Even people who don't care for classic horror movies have probably heard of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Vincent Price, but behind every horror classic there's also a director asking for heavier fog, more menacing closeups, and louder screams. Alfred Hitchcock, although not primarily a horror director, might be the most familiar to modern viewers thanks to Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), and more recent masters of the genre include George Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven, but my personal favorites tend to be the earlier icons whose work influenced everyone after them. Most of the films from these directors are light on gore and heavy on atmosphere, which is how I like my creepy midnight thrills, and many worthy contenders aren't listed here only because I limit myself to five. These are the directors I most often turn to when I want something spooky to send a shiver down my cinematic spine.
Browning is best remembered today for two horror classics, Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932), but his directorial career started with silent shorts in 1915, and he helmed a number of notable silent horror pictures before his date with Dracula. Browning's movies with Lon Chaney, "the man of a thousand faces" and a master of silent horror, are especially good; try The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), and West of Zanzibar (1928) for a sense of Browning's work before Dracula.
Like Browning, James Whale is best remembered today for his iconic Universal monster movies, including Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale's work combines the usual elements of horror with a very dark sense of humor that sometimes tips right over into black comedy, especially with Claude Rains in the lead role for The Invisible Man. In between these more famous films Whale also directed The Old Dark House (1932), a wonderful spooky house picture with his usual flair for mixing giggles with screams.
As the son of French director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques Tourneur grew up in the movie making business in both France and the US; his career really took off when he teamed up with RKO horror boss Val Lewton for films like Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). Later Tourneur would make memorable pictures in a number of genres, but he returned to horror for Night of the Demon (1957) and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). Cat People is justly celebrated today for its moody ambience and loaded subtext, but I'm also very fond of I Walked with a Zombie for its imaginative revision of Jane Eyre.
Like Tourneur, Robert Wise enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Val Lewton early in his career, even though he later became more famous as the Oscar-winning director of musicals like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). His work in horror remains an important part of his oeuvre and the genre as a whole, with early Lewton projects like The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945) laying the foundation for the horror masterpiece, The Haunting (1963), which is so good that it alone justifies Wise's place in this list. Watch it with the lights out and the sound turned up, and you won't sleep a wink.
Roger Corman directed more than 50 movies, many of them low-budget shockers and now cult classics, and Corman has lived long enough to see himself become a true Hollywood legend. As much as I enjoy a really ridiculous B-movie romp like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), my favorite Corman horror films are the Poe adaptations he made with Vincent Price, some of them more faithful than others but all of them very entertaining. House of Usher (1960) kicked off the series, but two later entries, The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) are probably my top picks for being less campy and more evocative of Edgar Allan Poe's works than a picture like The Raven (1963), even though that one is also a lot of fun.
Looking for even more classic horror directors? Try F.W. Murnau, Mario Bava, Mark Robson, and Terence Fisher for additional thrills and chills.