Nobody starts out their film career making mega-budget blockbusters. All the most acclaimed and successful directors in Hollywood had to start somewhere, and in many instances the easiest place for them to get their first break in the industry was by working on cut-price horror movies. These filmmakers all went on to have a major impact after humble beginnings in low budget scary movies.
20. Sam Raimi
As the director of both the original Spider-Man trilogy and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Sam Raimi is one of the most important directors in the history of comic book movies. His blockbuster back catalogue also includes Disney fantasy Oz the Great and Powerful, and western The Quick and the Dead.
To his diehard fans, however, Raimi remains synonymous with his ultra-low budget debut feature, 1980’s The Evil Dead, as well as its sequels Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. He also directed horror movie Drag Me to Hell, and the first episode of Evil Dead TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead.
19. James Gunn
James Gunn first made a splash in the mainstream as the writer of the live action Scooby-Doo movies and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Since heading behind the camera, he has made a huge popular impact as the writer and director of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and The Suicide Squad.
Years earlier, Gunn got his first break working with notorious B-movie company Troma Films. His first professional credit was as screenwriter of 1997’s Tromeo and Juliet. Later, Gunn co-wrote Troma’s 1999 production Terror Firmer and had a cameo role in 2000’s Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV.
18. Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson redefined blockbuster cinema with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. His ambitious three-volume adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels dominated the box office, won a slew of awards and changed the way audiences and the film industry at large thought about fantasy films. Jackson went on to make King Kong and prequel trilogy The Hobbit.
Things were very different indeed when Jackson made his start in the business, as the director, co-writer, producer and star of 1987 horror comedy Bad Taste, whose title gives a clue to the content. Jackson remained similarly tasteless on his subsequent films, adult puppet musical Meet the Feebles and zombie movie Braindead (AKA Dead Alive).
17. Bill Condon
Since breaking through with 1998’s Gods and Monsters (which won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award), Bill Condon has enjoyed both critical and commercial success as a writer and director. His screenwriting work includes hit musicals Chicago, Dreamgirls and The Greatest Showman, whilst his directing credits include Twilight: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2, and Beauty and the Beast.
Less well remembered are Condon’s earlier credits in low budget horror. He made his debut as writer of 1981 slasher Strange Behaviour, then made his directorial debut with 1987 shocker Sister, Sister, before also calling the shots on 1995 horror sequel Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh.
16. J.J. Abrams
After enjoying small screen success with Felicity, Alias and Lost, J.J. Abrams successfully moved into film directing with Mission: Impossible III and the Star Trek movies, before really hitting the big time with Star Wars movies The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker. He’s also produced the later Mission: Impossible films and the Cloverfield series.
Abrams’ beginnings in film are considerably more humble. He made his professional debut aged just sixteen, providing the music and sound effects for 1982’s ultra-low budget sci-fi horror movie Nightbeast.
15. James Cameron
James Cameron may have less than ten feature films to his name as director, but no one could dispute that he’s one of the most important and influential filmmakers of the last fifty years. The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2 and True Lies were hugely popular, whilst Titanic and Avatar both became the highest-earning box office hits in film history.
Cameron is less proud of his directorial debut. Having started out as an FX artist, he wound up landing the director’s chair on 1982’s Piranha II: The Spawning, a cheap and tacky creature feature over which he had very little creative control.
14. Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone was among the most acclaimed and successful figures in 80s Hollywood. After winning his first Academy Award as screenwriter of 1979’s Midnight Express, Stone won two Best Director Oscars for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, as well as being nominated a third time for 1992’s JFK. His other hits include Wall Street and The Doors.
Stone made his directorial debut back in 1974 with Seizure, a bizarre low-rent shocker co-starring future Fantasy Island actor Herve Villechaize. It has been alleged that one of Seizure’s producers was a gangster under investigation by the FBI, who used the film as a means of laundering mob money.
13. Joel and Ethan Coen
Joel and Ethan Coen are one of the few directorial duos to achieve massive acclaim and success, including a shared Best Director Oscar for 2007’s No Country for Old Men. Noted for their distinctive, quirky personality, the Coen Brothers’ other acclaimed works include Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Years earlier, Joel Coen got his first job in the industry as an assistant editor on The Evil Dead. The Coen Brothers enjoyed a close relationship with Sam Raimi afterwards, including cameo roles in Raimi’s later films Crimewave and Darkman.
12. Steven Spielberg
If there was ever a filmmaker who needed no introduction, it must be Steven Spielberg. Thanks to such immortal blockbusters as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park, the American filmmaker enjoyed unprecedented commercial success and is almost certainly the single most influential director of his generation.
Spielberg also got some of his earliest work in cut-price scary movies. His feature directorial debut was 1971 TV movie Duel, a horror movie of sorts in which a driver is stalked by an ominous truck; this was followed by another made-for-TV shocker, 1972’s Something Evil, a creepy haunted house tale.
11. Francis Ford Coppola
To this day, Francis Ford Coppola’s best-known films are considered some of the greatest ever made. The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now are widely regarded masterpieces, and even some of his lesser works like The Outsiders and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are classics in the eyes of many.
It may surprise some, then, to learn that Coppola started his career calling the shots on ultra-low budget horror movie Dementia 13. The cut-price shocker was produced by independent film icon Roger Corman, who also gave early work to such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard.
