Historically, horror films have never been granted huge budgets. With a few notable exceptions – World War Z reportedly cost $190 Million -, the genre has rarely seen investment on the scale of the blockbusters. One could argue that this has worked in its favour. Horror films have a long history of creative individuals using ingenious means of achieving effects. Even expensive-by-horror-standards The Exorcist reportedly created the sound of Regan’s flesh twisting by manipulating a leather wallet.
We’re going to delve into the world of the very low budget however. This is not going to be a list of ‘greatest returns on investment’, it’s simply a few of our personal favourite films that managed to achieve a great deal despite their limitations. Some are masterpieces; some are camp cult that we can’t help enjoying.
Night of the Living Dead
The budgetary limitations dictated almost every aspect of Night of the Living Dead, yet it is considered one of the greatest horror films ever made. Although colour films were commonplace by 1968, the movie was shot on 35mm black and white. The cast and crew assembled on weekends to shoot, and many of the special effects were created using crude techniques. Filming in black and white meant that chocolate syrup could substitute for blood. The human flesh devoured by the creatures was mostly ham and entrails provided by a cast member who was also a butcher. Morticians wax (also donated), was used to create wounds, while the makeup on the zombies was kept to a bare minimum. The film however benefited from its constraints, as film historian Joseph Maddrey describes the black-and-white filming as “guerrilla-style”, comparing it to “the unflinching authority of a wartime newsreel”
The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project was a great excuse to torture it’s cast, but it was ultimately the need for realism which lead to it becoming disputably the most successful independent film of all time. The feature film only had a sixty eight page script, as so much of the dialogue was improvised, and filming was completed in just eight days. During these eight days, the cast were deprived of food and genuinely frightened by producers at night resulting in very real reactions to the situation. No sets were used, with all of the woodland scenes filmed in Seneca Creek State Park. With an estimated budget of between $20,000 and $30,000, the film went on to gross $248,639,099. It was also the first film to be widely marketed using the internet – with news stories about the supposedly missing teenagers. This brand new style of viral marketing is at least partly responsible for the films unexpected success.
From internet marketing to a film which utilised the web to bring people together, Colin is the lowest budget entry on this list. Using it’s £45 budget as something of a marketing strategy, Colin achieved astounding success considering it’s limitations. Using MySpace and Facebook, the crew sourced leftover makeup and second hand costumes for free. Many volunteers came on board through social media and provided their services for free. The crowds of zombies were fleshed out by the crew’s family and friends, and the film was shot on a ten year old standard definition Panasonic mini-dv camcorder and edited the film on the directors home PC using Adobe Premiere 6 software which had come bundled with a video capture card. An early cut of the film was screened on 15 November 2008 at the Abertoir horror festival, where it drew the attention of sales agent Helen Grace of Left Films. In July 2009, it was announced that the film would be distributed to cinemas & DVD by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.
The scene in this 1980s classic where Duane pulls a wad of cash out in a hotel actually showed the full budget of the movie. Featuring a deformed twin named Belial, the effects were achieved with mind blowingly simple techniques. A mix of a cheaply made puppet and stop motion, with close up shots of the hand attacking being…a glove, Basket Case became a staple of the 80s “video nasty” low budget horror craze. The crew who worked on the film was so small that in an attempt to make the film look more impressive, they made up names to add to the credits. Although the film’s budget meant it had to be scaled back (including dropping a scene where Belial walked around the city), it is incredibly fondly remembered.
The focus on believability as well as clever marketing secured Paranormal Activity’s place as one of the most profitable films in history. Shot on a home video camera – always on a tripod (a fact woven into the story) – the need for any kind of camera department was eliminated. Filmed in just a week, in the directors house, shooting took place day and night, editing was done at the same time, and the visual effects were applied to it as the acting footage was being finalised. The film featured no credits, in an attempt to add realism, and was released to 33 cinemas. When every showing sold out, Paramount – who had acquired the rights with the intent to remake – opted to release the original to a wider audience. Promising that a worldwide, full theatrical release would happen if 1,000,000 signed a petition, the required number was achieved in four days.
The Evil Dead
The quintessential low budget horror movie, The Evil Dead is a testament to director Sam Raimi’s creativity. The entire crew was made up of friends and family of Raimi and Bruce Campbell, and filming took place in a genuine remote cabin (without plumbing). Without a medic for miles, there were a few real-life gruesome moments on set, including the removal of eyelashes. Raimi remarked that “if everyone was in extreme pain and misery, that would translate into a horror.” Many of the movie’s now famous camera techniques were devised quickly and cheaply. The camera would be mounted to a bike, balanced across pieces of wood and strapped to the back of a car in order to create many of the shots. Karo syrup was used as the main ingredient in the gallons of fake blood produced. Two sequels, a remake and a musical later, The Evil Dead has become one of the best loved cult films ever made.