We horror fans love our directors. Perhaps more than fans of any other genre, we view them as larger than life superstars, and we follow their careers intently. We look back at their past work with wide-eyed admiration, and we look forward to their future projects with an almost white-knuckled anticipation.
But one thing we don’t always do is stick with them when they try their hand at other genres. Sure, there are some exceptions (John Carpenter movies like Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from New York come to mind). But to a large extent, we tend to follow our favorite directors only as long as they stay in our favorite genre.
So, to help fill that void in horror fandom, I want to take a look at five of the best horror directors who’ve also made superhero movies. But don’t worry, we’re still going to keep our feet firmly planted in the horror world. When these five directors made the switch over to superheroes, they didn’t leave their roots behind. Instead, they took said roots with them and infused their super-powered films with some cool horror elements that are sure to put a smile on your face.
Sam Raimi needs no introduction, but he sure as hell deserves one. As the creator of the Evil Dead franchise and the writer/director of its original trilogy, he’s more than earned his status as one of the most beloved genre filmmakers of all time. He was also one of the first horror directors to make the transition over to superheroes, and when he did, he brought some of his horror aesthetic with him.
This is most obvious in his 1990 cult classic Darkman. As the name suggests, this film is much darker than the mainstream comic book fare we normally get today. So, it’s easy to see how Raimi’s horror background influenced his initial foray into the superhero genre.
However, when we talk about Sam Raimi and superheroes, the focus has to be on his beloved Spider-Man movies from the early 2000s. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 are two of the biggest milestones in the history of the genre (we can just forget that Spider-Man 3 ever happened), and Raimi brought a bit of horror flare to both these films as well.
In the first one, there’s a great scene where Norman Osborn’s alter ego the Green Goblin convinces him to try to get Spider-Man to work with him, and it has the feel of an atmospheric possession film. Similarly, the sequel has a cool sequence where Doctor Octopus revives in a hospital operating room, and he attacks the surgeons working on him just like a monster from a horror movie. These are two of the best horror scenes in superhero history, so it’s only fitting that they would come from a genre legend like Sam Raimi.
James Gunn isn’t nearly as beloved by horror fans as Sam Raimi is, but he’s no slouch himself. He started as a writer and associate director at Troma Entertainment, and he made his directorial debut with the 2006 horror film Slither. It’s about a small town that becomes the target of a nasty alien who tries to turn all its residents into zombie-like creatures, and it’s a great mix of horror, outlandish sci-fi, and black comedy.
Immediately after that, Gunn took his initial foray into superhero territory with Super, a movie about a normal guy who tries to become a superhero. It’s a violent black comedy, so much like Sam Raimi’s introduction to the genre, this film also has some obvious horror influences that set it apart from the modern Marvel and DC norm.
But also like Raimi, Gunn too is known much more for his subsequent superhero adventures than for his first. He wrote and directed the smash hits Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, and while they’re not nearly as violent as Super, they still have a few very clear connections to his horror roots.
Much like Slither, the Guardians franchise is all about weird sci-fi too, but it goes even further. It doesn’t just bring a few otherworldly elements to an otherwise perfectly normal earth town. No, these movies take place entirely in space, so they totally immerse us in alien worlds we’ve never seen before, complete with bizarre creatures and psychopathic murderers. They may be far from horror, but they feature the same kind of wacky sci-fi that made his horror debut such a memorable ride, letting us know without a doubt that James Gunn didn’t forget his roots when he entered the world of Marvel superheroes.
Scott Derrickson made his feature directorial debut with the direct-to-video Hellraiser: Inferno, but he really put himself on the map with his later films The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister. They’re both chilling supernatural horror tales, and they very much laid the groundwork for his entry into the world of big-budget superhero movies.
In 2016, he directed the film Doctor Strange, and while it’s not exactly a horror movie, it has a bit of a horror undercurrent. It was Marvel’s first foray into the mystical and the genuinely supernatural, and it deals with incredibly powerful evil beings. On top of that, it also has two particular scenes where Derrickson gets to show his horror chops a bit more openly.
The film begins with a group of hooded wizards infiltrating a library, and when they run into the library’s guardian, they bind him with their magic and brutally behead him. With the defender gone, the rogues are free to do whatever they want, so they steal the instructions to a forbidden spell. The scene is super atmospheric, and it lets you know that Scott Derrickson hasn’t forgotten the genre that got him started.
About thirty minutes later, there’s a scene where the Ancient One sends Stephen Strange on an unexpected trip through the multiverse, and for part of that trip, the movie becomes straight up body horror. Strange visits a dimension where his fingers grow little hands, and then the fingers of those hands grow even smaller hands. It’s not gory or disgusting in a conventional sense, but it’s definitely the stuff of nightmares, showing that Scott Derrickson still makes our spines tingle even when he’s playing outside the typical horror box.
James Wan directed the original Saw and the first two entries in the Insidious and Conjuring franchises, so he’s arguably the best horror director working today. He knows a thing or two about how to scare an audience, and when he tried his hand at the superhero genre with 2018’s Aquaman, he put that skill to very good use in a scene that horror fans are sure to love.
During Aquaman and Mera’s search for the former queen of Atlantis, they have to travel to a part of the ocean ruled by a monstrous subspecies of Atlanteans called the Trench. These creatures are fish-men that look like they come straight out of the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s nightmares, and they attack the heroes with all the ferocity you’d expect from angry monsters whose territory is being invaded by outsiders.
The Trench are absolutely terrifying, and the film milks them for all the horror they’re worth. It’s a nice little surprise in an otherwise pretty tame superhero movie, but it’s just enough to remind us that James Wan is still a master of horror no matter what genre he’s currently dipping his toes into.
David F. Sandberg
David F. Sandberg is the least prominent director on this list, but he’s been making a name for himself in recent years. He first came onto the scene with the 2016 hit Lights Out, and he followed that up with the unexpectedly awesome Annabelle: Creation. Those movies are both supernatural horror tales about malicious spirits, so when Sandberg took the plunge into the much bigger-budget world of superhero movies, it’s no surprise that he helmed Shazam!, a film steeped in mythology, magic, and monsters.
However, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, this movie doesn’t have a pervasive quasi-horror feel like Doctor Strange. It’s much more lighthearted and upbeat, but it does have a few moments when Sandberg gets to flex his horror muscles a bit. The villain Dr. Sivana is powered by a group of seven demons that inhabit his body, and multiple times throughout the film, they come out of him and show their terrifying true forms.
In particular, there’s one scene where Sivana goes to his father’s workplace and interrupts an important board meeting, and when he lets the demons out, all hell breaks loose (quite literally!). The board members are utterly helpless as the creatures slaughter them without mercy, and Sandberg shoots the massacre in such a way that it’s terrifying even when you don’t see what the demons are doing. It’s arguably the most intense scene we’ve discussed in this article, and it makes me excited to see what the future holds for this talented and versatile filmmaker.