The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man (1973)
Image: British Lion Films/Rialto Pictures/StudioCanalUK

Throughout film history, horror has been a go-to genre for a lot of first-time directors. In horror, you can make a huge impression with a tiny budget, and if you can find an audience, cult fame can lead to a long-lasting career. Not every debut horror film creates a legend, of course, but the 20 on this list sure did.

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An important note before we dig in: We recently did a list of sci-fi debut films that included the sci-fi horror classics George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, and Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, so that’s why we’re not including them here. All three are essential viewing no matter where you classify them, of course.




1) Black Sunday

Italian horror master Mario Bava started his career as a cinematographer and was already an industry veteran—he’d racked up a few non-official directorial credits when he was hired to finish films that were begun by others, like 1957's I Vampiri—when he made his official debut. That wealth of experience is evident in Black Sunday (also known as The Mask of Satan), the gothic tale of a Moldavian princess who’s haunted by her witchy, lookalike ancestor. Released in 1960, it was a critical and commercial hit, and it holds up today on the strength of its story, gorgeous black-and-white lensing, and some primitive but still-effective special effects. Not to mention a dual performance by the striking Barbara Steele, who plays both the innocent lass and her back-from-the-grave evil lookalike.

2) The Bird With the Crystal Plumage

Seven years before Suspiria made him a horror legend, Dario Argento debuted with this influential 1970 giallo about an American writer living in Italy whose life is upended after he witnesses an attempted murder. Argento himself famously stands in for the killer in scenes where only the maniac’s black leather gloves can be seen (apparently it was just easier for him to get the shot he wanted if he did it himself), and there are some heavy hitters helping him out, including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and composer Ennio Morricone. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage was hugely influential on the then-emerging giallo genre, containing elements of style and story that have echoed throughout Argento’s career as well as work by other filmmakers.

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3) Last House on the Left

Over a decade before he dreamed up a killer who stalked Elm Street teens in their dreams, Wes Craven wrote, directed, and edited this 1972 riff on 1960 Ingmar Bergman rape-revenge film The Virgin Spring, crafting a harsh fable rooted in real-world fears. Teens Mari and Phyllis head from their rural town to a rock concert in the big city, but before they even make it to the show they encounter a gang of escaped criminals and their equally sleazy associates. It doesn’t end well for anyone, including the baddies, who meet their own ends at the hands of Mari’s grieving, raging parents.

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There’s something about Last House on the Left that makes you feel grimy while you’re watching it—the extreme violence is definitely a factor, but also the dread-filled worldbuilding that Craven infuses into every frame. The creepy folk-rock score (partially contributed by David Hess, who’s fantastic as “Krug,” the main villain) is also a nice touch.

4) The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man got a lot of lip service when Midsommar came out last year, and while it doesn’t have as much visceral splatter as that recent release, it is still the grandaddy of grotesque folk horror. Robin Hardy only directed a handful of films throughout his career, and this 1973 release is by far his best-known work, possibly because there’s simply no other film quite like it (and that includes the Nicolas Cage remake that spawned a million memes, but is otherwise best never spoken of again).

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The story is simple—after he gets a tip about a missing girl, a stuffy policeman (Edward Woodward) travels to a remote Scottish island, where the local pagan community soon spooks the hell out of him—but there’s so much texture in its telling: the vivid production design (who knew animal masks could be so sinister?), the lilting traditional music, and Christopher Lee’s commanding performance as the island’s castle-dwelling, snappily dressed lord.

5) Eraserhead

All the genius elements that would transform David Lynch into his own genre, and even his own adjective (few descriptors are more evocative than “Lynchian” when it comes to art and cinema), are on display in this 1977 experimental classic. Eraserhead isn’t horror in the traditional sense—but when does Lynch do anything in the traditional sense? Rendered in gorgeous black and white, with haunting visuals, music and sound design, and performances (star Jack Nance, of course, returned in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, and most famously as Pete Martell in Twin Peaks), Eraserhead charts one man’s unorthodox plunge into fatherhood, with a twist. The child in question is a squalling monster-baby, and the rest of our hapless hero’s world skates very delicately between depressingly real and wondrously surreal. Sing along: “In heaven, everything is fine...”

6) The Evil Dead

Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and the rest of the ragtag crew and cast made horror history with this splat-tastic classic back in 1981, and The Evil Dead has been one of the most influential horror movies of all time ever since. Campbell’s charismatic performance as Ash Williams—a college student who’s just trying to have a nice weekend getaway with his girlfriend, sister, and friends, but ends up having to battle them all when they turn into demons—created a character who endured for decades, and the gushy special effects will still make your skin crawl nearly 40 years later. Raimi, of course, went on to become an A-list director, but you can chart his creativity and talent back to the opening shots of this feature debut, when that low-swooping camera move that would become an Evil Dead series trademark telegraphs imminent danger and doom before the story even begins.

