This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
The first cut is the deepest. In the horror genre, there’s an untold number of brilliant and innovative first feature films. Some of these films find new ways to strike fear into the hearts of seasoned horror veterans, some of them delight in a gleeful cavalcade of violence, and others keenly interrogate the social issues that have been the foundation upon which so much horror is created. To narrow a wide range of debut titles down to ten is no easy feat, but this list is a comprehensive catalog of incredible first cuts. Some of the films come to us courtesy of now-iconic directors who hit the ground running, others are more recent films that showcase emerging talent. Either way, these are all first times worth remembering.
To kick off our 31 Days of Horror Lists, FSR’s resident Boo Crew decided to begin in the logical place, with a celebration of firsts. Read on to find out the ten best directorial debuts as decided by Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell, and yours truly.
10. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Amy Holden Jones’ directorial debut was originally written as a parody of slasher films but then reworked to be more straight-forward. As a result, the film has a keen sense of humor about its premise: a bunch of high school girls are attacked by a power-drill wielding psycho-killer over the course of one night. Horrific and comedic in equal measure, The Slumber Party Massacre showcases some of the gnarliest fake blood committed to celluloid and has a scene in which characters eat pizza off a dead body. While crafted with an awareness of its own horror tropes, Holden Jones’ film is also markedly different to similar movies made at the time. In juxtaposition to most well-known slasher films, there’s no mythology around the killer; he isn’t bestowed with preternatural abilities or afforded an extended backstory that’s interested in how he came to be. He’s just a dude who gets off on hurting women and the film never cares to make him anything more than that. The focal point of Holden Jones’ film is the women, not their killer. (Anna Swanson)
9. Fright Night (1985)
The premise for Fright Night came to Tom Holland while he was writing Cloak & Dagger, a well-reviewed, kid-oriented spy film that ultimately tanked at the box office. It was a simple idea: “what if a horror dork found out their neighbor was a vampire, and no one believed them.” The qualifier, “what if a horror dork found out their neighbor was a wildly erotic, steal-your-girlfriend, apple-munching vampire with a wildly aspirational sweater collection” came later. One assumes. Dissatisfied with how Michael Winner had directed his screenplay for Scream for Help, Holland fixed to direct Fright Night himself in an act of “self-defense.” And thank god. Fright Night is one of those films that feels like it was a blast to make; it delights in its own depravity, charm, and the sights it can’t wait to show you. Which are plentiful: Fright Night is home to some truly righteous 80s goop, and one of the most unforgettable maws in cinema. If, as the saying goes, a director is a film’s immune system, then Tom Holland came out the gate with a talent for keeping the madness on the level: teetering somewhere in the sweet spot that makes for one hell of a fun time at the movies. (Meg Shields)
8. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
First directorial forays into horror — and into films in general — are often rough and raw experiences as a filmmaker finds their footing, but as this entire list suggests, sometimes a debut delivers magic. Charles Laughton‘s The Night of the Hunter (1955) is that kind of magic, made even more impressive by the unfortunate fact that it’s Laughton’s only credited stab at directing, and it remains a tense and thrilling watch more than a half-century later. Credit Robert Mitchum‘s terrifying performance as the religious-minded madman, but credit Laughton for crafting the scenes, suspense, and nightmares that follow. (Rob Hunter)
7. Hellraiser (1987)
The most remarkable thing about Clive Barker’s directorial debut isn’t the fact he unleashed one of the greatest horror movies ever made. No, it’s how he managed to do so without having any relevant experience in the field of filmmaking beforehand. If you look up self-taught in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Barker next to it. Before taking on the task of helming Hellraiser — which is based on his own The Hellbound Heart novella — he read books on filmmaking from the library and learned the skills he needed on the set. He was also smart enough to surround himself with patient people who were good at their jobs. In the end, the film turned out to be a horror masterpiece that disguised its tiny technical flaws with strong performances, bold storytelling, and demons so visually horrifying that even their own nightmares are scared of them. (Kieran Fisher)
6. The Witch (2015)
How the fuck does someone make a movie this good their first time to bat? When The Witch dropped, I wasn’t jaded on horror, but I hadn’t been surprised — or shocked — by the genre in a few years. As we’re introduced to Robert Eggers’s dread-inducing countryside with foreboding painted in black across the frame, we’re immediately sucked into this world, and behind the lushness of New England is a netherworld filled with blackened hovels, grim, blood-stained churns and images that are wholly unexpected in slow-burn horror.
But to say The Witch is slow-burn is to misrepresent the immediacy of the film. As quickly as the central family is cast from their town, their God again turns their back on them as the allure of the beyond grows in young Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) eyes. What she finds in that void depends on how you view the film’s final moments, be it tragic or joyous. The Witch is inarguably a masterclass in tension from a director who will only grow more confident — and daring — in the decades to come. (Jacob Trussell)