10. Damien Chazelle
Damien Chazelle is synonymous with musicals thanks to his Academy Award-winning success as director of La La Land (making him, at 31, the youngest Best Director Oscar winner). His earlier breakthrough film, Whiplash, was a more intense drama set in the world of music which indicated the filmmaker was very much in touch with his dark side.
You might not have realised, however, that Chazelle got his break in the film business working in horror. His first major work was as screenwriter of largely forgotten 2013 shocker The Last Exorcism Part II.
9. Jon Watts
When Jon Watts was chosen as the director to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the little-known filmmaker seemed to arrive out of nowhere. Watts secured the gig on the strength of his 2015 drama Cop Car, and steered the iconic superhero to three acclaimed smash hits with Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man: Far From Home and Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Part of what made Watts such a surprise choice for the job was the fact that (while he had been making shorts and music videos for many years) he had only made his feature directorial debut in 2014 with Clown, a bizarre horror movie in which an ordinary man is trapped in a cursed clown suit.
8. Adam Wingard
2021 saw director Adam Wingard behind the camera on (figuratively speaking) one of the biggest movies of all time: giant monster showdown Godzilla vs. Kong. This proved successful enough for Wingard to be brought back to work on that film’s as-yet untitled sequel. He’s also in development on a feature film adaptation of 80s cartoon ThunderCats, and a remake of Face/Off.
Only a few years earlier, Wingard broke through as an independent horror filmmaker, calling the shots on the ultra-low budget shockers Home Sick, Pop Skull and A Horrible Way to Die. He gradually worked up into bigger budget movies with You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch and Death Note.
7. Peter Bogdanovich
Another of the most important American directors of the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich earned massive acclaim for his films The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon. He also enjoyed great success with his later film Mask in 1985, as well as making documentaries and taking occasional acting roles (including TV’s The Sopranos and It: Chapter Two), before passing away in 2022.
However, Bogdanovich started out his directing career under the pseudonym Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women, a bizarre B-movie assembled from recycled footage from an earlier Russian sci-fi film. He then made his directorial debut proper with Targets, a suspense thriller with horror elements; notably, the film stars horror legend Boris Karloff.
6. John Sayles
When a filmmaker’s directorial debut is added to America’s National Film Registry, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d be an entirely respectable character. True enough, John Sayles’ work has been widely revered, from his first film Return of the Secaucus 7 to the likes of Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star and Honeydripper.
Yet back-to-back with his art house-friendly directorial career, Sayles has worked extensively as a screenwriter in low-brow, low-budget horror fare. He made his debut writing 1978’s Piranha, and went on to pen Alligator and The Howling.
5. Curtis Hanson
The late Curtis Hanson had been in the film business for two decades before he really started making a mark. After 1990’s controversial drama Bad Influence, Hanson’s enjoyed acclaimed hits with The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild, the Oscar-winning LA Confidential and 8 Mile.
Years earlier, Hanson got his first film credit on The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 shocker inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. The then-25-year-old Hanson co-wrote the screenplay on the low budget chiller.
4. Monte Hellman
Another key figure from the American new wave cinema of the early 70s, Monte Hellman is best remembered for his acclaimed 1971 film Two-Lane Blacktop, as well as 1966 westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. Later in his career he served as executive producer on Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, and earned praise for his 2010 directorial effort Road to Nowhere.
Hellman made his directorial debut back in 1959 with cut-price creature feature Beast from Haunted Cave. He would in fact return to low budget horror in the 80s, directing slasher sequel Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!
3. John McTiernan
For a time, John McTiernan was the most revered action director in the world. Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Last Action Hero and Die Hard with a Vengeance are all among the best loved action thrillers of the 80s and 90s. Sadly, his career faltered in the 2000s when he ordered an illegal wiretap, and wound up serving a year in jail for perjury and lying to the FBI.
Long before all that, McTiernan made his first waves in film as the director of 1986 horror movie Nomads. The film was notable for giving Pierce Brosnan one of his first leading roles, and perhaps the scariest thing about it all is the clothes they picked out for the future Bond actor.
2. Kathryn Bigelow
When 2009’s The Hurt Locker made her the first ever female recipient of the Best Director Oscar, Kathryn Bigelow earned herself a place in the history books. She had already made a name for herself as a director of hard-edged thrillers including Blue Steel, Strange Days and most famously Point Break.
Bigelow’s first film, however, was 1987 vampire movie Near Dark, which took the classic monsters into a modern Western setting. With a $5 million budget, Near Dark isn’t as cheap a horror movie as some of the others we’ve mentioned here, but it became a cult hit after under-performing at the box office.
1. Darren Aronofsky
Director Darren Aronofsky has a knack for getting critics and audiences talking. His bizarre ballet drama Black Swan landed Natalie Portman an Oscar, his offbeat blockbusters The Fountain and Noah took everyone by surprise, and he revived the careers of Mickey Rourke and Brendan Fraser with The Wrestler and The Whale.
It might be debated whether or not Aronofsky’s 1998 debut film π (Pi) can really be classed as horror, but with its mix of hardcore mathematics, mysticism and mental illness, it’s certainly a disturbing film; and having cost under $135,000 to make, it can definitely be classed as low budget.