was then developed into a feature starring Teresa Palmer. James Wan continued to help Sandberg develop his career, giving him a spot in The Conjuring franchise, directing Annabelle: Creation. Sandberg has temporarily waded into superheroes with the lighthearted Shazam!, but he’s stated he’s looking forward to coming back to horror real soon, hopefully utilizing the same creative low-budget ideas that gave him his big break.
Speaking of James Wan, no Masters of Horror list would be complete without the Aussie who harnessed the powers of surprise and low budgets to flip the entire industry on its head with the Saw and Insidious franchises, and then again with The Conjuring. He’s the pop filmmaker of our time, delivering the kind of popcorn fare that actually brings people to the theater, a rare feat. Like his Mexican counterpart Guillermo del Toro, Wan is also producing others’ work at a breakneck pace, passing the torch to his longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell, and Patrick Brice, Akela Cooper, and Michael Chaves.
Starry Eyes wasn’t Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s first feature, but it was the one that got them long applause at SXSW and a whole lot of horror cred with its black comic take on the entertainment industry, imagining the casting couch as a place to reap souls for Satan. Alex Essoe’s performance as a desperate starlet was one for the history books. At times gruesome and wacky, the film got them the gig remaking Pet Sematary and working on the Scream TV series.
Robert Eggers may be known for The VVitch, but he might also be known for his obsessively detailed nature, which had him mastering settler’s English for the script and getting the period details correct down to the tiniest nib, likely from his time as a production and costume designer in theater and film. Like Kubrick before him, Eggers is intent on crafting worlds, and his newest film The Lighthouse (pictured above), though more horror-adjacent than his debut, is just as meticulous, digging again into hysteria and how isolation and harsh environments can unravel the mind.
Sophia Takal’s trajectory into horror began with low-budget psychological romps through feminine hysteria, in both Green and then her more defined follow-up Always Shine (pictured above), which pitted two young actresses against one another in a remote Big Sur cabin. Her episode of Into the Dark marked an entry into the world of slashers, marrying the cerebral with the bloody physical, and her next film, a remake of the very first slasher, Black Christmas [disclosure: the author of this article is the co-writer of this film], will test that marriage and the viability of slashers in general in this day and age.
Don’t see our favorite horror filmmaker above? Let us know whose scares you’re loving right now in the comments.