Every director starts somewhere. There’s always that first picture. For many directors, their first movie is either a trial-by-fire (see David Fincher and Alien3), a promising start (see Neil Marshall and Dog Soldiers) or something that they, and we, would rather forget ever happened (see James Cameron and Piranha II: Flying Killers).
There are some debuts, however, that announce a new talent completely. These are not just first movies, but manifestos. They scream out ‘this is what I can do, keep watching this space’. After this, the filmmaker either makes good on his promise or spends his career struggling to escape the shadow of it. That is the double-edged sword of a great debut. It really can be a blessing or a curse.
Here, for your delectation and sport, are my ten favourite directorial debuts. It was a tough one to whittle down. What would you have added, or subtracted, from the list?
10. Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero (1968)
The movie which, along with Psycho, is credited with giving birth to the modern horror film, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a master class in low-budget success. With its simple premise and unpretentious style, Romero creates a gripping, chilling experience which has influenced every zombie movie since. Made for only $114,000, Night of the Living Dead was also one of the first movies to feature a black lead actor in a predominantly white cast.
Romero has continued adding to the zombie movie canon with no less than six entries in his ‘Dead’ series, inspiring the likes of Edgar Wright who paid homage with Shaun of the Dead.
Went on to make: Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, and Survival….of the Dead
9. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
George Clooney (2002)
When original director Bryan Singer dropped out of making this story of the life (fictional or otherwise) of game show host, and CIA spy, Chuck Barris, actor George Clooney stepped in. Clooney brought to the movie not just a keen eye for a shot, and a some entertaining panache with his scene changes, but also a refined sense of 60s and 70s period detail brought with him from his childhood spent with father Nick Clooney, who actually had his own game show during that period. Look out for the quick, very funny, cameo appearances from Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.
Clooney followed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind with the equally accomplished Goodnight and Good Luck, again paying homage to a magic era of television.
Went on to make: Goodnight and Good Luck, Leatherheads
8. This is Spinal Tap
Rob Reiner (1984)
Rob Reiner, son of director Carl, didn’t just direct his debut movie, but also shared the writing credit with its three stars as well as taking a lead role. The now legendary mockumentary follows fictional English band Spinal Tap on tour in the US to promote their album ‘Smell the Glove’. Along the way the pretentious, dim-witted trio paint an hilarious picture of the shallowness and ridiculousness of the music industry. With endlessly quotable dialogue, mostly ad-libbed, This is Spinal Tap is the very definition of ‘cult movie’.
Reiner enjoyed a fantastic spell for the next decade, but his output has waned in the last ten years.
Went on to make: The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery
7. Citizen Kane
Orson Welles (1941)
Having terrorised half of America with his radio production of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles turned to cinema and produced what has become the default No.1 in many a movie critic’s list of top movies. The tale of a fictional newspaper magnate, Citizen Kane is an astounding debut feature. Welles’ extensive use of deep-focus and low-angle shots was innovative, as was the non-linear narrative told from multiple viewpoints. And, despite the real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst’s attempts to kill the project through his own media empire, Citizen Kane has gone on to become one of cinema’s greats.
Although Welles made some other great movies, topping Citizen Kane was a very tall order. A lot of crap followed.
Went on to make: The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil
Jerry and David Zucker, Jim Abrahams (1980)
An extremely rare triple debut here, with the two Zuckers and Abrahams (or ZAZ) sharing both writing and directing duties on their hugely successful and influential comedy. Spoofing the disaster movie genre in general, and the 1957 movie Zero Hour! in particular, ZAZ created one of the most popular and oft-quoted comedies of all time. Featuring inspired turns from an array of 60s and 70s icons and a joke at least every 30 seconds, Airplane! has an inexhaustible energy which doesn’t let up until the credits have stopped rolling.
The movie set the pattern for the bulk of ZAZ’s work, but only Jerry Zucker achieved the same level of success again with Ghost.
Went on to make (between them): The Naked Gun movies, Ghost, Hot Shots
5. Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton (1955)
Actor Charles Laughton’s one and only movie still counts as a debut. And what a debut it is. Dark, brooding and nasty, Night of the Hunter features a career best performance from Robert Mitchum as the psychopathic Reverend Harry Powell, who charms his way into the family of widow Willa, in an attempt to locate the whereabouts of her executed husband’s stolen loot. Heavily influenced by German expressionism, Laughton paints stark, surreal vistas and fills the movie with a cloying sense of paranoia and fear.
Poorly received on its release, Laughton never made another movie and died seven years later. This was a real loss to the medium, such is the wealth of talent on evidence here.
Went on to make: Nothing
4. The Evil Dead
Sam Raimi (1981)
It’s amazing what you can achieve with just $375,000, a swimming pool worth of fake blood and Bruce Campbell. In Sam Raimi’s case you can achieve one of the most successful, and creative, horror movies of the 80s. When five friends go to stay in an old cabin in the woods, they become possessed by demons, one by one, until only one of their number remains to survive until morning. With no access to expensive special effects or equipment, Raimi demonstrates remarkable ingenuity with his camerawork.
The Evil Dead gave cinema its first glimpse of Raimi’s love for over-the-top, slapstick violence, dizzying camera movement and torturing Campbell.
Went on to make: The Spider-man trilogy
3. Donnie Darko
Richard Kelly (2001)
Given his big break by Drew Barrymore’s production company, Richard Kelly produced one of the most original movies to have come along for years. Donnie Darko is a strange brew, mixing time-travel, high-school angst, 80s nostalgia, existentialism and Patrick Swayze in a haunting, complex and sometimes downright bemusing tale. This was Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakout role and he’s the perfect fit for the troubled, intense and disjointed Donnie. Kelly later released a Director’s Cut which didn’t really improve on the original.
Kelly’s penchant for inscrutable storytelling continued with his next two movies, but escaping the shadow of his debut has proven difficult so far.
Went on to make: The terrible Southland Tales and the intriguing The Box
2. Withnail and I
Bruce Robinson (1987)
Bruce Robinson’s 1987 directorial debut is one of those that can curse a subsequent career. Not because it is bad, but because it is brilliant. An extremely tough act to follow. Based on Robinson’s unpublished novel, which in turn was based on his own experiences as a young actor, Withnail and I is without doubt one of the best British comedies of all time. Anchored by a magnificent performance from Richard E. Grant as the manipulative, drunken Withnail and littered with an array of bizarre characters, Withnail and I has since gathered a huge cult following.
Robinson reunited with Grant for 1989’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising but, as yet, has not achieved the same success as he did with his debut.
Went on to make: Very little.
Steven Spielberg (1971)
Fresh from directing stints on various TV shows, the young Spielberg was handed his first feature-length assignment, a made-for-TV movie based on a Richard Matheson short story, which was in turn based on the writer’s own experience with a particularly nasty truck driver. Spielberg took the story of a travelling salesman’s (Dennis Weaver) relentless pursuit by a truck and crafted a tense, stylish movie which was eventually rewarded with additional shooting time and a cinema release.
Duel demonstrates much of the themes that would become signature for the director; the everyman protagonist in an extraordinary situation, action scenes on the move and the relentless, pursuing monster. It is to the movie’s credit that you never see the face of the truck’s driver.
Went on to make: Everything