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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).

5. Rob Zombie


Marsha Blackburn LaMarca

Rob Zombie unabashedly wears his influences on his sleeve, but it’s part of what makes his horror offerings so good. “House of 1000 Corpses” might be his reimagining of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” but it was infused with dark humor and a brilliant twist at the end which reminded audiences that Zombie was still telling his own story. From his grimy white trash take on the “Halloween” franchise to witches living deliciously and getting revenge in “Lords of Salem,” Zombie has carved out his own voice in horror, one which infuses the horror elements laden in his music with the lessons Zombie has keenly learned from cinema’s maestros. -JR

4. M. Night Shyamalan

“The Visit”

Technically, M. Night Shyamalan’s most lauded film — six-time Oscar nominee “The Sixth Sense” —closed out the previous century, but it remains the yardstick for measuring all subsequent movie twists, establishing the multi-hyphenate director a deft craftsman who can combine nuanced and audacious storytelling in a single script. In a three-year span, “The Sixth Sense,” superhero saga “Unbreakable,” and alien thriller “Signs” earned $1.3 billion at the worldwide box office. Over the next dozen years, his movies continued to make money, even if they were sometimes forgettable and more often panned. Yet recent work “The Visit” and “Split” — part two of a trilogy that “Unbreakable” started — marks a major resurgence (his familiar introspections on religion, incomplete families and losing bodily control are made more terrifying with the presence of cannibals). He described his trademark to the BBC thusly: “I take what you might call a B-movie story, deal with B-movie subjects, and I treat it as if it’s an A-movie in terms of my approach, my crew, my actors, my ethics and so on.” It’s a philosophy he seems to have imparted on the Duffer Brothers (“Stranger Things”), who got their first TV job from Shyamalan via “Wayward Pines.” –Jenna Marotta

3. Ben Wheatley

“A Field in England”

It’s no coincidence that Ben Wheatley’s scariest movie is also his best. He made a solid first impression with “Down Terrace,” but it wasn’t until “Kill List” that the English auteur put to rest any notions of a sophomore slump and truly came into his own. Dismaying in the best way possible, that panic attack of a movie came complete with an utterly twisted ending and paved the way for fellow genre-benders “Sightseers” and “A Field in England.” Though he’s never been content to stay within the confines of horror — or any other genre, really — Wheatley has repeatedly shown that it’s where he most excels. Even when he’s working in different modes, as with “A Field in England” and “High-Rise,” his impulse is so unsettle — something few other filmmakers working today do better. -MN

2. Guillermo del Toro

“Pan’s Labyrinth”

The creator of creatures as beautiful as they are terrifying, what’s most impressive about Guillermo del Toro’s imaginative directorial style is that is carries from his elegant genre films into his artful takes on blockbuster fare. From his early horror classics like “Cronos,” a surreal twist on the classic vampire tale, to his vengeful ghost story, “The Devil’s Backbone,” del Toro imbues his allegories with eeriness to create poignant terrors about the dark side hidden in every pretty fantasy. This juxtaposition of light and dark is never more apparent than in his most acclaimed film, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Del Toro creates a mythical world where one child’s imagination protects her from real life trauma, but endangers her in a gorgeous — if nightmarish — fantasy. With del Toro’s lush style and knack for telling fascinating stories, he raised the bar for all genre filmmakers by breaking rules and blurring lines.  -Jude Dry

1. James Wan

"INT PERRON HOUSE - CELLAR Carolyn flips upside down and shoots up to the ceiling John Brotherton (Brad), Vera Farmiga (Lorraine), Patrick Wilson (Ed), Ron Livingston (Roger)"

“The Conjuring”

Michael Tackett

“Saw.” “Insidious.” “The Conjuring.” It’s impossible to discuss some of the century’s best horror films without bringing up James Wan. With “Saw,” Wan rejuvenated American horror, which had fallen into a lull after the late ’90s slasher craze had worn off, and in the process created a phenomenon that has spanned eight films, including this October’s “Jigsaw,” and one of horror’s creepiest creatures, Billy the Puppet. It isn’t an exaggeration to say Wan is horror’s 21st century Wes Craven, as he has been behind multiple horror franchises, including “The Conjuring” Universe, which continues to expand and see huge box office returns. From creepy nuns to sinister dolls, James Wan knows exactly what makes us scared both when the lights are on and when they are off. -JR

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