Every director starts somewhere. Most do not start out directing their own feature. Usually, they have to begin somewhere else—whether it be making short films or working on someone else’s picture in some other capacity, there is usually some degree of legwork one must do before they are read to helm a feature of their own. There’s no set path to becoming a director, of course, but however they get there, a filmmaker’s first feature is usually a bit of a rocky effort. It might show potential, but quite often, the director’s inexperience shines through. Some, on the other hand, knock it out of the park on their very first try.
The movies we’ll be looking at were nearly perfect right out of the gate. They set a tone and they established careers. It takes a lot to make a movie, whatever the budget, and inexperience can show pretty quickly. That only makes what these directors pulled off—-most of them with no time and no money—that much more admirable. While the hardcore horror fan will probably be well-aware of most of these, they are movies that surprise you with how professionally made they are and how much promising talent they showcase when viewed on their own.
Re-Animator might have a very small budget, but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless. What’s more, it feels nothing like a first feature. Thanks to the late Stuart Gordon’s early prowess as a director, the film has gone on to become one of the biggest cult classics of all time. Without a director like Gordon, it may have been nothing more than another mid-’80’s zombie movie. The key to the success of the picture is its tone. It can be scary and funny in a single breath. Gordon proved that he had a natural gift for black humor with Re-Animator and that sense of humor was present in nearly all of his subsequent films, save for maybe the underrated Empire of the Ants. He also did a remarkable job casting the picture. Jeffrey Combs’ performance is both outlandish and restrained in equal measures and Bruce Abbot plays a great straight-laced man to Combs’s mad doctor, Herbert West. Gordon did From Beyond—another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation—almost immediately after this, using much of the same cast and it turned out as a very impressive, albeit underrated, follow up effort.
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is a gorgeous thriller that set the template for director Dario Argento’s entire career. It’s about an American writer living in Rome who is about to head home when he witnesses the attempted murder of a woman. The killer is wearing a raincoat and black leather gloves, but that’s all he sees of them. He begins to help the police to try and solve the murder before more people are killed. It introduced what would become many Argento staples, not the least of them being the early appearance of the killer. Nearly every Argento-directed giallo after this saw some kind of assailant in a raincoat and black leather gloves. More importantly, it introduced Argento’s trademark style and his inventive use of color and space, not to mention wonderful camera work. It’s hard to believe this was his first film. It plays out like a classic from a director with years of experience.
The Last House on the Left
This film is widely regarded as pure exploitation, but there’s more to the late, great Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left than that. Directed and written by Craven and produced by future Friday the 13th director Sean Cunningham, Last House on the Left is a bit of a modernized update on Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring. It is focused on two young women–one celebrating her seventeenth birthday–who are abducted, raped and eventually killed by a band of criminals. Later on, the criminals experience car trouble and take refuge at the nearest house, which belongs to the parents of one of the girls. The parents begin to piece together what has happened and decide to take matters into their own hands. Released around the same time as the Charles Bronson vehicle Death Wish, The Last House on the Left deals with the same concept in a very different way. In Death Wish, Bronson exacts vengeance on the people who raped and murdered his family as if it would make things better. Last House is ironically more adult in its handling of the subject matter. They lost their daughter and in taking the lives of the killers, they lose something inside of themselves. Their revenge doesn’t solve anything or make anything better. This profound effort from first time director Wes Craven set up the deep, philosophical and psychological themes that he would go on to explore later in his career.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a classic for a lot of reasons. It is now forty years old and it remains a title that inspires awe and dread. People are still convinced that it happened. It has also been called one of the goriest movies ever made, yet there are no direct shots of gore in the entire film. People treat it like a documentary and there’s no stronger testament to a film’s power than that. It did what all movies wish they could do: it tricked audiences into believing it was real. That’s because the film is a portrait of insanity. For an hour and a half, you’re just watching madness unfold in front of the screen. More than anything, that’s due to the conditions suffered by the cast and crew. Still, the late Tobe Hooper has to get some credit for creating something so shockingly real.
Night of the Living Dead
The late George Romero had done short films and commercial work prior to Night of the Living Dead. In fact, he was making his living at the latter when Night was made. The film was made for next to no money. It had very few professional actors. But it had a concept that could work and Romero knew he could pull it off. The movie not only gave birth to the modern zombie genre, it changed the whole game. It showed up-and-coming filmmakers (like Wes Craven and John Carpenter) that someone with no money or industry connections, as far away from Hollywood as possible, could make a truly terrifying movie. Night of the Living Dead kickstarted the indie revolution of the 1970s and inspired filmmakers like Craven, Carpenter, Cronenberg and Hooper to make their movies and effectively become modern masters of horror. The home invasion formula of this title is still being copied today, not to mention the over saturation of zombies in movies, TV and just about anywhere else you could think of. It all started here, with a guy who just wanted to get his first film made.