The 7 Best Horror Movie Screenwriters

Let’s Go Beyond Carpenter, Romero and Craven
6.5
  • Horror
2017-10-03
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Dr. Edward Pretorius in From Beyond, written by Dennis Paoli. MGM

Horror directors amass followings. The biggest names — George Romero, John Carpenter, Wes Craven — become minor celebrities, celebrated as visionaries who’ve elevated a genre best known as cheap, abundant and disposable entertainment. There’s no question the genre attracts some real artists, but it’s rarely thought of as a showcase for writers. On Vulture’s new list of the top 100 screenwriters the first horror writer, Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead, The Mist, The Blob, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Fly II) appears all the way down at #84. Like many of the best horror screenwriters, Darabont is also a director. But this list isn’t primarily for the director-writer visionaries who already get plenty of attention: David Cronenberg, Lucio Fulci, Tobe Hooper, Frank Henenlotter, Dario Argento, Larry Cohen, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Mario Bava, Kaneto Shindo, Stuart Gordon, Ruggero Deodato and Don Coscarelli. And it’s not for those fair weather talents who get their start in horror, then move on to more mainstream fare.

This list is for the unsung horror screenwriters, whose scripts connect-the-dots in horror history like clues pointing to the true killer.

Amy Jump

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A Field in England Photo: Drafthouse Films

A Field in England, Sightseers, Kill List

A writer and editor best known for her ongoing collaboration with husband Ben Wheatley, Jump is the less public half of the filmmaking duo rejuvenating British horror. Jump and Wheatley specialize in hybridizing horror with other genres. Kill List is half-Wicker Man, half-In Bruges. A Field in England combines Jodorowsky-ian psychedelia, historical drama and hallucinatory horror. Even more recent collaborations, like the sci-fi satire High-Rise, retain horror elements.

Tom Holland

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Class of 1984 Photo: Shout! Factory

Class of 1984, Psycho II, Fright Night, Child’s Play, The Langoliers, Thinner

Not the new Spider-Man. Sure, he’s a writer-director, but Holland’s varied output and scripts for other directors haven’t left him with the same reputation. That’s too bad, because there’s something amazing about one guy writing such radically different scripts as the drastically underrated Psycho II, the first Chucky movie and the pinnacle of 80s vampire movies (Fright Night just edges out The Hunger and The Lost Boys, imo). But the real hidden gem is Class of 1984. It’s not exactly a horror movie, but certainly brings some of the same genre goods. It’d be a spoiler to say any more.

Jimmy Sangster

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The Curse of Frankenstein Photo: Warner Bros.

The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Snorkel, The Crawling Eye, The Mummy, The Brides of Dracula, The Horror of Frankenstein

Whereas the Hollywood studio system broke apart in the 60s, British film continued to be defined by assembly line production, with the same writers, actors and directors churning out movie after movie. Nothing demonstrated the success of the model quite like Hammer Film Productions and their main competitor, Amicus Productions, who competed for horror dollars from the late 50s to the 70s. At the heart of the Hammer machine was screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who wrote multiple entries in their lush and gruesome takes on Frankenstein and Dracula (both with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing!)

Richard Matheson

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The Legend of Hell House Photo: 20th Century Fox

House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, The Comedy of Terrors, The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, The Devil Rides Out, Jaws 3-D, The Legend of Hell House, Trilogy of Terror, Burn, Witch, Burn

The astoundingly prolific Matheson wrote whole career’s worth of novels, short stories, TV episodes and movies, including 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone, Steven Spielberg’s first movie and that episode of Star Trek with Evil Kirk. His horror highlights include Roger Corman’s series of exceptional Edgar Allan Poe adaptations,  and Vincent Price’s The Last Man on Earth (based off Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend). But my favorite is The Legend of Hell House, a grimy riff on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting, starring Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes).

Dennis Paoli

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The Pit and the Pendulum Photo: Full Moon Features

Dagon, The Dentist, Castle Freak, The Pit and the Pendulum, Body Snatchers, Ghoulies II, From Beyond, Re-Animator

Stuart Gordon may not be a household name, but the Re-Animator and From Beyond director gets his due in horror circles. Dennis Paoli is Gordon’s secret weapon, co-writing with Gordon both his classics and underrated oddities like Castle Freak and The Pit and the Pendulum, where a witch swallows a bunch of gunpowder to blow up her accusers when they burn her at the stake.

Dan O’Bannon

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Dead & Buried Photo: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, Dead & Buried, Invaders from Mars, Screamers

Best known for Alien, O’Bannon proved his chops outside the horror genre with The Return of the Living Dead, one of the best non-Romero zombie movies. His expert blend of horror and sci-fi went beyond Alien too — check out 1995’s Screamers , starring Peter Weller, for a weird-ass good time. Another must-see is his collaboration with Gary Sherman (writer-director of the amazing British cannibals-in-the-London-Underground movie, Death Line), the creepy, small-town horror movie Dead & Buried.

Dardano Sacchetti

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The Beyond Photo: Fulvia Film

The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Twitch of the Death Nerve, Zombi 2, Cannibal Apocalypse, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, Shock, The House by the Cemetery, The New York Ripper, Demons, The Psychic

Sacchetti is the secret ingredient in Italian horror, penning movies for legendary directors like Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, Lamberto Bava and Sergio Martino. After contributing to the birth of the slasher genre with Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve, Sacchetti wrote genre-topping zombie, serial killer and ghost movies. He may be the single most accomplished horror screenwriter of all time.

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