Total Recall

Total Recall: Directors Who Started in Horror

With Paranormal Activity 2 hitting theaters, we look at some notable directors who got their starts in the fright game.

by | October 22, 2010 | Comments

Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity made all kinds of money last year — and it also launched the career of director Oren Peli, who used its $193 million worldwide gross as a gateway to projects like the upcoming Area 51. The jury is still out on Mr. Peli’s career, but with Paranormal Activity 2 opening this week, we got to thinking about some of the other directors who got their start in horror, and it’s a pretty impressive list. Though it isn’t the most critically respected genre on the block, horror has often acted as a breeding ground for scary levels of Hollywood talent, and the seven directors profiled in this week’s Total Recall are proof!


John Sayles

Bloody Beginnings: Like a couple of other directors on this list, Sayles got an early break from Roger Corman, who used Sayles’ screenwriting skills for 1978’s Piranha. This started a pretty good horror run for Sayles, who also wrote Alligator (1980) and The Howling (1981) to pay the bills for more contemplative fare, like 1980’s The Return of the Secaucus 7. It’s a pattern he’s followed throughout his career, alternating between thoughtful (and often critically lauded) dramas and paycheck gigs like his script rewrites for The Fugitive and Apollo 13.

Non-Horror Highlights: There are plenty to choose from — both 1987’s Matewan and 1992’s Passion Fish boast 100 percent Tomatometers, and The Secret of Roan Innish (1994, 100 percent), City of Hope (1991, 93 percent), and Baby It’s You (1983, 93 percent) aren’t far behind. For a real sense of Sayles’ breadth as an artist, schedule a triple bill of any of the above, Piranha, and the delightfully strange Brother from Another Planet (1984, 92 percent).

What’s Next: It’s anyone’s guess as to when (or if) it’ll finally reach theaters, but Sayles has reportedly been commissioned to write the script for the fourth Jurassic Park.


Sam Raimi

Bloody Beginnings: While other kids were collecting action figures and secret decoder rings, Raimi was making movies with his dad’s Super 8 camera — and his pal Bruce Campbell. They proved it was more than just a hobby with 1978’s Within the Woods, a 30-minute short with a minuscule budget ($1,400) and a storyline that would form the basis for The Evil Dead in 1981. More than $1.2 billion in worldwide grosses (and two Evil Dead sequels) later, Campbell’s one of the most beloved cult actors currently working, and Raimi is one of the few directors who can move between genre fare (Drag Me to Hell) and blockbusters (Spider-Man).

Non-Horror Highlights: The 1999 Kevin Costner baseball drama For Love of the Game (64 percent); 1990’s pulpy cult classic Darkman (78 percent); 1998’s subtly creepy thriller A Simple Plan (90 percent); and, of course, the first two Spider-Man movies, which weigh in at 89 and 93 percent, respectively.

What’s Next: He’s been rumored to direct a Warcraft movie and a new Shadow picture, but it looks like Raimi’s next project will be Oz, the Great and Powerful, a Wizard of Oz prequel starring Robert Downey, Jr.


Oliver Stone

Bloody Beginnings: Before he was the award-winning iconoclast behind films such as Platoon and JFK, Oliver Stone cut his filmmaking teeth on a pair of horror flicks: 1974’s Seizure, starring Herve “Tattoo” Villechaize and Troy Donohue, and 1981’s The Hand, starring Michael Caine as a cartoonist whose severed hand takes on a murderous life of its own. A far cry from the Oscar-approved stuff Stone would direct in the 1980s and 1990s, in other words — but also arguably a lot more fun than 2008’s Bush biopic W..

Non-Horror Highlights: It’s become fashionable to deride his efforts, but Stone’s career is filled with highlights, from his screenwriting credits (including Scarface and Midnight Express) to his work behind the camera, which has earned nine Oscars and counting. The cream of the crop: 1986’s Salvador (91 percent) and Platoon (86 percent), 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July (89 percent), 1991’s JFK (83 percent), and 1988’s somewhat underrated Talk Radio (80 percent).

What’s Next: Now that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is out of the way, Stone will reportedly turn his full focus to a documentary series titled Oliver Stone’s Secret History of America.


Peter Jackson

Bloody Beginnings: His films have earned a combined $1.3 billion and 20 Oscars — not bad for a guy who got his start with the aptly named low-budget alien invasion picture Bad Taste, the violent puppet cult classic Meet the Feebles, and the gory zombie comedy Dead Alive. It wasn’t until 1994’s Heavenly Creatures that Jackson was able to turn his penchant for dark fantasy into something a little more, shall we say, serious — and pick up the first of his many Academy Award nominations in the process.

