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The 15 Best Horror Directors of the 21st Century

From James Wan to Karyn Kusama, Kiyoshi Kurosawa to Adam Wingard, we pick the best horror directors of a terrifying century (so far).

10. Ti West

“The House of the Devil”

On the mainstream level, the last decade of American horror has been defined by the wax and wane of “torture porn” with “Hostel,” “Saw” (and their respective sequels) as well as the resurgence of “found footage” thrills in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. Ti West has emerged as a welcome alternative to those commercial trends. He’s one of the most skillful genre filmmakers working today, blending an awareness of classical suspense narratives with frequently eccentric storytelling devices and uncompromising commitment to the element of surprise. That extends to the very nature of his filmmaking: No two West films look alike. “The Roost” was a wacky killer bat movie that couldn’t have prepared anyone for the slow-burn suspense of “The Shootist” or the grindhouse-meets-“The Shining” eccentricity of his masterwork, “The House of the Devil.” With “The Innkeepers,” West turned a hokey supernatural comedy into something much more disturbing, and his classical western “In the Valley of Violence” took that genre into unexpectedly grisly territory with its remarkable third act. West may have a reputation as a perfectionist, but he’s fighting the good fight with results that speak for themselves. –EK

9. Takashi Miike

“Ichi the Killer”

Though Japanese legend Takashi Miike has dabbled in many genres over his prolific career, a trio of his darker films have made an indelible impact on the genre. The notorious “Audition” premiered in the United States in 2000, and a simple tale of a man getting tortured by a woman with a shadowy backstory entered extreme horror lore thanks to scenes where some decidedly masochistic things are done to the human body in unflinching detail. Two more of Miike’s most influential works — “Visitor Q” and “Ichi the Killer” — debuted in 2001, and put the filmmaker firmly on the map with Americans interested in the more extreme fringes of the genre. “Visitor Q” mixes sex, family, and voyeurism into a low-budget documentary format, complex and shocking in both narrative and story. “Ichi,” while not horror, was seen by gorehounds as a perfect action epic, with gallons of blood flowing through this underworld tale. Miike’s trio has remained something of a litmus test for horror fans ever since, a secret handshake between those who like cinema to push the limits. -WE

8. Gore Verbinski

“The Ring”

Even with a name like his, Gore Verbinski isn’t necessarily associated with horror (unless, maybe, you’re one of the Walt Disney Studios accountants who had to deal with the fallout from “The Lone Ranger”). And yet, “The Ring” proved that he’s one of the few directors capable of elevating the stuff of a typical Hollywood frightener — jump scares, ominous moods, cultural appropriation, etc. — to the heights of deeply unsettling art. The rare remake that tops the original in every way, “The Ring” isn’t only a masterfully crafted exercise in the inescapability of evil, it’s a film so scary it made Americans feel nervous to be alone with their televisions. “A Cure for Wellness” didn’t make quite the same impression, but its squirm-inducing imagery serves as a solid reminder that Verbinski is more at home in the horror genre than many of the directors who live there. -DE

7. Karyn Kusama

“The Invitation”


Kusama took her affection for female-driven stories in a shocking new direction post-“Girlfight” and “Aeon Flux” with 2009’s wickedly funny and delightfully bloody “Jennifer’s Body,” a keen melding of her love for the horror genre and her understanding of the raw terror of being a woman. Her 2015 “The Invitation” similarly engaged with off-kilter social themes, all packaged up inside a single-location chiller that’s as much about psychic unease as it is about the kind of big, horrifying secret motives that could happily drive any horror film. Her contribution to the recent all-female filmmaker anthology “XX” showed off her skill in revisiting classic horror stories with an inventive twist (it’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” but not), and her ear for dialogue and attention to character keeps her work grounded even when everything is going off the rails. She’s next tackling a thriller in the form of her “Destroyer,” starring Nicole Kidman, but early word — it involves cults! — hints that Kusama is sticking to her darkest impulses. -KE

6. Alexandre Aja

“High Tension”

New French Extremity introduced the film world to cinematic voices that would shock with sex and violence, and it wasn’t long before the movement branched out into horror. Social commentary became intertwined with brutal and blood-soaked body horror, and Alexandre Aja’s “High Tension” is one of the subgenre’s very best. To Aja’s credit, he was able to find new life long after the subgenre’s demise, fusing New French Extremity with American horror in remakes like “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Maniac,” which he produced. Aja continues to shock as both a director and producer, never letting anyone come between audiences and a good scare. -Jamie Righetti

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