Everyone knows that, come late October, movie studios stop releasing blockbusters and start releasing Oscar-baiting pictures in the hope of garnering accolades and awards. These can take many different forms, from the stuffy British period drama to the quasi-reprehensible Holocaust-exploitation picture, but the most exciting releases are almost always the auteur films. While studios would prefer if these Criterion-aspiring directors stayed as far away as possible from their big budget summer blockbusters, they’re willing to give them a smaller form of patronage in order to get their hands on some of those gleaming awards statuettes.
What makes the auteur pictures so exciting is that most of the great directors also churn out some idiosyncratic stuff, including genre work. Just because they get critical respect doesn’t mean that they don’t love a good slasher flick like the rest of us, and a lot of the time their spins on genre pictures are some of their best work. Horror movies in particular have long been a draw for many of the great moviemakers. We thought we’d offer a list of some of our favorite horror flicks from directors who also happen to be gunning for a Best Picture Award.
While we think that David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method has a very good chance of running away with the Best Picture award, in some circles he’s still best-known for his series of body horror flicks from the '70s and '80s. It’s hard to single out just one of these to watch, but his Videodrome remains a unique horror picture even in today’s world of recycling any vaguely frightening idea again and again. It’s kind of like The Ring, in that it involves an evil video program, but that’s about as far as the similarities go. Add in a strange conspiracy to give the whole world brain tumors and guns coming out of chests and you’ve got the makings of a cult classic.
The director of one of this year’s much-talked-about dramedy 50/50 has unfortunately had some really bad luck when it comes to horror. His movie All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was a minor masterpiece of horror moviemaking, flipping the genre’s misogyny on its head and ending with a wonderful twist ending. Unfortunately it was pulled from distribution the day before its original release in 2006 and hasn’t been available here since then. Horror aficionados may be happy to know that there is a British release available if you’ve got a multi-region DVD player.
While Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is raking in critical accolades and a young audience, it’s easy to forget that just a year ago he released the dark, psychological horror movie Shutter Island. Focused on an a US Marshal investigating a psychiatric facility, Scorsese uses every trick he learned from his encyclopedic knowledge of movies to make the movie into a tribute to everything from old Van Lewton flicks to MGM horror classics, and along the way shows us that he’s got a few ideas no one’s tried before. While it didn’t win over critics the way his more prestigious works have, it’s one of the most sheerly entertaining movies he’s ever made.
Drive was Nicolas Winding Refn’s first American movie, but he’s actually been making movies in Denmark and the UK for well more than a decade. One of his early successes, Fear X, focused on a security guard tracking down the person who shot his wife through a seemingly endless pile of security tapes. Heavily influenced by David Lynch, it’s the type of horror movie in which you’re never certain what’s really happening and what’s only going on in a character’s mind… a mind that’s quickly disintegrating.
Roman Polanski’s Carnage has done well in its limited release, racking up huge sums of money per screen, and his Oscar-winning The Pianist has pigeonholed him now as a guy who’s just cranking out prestige pictures. Early on, though, he was much more comfortable with horror flicks (he even made a strange vampire movie parody called The Fearless Vampire Killers). In some ways he still hasn’t topped his first American movie, the unforgettable Rosemary’s Baby, about a woman who fears that her husband may have made a pact with the devil to sacrifice their soon-to-be born baby. It turns out the truth of the matter is far more sinister.
While it may seem like Tomas Alfredson came out of nowhere with his most recent picture Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, that’s because it’s so unlike his last picture, Empire’s best horror movie of 2010 Let the Right One In. One of the few vampire flicks in recent years to reclaim the genre's horror background, the movie plays up the unknown aspect of vampires and the way they can live amongst us.
Lars von Trier’s better known for his controversies than his movies these days, but that hasn’t stopped Melancholia from being a favorite among critics more willing to ignore the man behind the pictures. One of his strangest works, though, was the TV series, Kingdom, he co-directed for Danish television. Heavily influenced by Twin Peaks, the show begins as an attempt at merging a hospital procedural with surreal horror, before quickly dropping the procedural in favor of more and more dark supernatural elements. It was so compellingly frightening that Stephen King tried to adapt it into an American show, which unfortunately failed to recapture the nerve-wracking tone of the original.
Probably the most prestigious American director of all, Steven Spielberg has always had a great deal of respect for genre works. After all, the entire Indiana Jones series is largely about reclaiming adventure serials. Early on, though, he directed a full-on horror movie… and no, we’re not talking about Jaws. While he’d already been working on the horror series Night Gallery (a kind of Twilight Zone knock-off), his first work to make its way to theaters was Duel, an originally made-for-TV movie that was so good it was later released into theaters. Written by Richard Matheson, it focuses on a man being tormented by the unseen driver of a huge tanker truck. It’s a completely original take on the genre that perfectly melds the supernatural and the completely ordinary in a way that’s recognizable in many of Spielberg's later works.
Everything Fincher touches has some aspects of horror, even when he’s directing a picture as tame as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That doesn’t mean he’s never let his genre flag really fly, though, and unsurprisingly his two most frightening movies are also his most overlooked. Panic Room is one of the best-made thrillers in recent years, but it’s The Game that really feels like nothing else. In it, the protagonist enters into a “game” that threatens to take his life at every turn. What’s worse, it’s impossible to tell what’s part of the game and what’s the normal world.
It should be no surprise that Werner Herzog has directed a horror flick, since at his pace of two or more movies a year (this year it’s the pair of documentaries Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss) he’s done pretty much everything by now. His addition to the genre is characteristically strange, a remake of the original vampire movie Nosferatu that’s pretty reliant upon knowing the source material for enjoyment. Still, as with the 1922 original, its frights are very effective.