Non-Horror Highlights: Though criticized for its length, Jackson’s King Kong remake (2005, 83 percent) stands on its own — albeit not as tall as Heavenly Creatures (1994, 95 percent) or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, whose installments weigh in at 92, 96, and 94 percent on the Tomatometer.

What’s Next: Perhaps you’ve heard that Jackson will be directing a small independent feature titled The Hobbit — or the sequel to the upcoming Adventures of Tintin, which he’s co-producing with Steven Spielberg.


Francis Ford Coppola

Bloody Beginnings: His name is synonymous with classics like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, but film buffs know that Francis Ford Coppola got his start as a member of the Roger Corman stable of filmmakers, where he co-directed the Boris Karloff feature The Terror and made his solo directorial debut with 1963’s Dementia 13. When Coppola helmed Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992, he wasn’t just bringing the world’s most famous vampire back to life at the box office, he was returning to his roots.

Non-Horror Highlights: Like you need us to tell you, but take a look at these critical winners: The Godfather (1972, 100 percent), The Conversation (1974, 98 percent), The Godfather, Part II (1974, 98 percent), Apocalypse Now (1979, 98 percent), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986, 88 percent), and the list goes on. In fact, following Coppola’s directorial output in descending Tomatometer order, you’d have to go through a full ten films before reaching Rotten territory — with Dementia 13 (59 percent).

What’s Next: Coppola’s currently out making the promotional rounds for the new Apocalypse Now Blu-ray set (read his Rotten Tomatoes interview here!) and serving as executive producer for On the Road, starring Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, and Kristen Stewart.


James Cameron

Bloody Beginnings: A graduate of the Roger Corman film factory, Cameron was handling the special effects for Piranha II when the original director left, giving Cameron an unexpected promotion — and a golden opportunity to kick off his own directorial career. He never looked back, striking paydirt with 1984’s The Terminator and 1986’s Aliens — and writing an early version of the screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II in between. These days, Cameron’s the king of the filmmaking world, with a pair of the highest-grossing movies of all time (Titanic and Avatar) to his credit, as well as an assortment of technological filmmaking advances spurred by his restless vision.

Non-Horror Highlights: Even if you count Aliens as a horror movie, Cameron hasn’t dabbled in the genre for quite some time; the vast majority of his filmography is non-horror — and critically approved, too, from 1994’s True Lies (69 percent) to the first two Terminator movies (100 and 98 percent, respectively). And let’s not forget The Abyss (1989, 88 percent) and the massive blockbusters Avatar (2009, 83 percent) and Titanic (1997, 82 percent). He doesn’t make movies often, but when he does, he makes them count.

What’s Next: There’s a long list of prospective projects, from the 3-D Cleopatra movie starring Angelina Jolie to an Avatar sequel, an adaptation of the manga series Battle Angel, a segment from the upcoming Heavy Metal movie, and a 3-D project involving the Black Eyed Peas. And that doesn’t even take into account the films Cameron is producing, including Guillermo del Toro’s long-awaited adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.


Steven Spielberg

Bloody Beginnings: Spielberg got his start on TV, directing episodes of shows like The Name of the Game and Marcus Welby, M.D. — and showing enough flair to get the attention of Universal, where he signed the four-picture deal that led to Duel (1972, 86 percent) and Jaws (1975, 100 percent). These days, Spielberg is more likely to give us films like Saving Private Ryan and Munich, but with four Oscars and more than $3.7 billion in box office receipts under his belt, it seems safe to say no one’s complaining.

Non-Horror Highlights: Spielberg’s biggest critical hits read like a roll call for some of the most successful films of the last 30-plus years, including E.T. (1982, 98 percent), Schindler’s List (1993, 97 percent), Catch Me If You Can (2002, 96 percent), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, 95 percent), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, 94 percent). If you love movies, it’s hard not to have at least one Spielberg film in your personal top 10.

What’s Next: Spielberg has a pair of directorial efforts in the pipeline: The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn and War Horse, both scheduled for release in 2011.

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Paranormal Activity 2.

Finally, if you wait until the one-minute mark, you’ll notice an Oscar-nominated director who made his big-screen acting debut in the teenage slasher flick Return to Horror High:

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