7) The Hunger

Tony Scott’s long stretch of esteemed titles—including Top Gun, True Romance, and Crimson Tide—began in 1983 with The Hunger, the tale of two impossibly chic vampires (Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie) whose glamorously goth life is upended when he suddenly begins to age rapidly, a dreaded side effect of his being “turned” centuries prior. Enter Susan Sarandon’s alluring scientist, an expert on aging whose research on monkeys has absolutely not prepared her for what she finds at the vampires’ Manhattan mansion. The Hunger is 90 percent style, 10 percent story, and that’s the main reason why it’s become a lasting cult favorite over the years: Sexy vampires are always in style, and these may be the sexiest vampires in cinema history.

8) Fright Night

Tom Holland—not the Spider-Man actor, quite obviously—is beloved by horror fans for films like the original Child’s Play as well as his 1985 debut, which he also wrote. Charley (William Ragsdale), a high-schooler who happens to love classic monster movies, starts to suspect his suave next-door neighbor, Jerry (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire, a hunch that soon proves to be 100 percent correct even if nobody believes the kid for obvious reasons.

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Charley’s friends recruit a TV horror host (Roddy McDowall) who styles himself as a vampire killer to help their pal face reality, but of course the reality is that Jerry is a murderous creature of the night, and everyone is actually in serious danger. Fright Night is the perfect example of a movie that lovingly pokes fun at a particular genre while still being an earnest entry in that same genre, and it’s rightfully earned its place on any list of all-time great vampire movies.

9) Critters

Nasty little aliens invade a Kansas town in Stephen Herek’s 1986 creature feature, which introduces a pair of flashy, shape-shifting bounty hunters and some resourceful locals (with a cast including The Orville’s Scott Grimes, Dee Wallace, M. Emmet Walsh, and Billy Zane, though the latter’s screen time is pretty limited) to keep the goofy action moving at a brisk pace. Casual viewers might’ve written Critters off as a Gremlins retread back in the day, but the franchise has since spawned several sequels (including last year’s Critters Attack!) and a streaming series on Shudder, suggesting there’s plenty of room for any and all snickering, pint-sized, mischievous monsters hellbent on wrecking as many human lives as possible. And really, Critters is just a good time, featuring some of the ickiest puppets ever put to the screen.

10) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

John McNaughton’s 1986 debut is loosely based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas, who’s now mostly notorious for a string of false confessions that called into question his long-held status as one of America’s most prolific serial killers. But even knowing that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is 95 percent fiction doesn’t lessen its impact when you watch it. This is a grim, gritty film that feels at times like a documentary; that’s thanks to an intense performance by Michael Rooker (making his own film debut) as the title character, but also McNaughton’s stripped-down filming style, with some very effective use of camcorder footage that makes some of the movie’s most brutal scenes feel even more like you’re watching something illicit and dangerous.

11) Hellraiser

Clive Barker was already an acclaimed horror writer and artist when he made his feature directorial debut with 1987's Hellraiser, a film he adapted from his own novella The Hellbound Heart. Hellraiser—which has inspired nine sequels to date, multiple comic book series, maybe a TV series, and an actively in-the-works rebootreflects Barker’s distinctive creative vision and complex mythology while also being exceptionally disturbing. It memorably unleashed a new horror icon in the film’s ghoulish lead villain, “Pinhead” (played by Doug Bradley). There are also some more familiar horror elements (if you find a mysterious puzzle box at an antique store, do not attempt to open it) to balance out the edgier stuff, including but not limited to sadomasochism and some very extreme body horror.

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12) Tremors

Long before Tremors became a direct-to-video franchise phenomenon (there’s a seventh film coming out later this year, and a TV show almost made it to the air), it was just a scrappy 1990 horror-comedy that paid homage to classic monster movies. In tiny Perfection, Nevada, handymen Earl (Fred Ward) and Valentine (Kevin Bacon) dream of starting over in the slightly larger next town over, but their big farewell gets put on hold when giant, hungry, worm-like “Graboids” suddenly emerge from beneath the desert.

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Everyone (including a survivalist couple played by Michael Gross and Reba McEntire, and a storekeeper played by Big Trouble in Little China’s Victor Wong) bands together to fight the invaders, who prove tenacious in addition to being disgustingly stinky and tentacle-y. Director Ron Underwood went on to make movies like City Slickers and Mighty Joe Young, both of which have some Tremors DNA in them. But only Tremors strikes that cult-movie balance of schlock, shock, and hilarity, with everyone involved clearly aware of what kind of movie they were making, and having a blast with it.

13) Cronos

Some guy named Guillermo del Toro made his debut with this 1993 tale of an aging antique dealer who stumbles upon a lovely (but menacing) mechanized device that gets a taste of his blood and begins to transform him into a vampire. While Cronos isn’t as well-known as del Toro’s later works—Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth are what really cemented him as a household name—the themes and elements that have continued to echo throughout his career are already in place, like the use of lush, macabre imagery and special effects make-up, and the presence of frequent collaborator Ron Perlman, who cuts an imposing figure as the antagonist.

