At times, it can be tricky to find commercial success in the horror genre. Unless you’re planning on putting out a watered down film, horror movies tend to be marketed toward a more adult audience and thus don’t bring in as many tickets as a PG-13 movie would. And the kinds of horror audiences find appealing tend to come in trends: for the last couple years, zombie movies have been almost guaranteed hits, but in the ’80s slasher movies were all the rage and in the ’70s the really successful ones tended to be about demons or demonic possession. The following seven directors have been successful in the genre perhaps because they’ve ridden these waves or, more likely, they triggered them in the first place.
7. Oren Peli – Net Worth: $22.7 Million
Born in Israel and based in the United States, Oren Peli’s theatrical debut was one of the most successful in recent cinematic history. Made for a budget of $15,000 and released in 2007, the first Paranormal Activity movie became one of the most profitable movies ever made, according to The Wrap and The Guardian, making close to $200 million in its original theatrical run. While he has produced all of the successive films in the Paranormal Activity series, the first film remains the only movie he’s directed—though Area 51, centred on the mysterious U.S. Air Force base, is written and directed by him and is set to come out sometime this year.
6. George A. Romero – Net Worth: $35 Million
The Walking Dead and World War Z would not be hits—or, heck, even exist—without the influence of George A. Romero. Before Night of the Living Dead—directed by Romero and co-written with John A. Russo—hit theatres in 1968, the word “zombie” wasn’t normally uttered outside of old horror comics. Most of his Dead movies—Night, Dawn, Land and Diary of the Dead—were theatrical successes, with the first making $42 million in its original theatrical run to its $114,000 budget, and helped to cement him as an important figure in the horror community. Romero has also made plenty of non-zombie movies, chief among them Creepshow, his 1982 collaboration with horror novelist Stephen King that was a loving tribute to EC horror comics from the 1950s.
5. John Carpenter – Net Worth: $35 Million
With the release of Halloween in 1978, John Carpenter jumpstarted the slasher movie craze that would dominate the 1980s, introducing masked killers and unnerving point-of-view shots to mainstream audiences. In spite of Halloween’s success—it made $70 million in theatres—Carpenter chose not to stick with the slasher genre he helped pioneer, and ever since has explored different forms of horror. The Fog was a fairly traditional ghost story; The Thing used a shapeshifting alien and paranoia to explore fears of an enemy among us; Prince of Darkness mixed quantum physics with apocalyptic scripture in a fascinating way; In the Mouth of Madness combined Lovecraftian horror with self-reflexivity. Though he hasn’t directed as often in recent years, Carpenter has gotten involved in video games, directing portions of F.E.A.R. 3, and remains one of the most influential figures in horror
4. Wes Craven – Net Worth: $40 Million
Before he forced Freddy Krueger out of his dreams and onto the silver screen in 1984, Wes Craven made his name with two particularly brutal films in the 1970s: The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Both House and Hills were blunt portrayals of human cruelty as well as the lengths people will go to protect or avenge their family, and apart from doing very well at the box office ($3.1 million and $25 million, respectively) they were also critically well-received, The Last House on the Left especially—Roger Ebert even gave it three and a half stars out of four. But his major success came with the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, a much more fantastical work of horror that made Freddy Krueger a pop culture fixture. Produced for $1.8 million, Nightmare made over $26 million at the box office and helped to propel distributor New Line Cinema out of a financial slump.
Craven’s popularity as a horror director didn’t end there, with his four-movie Scream series managing to be very financially successful while at the same time satirizing its own slasher genre background. He also broke down the fourth wall and explored the roots—and effects—of creativity with 1994’s New Nightmare, which pitted Freddy Krueger against the actress who played the protagonist in the first Nightmare film. Despite its odd premise, New Nightmare fared well at the box office and received critical praise.
3. James Wan – Net Worth: $50 Million
Along with writer Leigh Whannell, James Wan introduced the bloody “torture porn” subgenre to the mainstream in 2004 with Saw, a gory thriller starring Cary Elwes and Danny Glover that saw a serial “enabler” of sorts forcing his victims to do terrible things for their own survival. Saw was an astounding success upon its release—it was filmed for $1.2 million and made over $100 million, according to box office statistics site The Numbers—and became the first film in one of the most stunningly successful movie franchises in the last decade.
Though Wan directed only the first film in the series, he has gone on to explore the horror genre in other ways, focusing on the supernatural with Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Conjuring. All three were significant successes in their own rights and a sequel to The Conjuring is planned for 2015. On a non-horror note, he is also directing Fast & Furious 7, set to release next year as well.
2. Sam Raimi – Net Worth: $55 Million
Before directing the commercially and—mostly—critically successful Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi was best known as the darkly comedic mind behind another trilogy: the Evil Dead series. Filmed in 1979 and released in 1981, the first Evil Dead film was a labour of love for Raimi and his friend (and the movie’s star) Bruce Campbell. The Evil Dead was made for a budget of roughly $350,000 and filmed in an actual abandoned cabin, and during production Raimi, Campbell and company had to contend with freezing temperatures and even shotgun-wielding woodsmen, according to the commentary on the movie’s Blu Ray. It was also very successful in theatres, making back its modest budget several times over. Raimi and Campbell reunited for The Evil Dead’s two sequels—Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness—which embraced their status as B-movies and deliberately ventured further into slapstick territory.
While the Spider-Man trilogy occupied most of Raimi’s time during the 2000s, he came back to horror in 2009 with Drag Me to Hell, a supernatural morality play of sorts starring Alison Lohman as a bank officer who inadvertently invokes the wrath of a supernaturally powerful customer and is subsequently cursed. Filmed on a $30 million budget, Drag Me to Hell was very successful, earning over $100 million in combined box office and DVD sales.
1. John Landis – Net Worth: $70 Million
The man behind Animal House and The Blues Brothers, among others, also has a taste for horror. John Landis’ fifth feature film was An American Werewolf in London, a comedic horror movie that paid homage to classic werewolf flicks like The Wolfman while keeping its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. The 1981 release starred David Naughton as an American who is slashed by a werewolf and receives its curse while backpacking through northern England and who later must decide whether to end his life or remain a danger to others. The darkly comic film was a box office success, grossing over $61 million in theatres, and earned Rick Baker an Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup for his darkly comedic werewolf transformation sequences.
Landis also went on to direct the 1983 music video/short film of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which once again paid tribute to the werewolf genre as well as zombies, and also wrote and directed a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (whose production resulted in the unfortunate deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors). Though he spent much of the next two decades directing comedies, Landis returned to horror in 2010 with Burke & Hare, a true-to-life horror comedy about a pair of Irish serial killers who sold their victims’ bodies to a local doctor for his anatomy lectures. As of 2011, he is reported to be co-writing a monster movie which he plans to shoot in Paris, according to film website Collider.
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