Six Shockingly Good Directorial Debuts

Getting into the film industry sounds extremely difficult and incredibly frustrating, to be honest. This is why I’m even more impressed when a director’s debut film manages to go above and beyond. Obviously, some of them are already established in other fields and have a leg-up in the money department or the backing of a major studio but creating a film is a grand achievement no matter what.

While many of this kind of list exists, I feel like they rehash the same horror films over and over again—Get Out, The Witch, The Texas Chain Saw MassacreIf you’re on a site like Horror Obsessive you probably know these already! Let’s take a look at some other debuts that knocked my socks off.

The Cell

Catherine sits at the foot of a set of stairs as Carl descends from a throne, cloth resembling wings decorating his body

Tarsem Singh began his career directing music videos, including Losing My Religion by R.E.M as well as commercials—remember that gladiator Pepsi commercial with Beyonce, Britney Spears, and P!nk facing off? That was Tarsem. So it’s should come as no surprise his debut, The Cell, is an absolute beauty to look at. Since it takes place mainly in dreams, you can get away with doing a lot of wild stuff, referencing famous artists like Damien Hirst and H.R Giger.

The plot is a little ridiculous: Jennifer Lopez uses virtual reality to enter the minds of comatose patients, coaxing them back to consciousness. This time she ventures into the mind of a serial killer, played by Vincent D’Onofrio who is stellar as usual. 

Time is of the essence—victims are held in a Saw-like contraption that slowly fills with water so J.Lo needs to get in, get the info, and get out. Of course, it’s not that easy; his mind is a twisted labyrinth of weird artsy stuff. Make sure to check our Tarsem’s follow-up, The Fall, which is even more visually striking if you can believe it.


Pinhead holds the Lament Configuration puzzle box, surrounded by chains

Almost every “director debut” list includes Hellraiser for good reason: it’s amazing. Disappointed with how Rawhead Rex turned out, Clive Barker said “damn it I’ll just do it myself,” and I’m thankful for that every day. The trademark puzzle box, Doug Bradley as Pinhead (originally just called “lead cenobite”), and Ashley Laurence as our final girl Kirsty—not to mention the spectacular special effects. It’s the film that catapulted my interest in horror and I ate it up.

While the many, many sequels to Hellraiser tarnish the cenobites and go in some incredibly oddball directions, the original still stands as one of the best horror films ever made. Thanks, Clive!


A set of hairy spider legs emerges from a bag on a bedspread

Have you watched Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? If not, stop reading this article and go watch it…then come back. It’s hilarious, using cheesy 80s tropes and purposefully bad effects to create one of the best horror parodies of all time. It’s also endlessly quotable and spawned many memes, including “I know writers who use subtext and they’re all cowards.”

So to find out Garth Marenghi himself, Matthew Holness, wrote and directed one of the bleakest and upsetting horror films in recent years had been desperate to see it. Sean Harris plays Philip, who spends a lot of time walking around looking sad, carrying a bag containing a horrifying puppet. I know that sounds boring but it’s tense as hell and the puppet does not disappoint. It will haunt your dreams. (Thanks, I hate it!)

Saint Maud

Maud examines a small piece of paper with tacks imbedded

A stunner in all aspects, Saint Maud is the first film by British filmmaker Rose Glass (what a name!). Maud is a hospice nurse taking care of a cancer-stricken former dance choreographer named Amanda. Maud is deeply religious and begins to believe God has tasked her with saving Amanda’s soul. It’s a heartbreaking look at recovering from trauma and the need to find purpose in one’s life.

I watched this with a few friends and after the dramatic ending (no spoilers) we all sat back in silence, reflecting on what we had just seen. Months later I’m still thinking about it which goes to show how much it affected me! I can’t wait to see what Glass does with her next film.


Justine, covered in green and blue paint, washes off in the shower

Heading over to mainland Europe, Julia Ducournau brings us a cannibalistic college coming-of-age flick with some sexual elements to boot. It’s a winning combination. Justine has just entered veterinary school, and as an initiation/hazing ritual she eats a raw rabbit liver which awakens a desire inside the young woman for human flesh. This is at odds with her life-long vegetarianism and it soon becomes impossible for her to resist her hunger. 

There’s a delicious escalation in Raw that fits the theme perfectly with Justine going to extreme lengths to satisfying her new diet. With Ducournau’s follow-up, Titane, earning her a Palme d’Or at Cannes, it’s safe to say she’s already a powerhouse of the French horror world.


Pauline looks above, arms outstretched. Men stand on either side of her as if to catch her

I’m glad Excision has been getting more attention in the past few years. After its release in 2012, it quietly faded from memory but Richard Bates Jr.’s first feature deserves some more views. Based on his short film from 2008, the film revolves around Pauline, a troubled high-school student who dreams of entering the medical field. Those dreams generally involve lots and lots of blood.

It’s stylish and includes some really memorable scenes. I love this adolescent body horror genre and how the Transgender community (myself included) has become drawn to them and the comparisons to our own struggles with body dysmorphia. 

I love talking about horror and it’s one of my favorite parts of writing that I get to talk about and discuss films like this. Experiencing a film for the first time is an amazing experience and I’m always looking for more to add to my absurdly long to-watch list. 

Looking for more listicles about our favorite things in horror? We’ve got you:

“So Bad It’s Good? Good Scenes In Bad Horror Movies”

“The Sexiest Scenes in Horror”

“Killing With the Strange and Unusual: Horror’s Weirdest Weapons”

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Written by Lor Gislason

Lor is a body horror enthusiast from Vancouver Island, Canada who can be found chilling with their two cats and playing farming simulators. Find them on Twitter: @lorelli_

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