14) Eve’s Bayou

Kasi Lemmons—recognizable to horror fans as Jodie Fosters’s best friend in The Silence of the Lambs, and Virginia Madsen’s best friend in Candyman—broke free of second-banana status with her 1997 directorial debut (her most recent release: 2019 biopic Harriet, starring an Oscar-nominated Cynthia Erivo). Jurnee Smollett (now Jurnee Smollett-Bell, most recently seen playing Black Canary in Birds of Prey) stars as the title character, a precocious tween whose discovery of her philandering father (Samuel L. Jackson) throws her world into chaos, with some magical women (Debbi Morgan as Eve’s intuitive aunt; Diahann Carroll as a fortune-telling/curse-providing neighbor) helping Eve sort out her emotions and, eventually, her own gifts. Eve’s Bayou, which Lemmons also wrote, is really more of a supernatural coming-of-age tale than a horror movie, but there’s definitely plenty of dread lurking in its evocative, 1960s Louisiana setting.

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15) The Blair Witch Project

It wasn’t the very first found-footage horror film, but Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s 1999 ultra-low-budget tale of three student filmmakers who get lost in the woods while trying to track down a local legend defined the genre and set off a tidal wave of imitators. Found-footage became so common in the years following The Blair Witch Project that it’s easy to think of it as little more than a filmmaking gimmick, especially with the inevitable problem of “Why would these shrieking, running people still be holding onto that camera?” In Blair Witch, at least, the set-up of kids determined to make a documentary helped ease that problem, and considering how freaking scary the movie was (and still is), did anyone really care about those technicalities? After a build-up that makes you feel as desperate and frustrated as the tired, cold, hungry, and terrified characters, the final scene remains one of horror’s most perfectly executed endings. (Pun intended.)

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16) Cabin Fever

Not to be confused with the 2016 Cabin Fever (the result of a puzzling decision to remake a movie that came out in 2002), the O.G. Cabin Fever and translated into overnight fame for director Eli Roth, and instant midnight-movie status for his Evil Dead-inspired shriekfest. The template is well-worn—horny kids head to the woods for a boozy retreat, encountering some unfriendly locals along the way—but the menace is something newly awful: a horrific, skin-shredding infection that spells hideous death for all who contract it. Cabin Fever’s vomit-inducing special effects are matched step by step by its sick sense of humor, a crucial ingredient that elevates it above mere gross-out extravaganza.

17) Saw

Before The Conjuring films, before Insidious, before Furious 7, and before Aquaman, James Wan helped launch a horror juggernaut with Saw, his first solo directing venture (previously, he’d co-directed Australian film Stygian with Shannon Young). The Saw franchise is still going strong—Spiral, starring and produced by Chris Rock, was due out next month but is now awaiting a post-coronavirus release date—but it all goes back to this stripped-down 2004 entry from Wan and writer Leigh Whannell (Invisible Man).

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Cary Elwes and Danny Glover are the deceptively reassuring familiar faces in a movie that refuses to play by the rules of conventional horror, featuring a villain—the mysterious Jigsaw—who is himself very rules-based. What could’ve been just a relentlessly gory thrill ride also cleverly forces its characters to make some agonizing decisions about what they value most, and that bonkers “gotcha!” ending is still just a killer every time.

18) The Witch

What’s worse—being trapped in rural New England with your Puritan parents who treat you like an indentured servant, or being tormented by a witch and eventually being accused of witchcraft yourself? A teenage girl (a stunning Anya Taylor-Joy) grapples with the harsh realities of 17th-century rural life in Robert Eggers’ 2015 dark fairy tale, some of which feel pretty modern (her bratty younger siblings, for instance), but others, like the drudgery of farm chores or the threat of being shipped off to toil in the home of a distant neighbor, are very much of the times. Eggers’ commitment to capturing period life is evident in the film’s smallest details, which makes the mounting horror so much more effective—as do inspired touches like Black Phillip the goat, who, apologies to Taylor-Joy, is the picture’s true breakout star.

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19) Get Out

Get Out was a critical and commercial smash in 2017 for writer-director Jordan Peele, whose many, many accolades for the film included a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Not bad for a guy who most people knew mainly from Key & Peele, his Comedy Central series—though if you really combed through some of the sketches, you could see a clever, twisted horror fan lurking behind the laughs. Now, of course, Peele is an in-demand writer and producer (Nia DaCosta’s Candyman can’t get here soon enough, and neither can HBO’s Lovecraft Country), and further expanded his filmography with 2019's chilling doppelgänger tale Us.

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20) Hereditary

A major new talent burst onto the scene with 2018's Hereditary, the first feature from writer-director Ari Aster. Precise camerawork, intricately detailed production design—including tiny, lifelike dioramas created by the main character, an artist played by Toni Collette (in a tremendous, fearless performance)—and a script that charts the breakdown of a family facing a ghoulish series of tragedies all add up to a film with the capacity to get under the skin of even the most jaded horror viewer. Hereditary is scary, but it’s also unnerving, taking twists and turns that aren’t all supernatural but will definitely haunt you just the same. Aster went on to make Midsommar last year, and it goes without saying we’d probably brave a burning barn to see whatever he’s got coming up next.

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