10 Best Horror Films From Directors Who Aren’t Known For the Genre

It's always special to witness a director trying out horror for the first time -- especially if it turns out to be the only time.
Horror Films Directors Only Once

5. Michael Powell, Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell, with his creative partner Emeric Pressburger, wrote, directed, and produced many of the most well-respected films of the mid-20th century. From Black Narcissus and The Tales of Hoffman to arguably their most beloved film, The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger pedaled heavily in prestige with their pictures. Their stature in the industry is likely why Powell felt emboldened to try something different come the 1960s. While there was an undercurrent of horror in The Red Shoes, it would be Peeping Tom when his creativity finally stretched into the farthest depths of the genre. Referred to as England’s answer to Psycho, the film is more visceral and unnerving than Hitchcock’s classic, as Powell places us in the killer’s POV from the very beginning and never lets us leave. However, the film’s intensity had an unintended side effect. Powell found himself blacklisted from the British film industry that was horrified by the brazen sexuality and violence of Peeping Tom, foreshadowing the United Kingdom’s Video Nasties panic two decades later. It’s a shame that Powell never re-engaged with the genre after the film’s release was reviled. Its carefully crafted suspense arguably delivers some of the most impactful horror beats to come out of this period in British cinema. (Jacob Trussell)

4. Robert Altman, Images (1972)

What do you think of when you hear the name “Robert Altman”? Ensemble casts? A New Hollywood, non-conforming attitude towards the norms of the industry? Overlapping multitrack dialogue? Sure. But what about skin-crawling psychological horror?

Yes, that’s right, Robert Altman is the man behind one of the most haunting nightmares ever committed to the screen: 1972’s Images. Susannah York stars as Cathryn, a children’s novelist with schizophrenia who is increasingly struggling to parse reality from her waking dreams. While her inattentive husband putters about during their isolated weekend cottage getaway, Cathryn’s mental state continues to wane, leaving her unable to tell which of her visitors (which include her dead lover, former lover, and doppelgänger) is real and which is the product of her rapidly deteriorating mind.

Shrouded in an autumnal atmosphere and grounded by a predictably stupendous performance by York, Images is a marvelous descent into a fracturing mindscape and picture-proof that Altman was a man of infinite talents. (Meg Shields)

3. Philip Kaufman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

In 1978, auteur Philip Kaufman tried his hand at horror with the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Turns out, Kaufman had a pretty good handle on the genre. Donald Sutherland and his mustache star as Matthew Bennell, a San Francisco health inspector that discovers humans are being replaced by alien duplicates. Rightfully believing this to be a matter of public health, Bennell decides to investigate further. Kaufman does an excellent job of building tension and paranoia. Bennell and his colleagues desperately seek help but are gaslit into feeling crazy at every turn. One particularly unsettling scene features Bennell breaking into the home of Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) and rescuing her from her boyfriend-turned-alien-doppelganger. Kaufman and gang also were sure to help horror fans scratch their itch for practical effects with the use of goopy, slimy pods that give birth to the replicants. That Kaufman guy could’ve had a career in horror. (Chris)

2. Stanley Kubrick, The Shining (1980)

To say that Stanley Kubrick’s filmography isn’t streaked through with horror would be a lie: most of his works, from the disturbing war film Fear and Desire to the dark dystopia A Clockwork Orange, contain elements of the horrific, cruel, and purposely off-putting. Hell, even the voice of the robot Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey makes my skin crawl. Yet Kubrick only ever went full horror one time, for 1980’s The Shining. The result is a labyrinthine journey into an unwell mind and an unsettled place, a haunted hotel saga that’s rife with frightening, impressionistic imagery and a bottled-up sense of rage. The filmmaker’s adaptation of Stephen King’s book differs greatly from the source material but still ultimately brings audiences to the same point of dizzying fear. Plus, it includes some of the most perfect shots in horror movie history. (Valerie Ettenhofer)

1. Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

From Philadelphia to Stop Making Sense to Married to the Mob, Jonathan Demme never made the same film twice. Yet his masterpiece may be The Silence of the Lambs, a movie that draws on all the strengths in his playbooks to create something totally new. There’s a narrative closeness to Demme’s take on Thomas Harris’ novel, an unflinching examination of its characters’ psyches, that feels more in line with the filmmaker’s work in the drama sphere than with most horror of its time. Yet the movie is plenty scary, too, held down by a bone-chilling performance by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and a beautifully precise one from his game scene partner, Jodie Foster. Demme won the Oscar for directing The Silence of the Lambs, a near-impossibility for horror filmmakers, then never made another scary movie again. (Valerie Ettenhofer)

Just because these directors stopped at one doesn’t mean you should too. Keep reading more of our 31 Days of Horror Lists!

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Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)