By Jack Keating
There is no greater achievement in film than making the most with the small amount you have. Low budget filmmaking is the backbone of the film industry, giving filmmakers a chance to get truly creative and helping them utilise the little money they have to the best of their advantage. One genre lends itself to this style of filmmaking better than any other. Over the last 50 years, Horror has had some of the most influential and creative films made with a small budget. They are proof that sometimes working within the constraints of a small budget forces filmmakers to make far more creative decisions than ones where they have access to a bigger budget. In other cases it can show that when these filmmakers who are used to lower budgets get to make higher budget ones, they really utilise every penny. Here’s some films that have done just this.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) - Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez ($60,000)
No list about low budget Horror would be complete without mentioning the trailblazer which spawned the found footage genre as we know it today. The Blair Witch Project utilises the format of the genre and exploits the conventions of a documentary in such a way that it’s understandable why so many people thought it was actually real when it came out. Even the actors themselves believed that the Blair Witch was a real mythology while filming, and they only discovered afterwards that it was totally fictional. They took a totally hands-off approach to filmmaking, letting the actors do all the filming themselves and only communicating with them through walkie talkies and notes, and even occasionally genuinely scaring them with unscripted jumps. There’s a spontaneity to this movie in its improvised nature that cannot be replicated, despite other brilliant entries into the found footage genre such as Rec (2007). The Blair Witch Project does such a good job at appearing authentic that, collectively, audiences felt they had seen a genuinely supernatural occurrence, despite never actually seeing the Blair Witch once.
The Evil Dead (1981) - Sam Raimi ($375,000)
Sam Raimi was just 20 years old when he had begged and borrowed enough money to start shooting one of the most seminal horror films of all time, The Evil Dead. The budget was so slim for a project that was this ambitious that the whole crew had to endure incredibly hard working conditions. The production included creating their very own DIY dolly track, attaching the camera to a piece of wood to run through a swamp with, and contact lenses that were so thick that the actors have described it as feeling like they had tupperware on their eyes. The results worked, as the film is an absolute joy to watch and proved that Sam Raimi is someone with heaps of style. This style would go on to make The Evil Dead one of the most widely known ‘video nasties’ and influenced filmmakers like Peter Jackson when making Braindead and Bad Taste. Sam Raimi would go on to make The Evil Dead 2 with a bigger budget ($$) with even better and crazier results.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968) - George A. Romero ($114,000) ($848,000 adjusted for inflation)
Night Of the Living Dead is the film that created zombies in the way we now know them today, and the film that put George A. Romero on the map. Romero and his colleagues initially put $600 dollars each towards the movie, having only $6000, but soon realised it would be inadequate and eventually managed to raise $114,000. The result is not only one of the most influential films in horror due to its content, but also because of its representation with Duane Jones becoming the first African American to lead a successful horror film in history. Even back in at this sub-genre’s inception Romero was interested in humanity’s capacity for evil and their inability to cooperate in the face of a world-ending threat. Night Of The Living Dead serves as the blueprint for the genre we know and love today and would go on to inspire multiple smaller budget zombie masterpieces like 28 Days Later and Shaun Of The Dead.
Kill List (2011) - Ben Wheatley ($800,000)
Kill List is the breakout film from the now well-established English director Ben Wheatley. The film peddles the line between drama and psychedelic folk horror with flashes of super violence. Ben Wheatley avoided overly flashy effects and instead had a very loose approach to making the film. He often focused on finding the images he wanted to portray first and then focused the plot around it, and he would make his actors do one take sticking to the script and one of them improvising. The result is a movie that feels disturbingly real, and the low budget approach definitely helped enhance that experience.
Halloween (1978) - John Carpenter ($300,000) (1.2 mill adjusted for inflation)
With only 10 days to write a script, only $300,000 given to them, 20 days to shoot, and a relatively inexperienced director at the helm, it’s a miracle that Halloween put both the slasher genre and now-veteran director, John Carpenter, on the map. Using all the tools in their little toolbox, including ingenious use of the then-new technology steadicam and with Carpenter himself scoring the film in the most sparse and iconic way possible, Halloween made the character of Michael Myers a household name and an iconic villain for decades to come. Word of mouth helped make Halloween the classic it is known as today, with many critics giving it scathing reviews at the time. The film inspired a whole generation of filmmakers to go out and make their own slasher films.
Eraserhead (1977) - David Lynch ($10,000)
David Lynch’s debut film is a masterclass in DIY surrealist body horror. The uncomfortable feeling this film conjures is not dissimilar to the feeling one gets from watching the creamy goo getting scraped from the top of a milk bottle. Production for this film started with a misunderstanding; the AFI green-lit the project and gave Lynch the budget for the film based on the 21 page script he had provided, leading the production company to believe that the film would be 21 minutes long. Eventually, however, the film was 89 minutes long and took years to create. One scene has a character open a door and it took an entire year before they filmed the character actually walking through it. Not only that, but Jack Nance had to have THAT haircut for all that time. Lynch worked with the same tiny crew throughout and made all the gruesome effects through means that he still hasn't disclosed to this day. Eraserhead stands as a testament to how creative you can be on a budget if you have a crew dedicated enough to the project.
Cure (1997) - Kiyoshi Kurosawa ($15,000 converted to USD)
During the boom of Japanese horrors in late 90s/early 2000s one film stands out amongst them for being the most quietly scary. While other films went for outright shocks and overt scares, Cure is happy to let fear build through the unknown. Cure is made on a minimal budget, using only a few locations and the very edges of the screen to unsettle the audience. Kurosawa is unflinching in the way he allows the camera to sit still in one location and let the audience be lulled into a false sense of security. This film requires patience and as a result is one of the most visceral depictions of humanity’s capacity for violence. Though it has a low budget, the few times there is violence on screen it’s shown extremely graphicly and effectively, with one scene set in a public bathroom being particularly disturbing. Cure has built a massive following over the years, including Bong Joon-Ho who called it one of the best films ever made and described it as having ‘a sense of horror that trickles down your nerves’.
One Cut of The Dead (2017) - Shin'ichirō Ueda ($25,000 converted to USD)
In 2017, One Cut Of The Dead made history by becoming the first movie to earn one thousand times its budget at the box office. Written, edited and directed by Shin'ichirō Ueda on a shoestring budget, One Cut Of The Dead brilliantly deconstructs how low budget horror movies are made in a way that’s inspiring for anyone who wants to do this for a living. The film is half an hour of a horror film and then the rest of it shows the process in which it was made. It shows how on a low budget you have to go above and beyond to fulfill your vision, and when things inevitably go wrong you have to improvise to make it work.
Luz (2018) - Tilam Singer ($120,000)
Much in the same way The Blair Witch Project uses visual trickery to deliberately restrict information from us to let our minds run crazy, Luz does the same in a much more abstract way. This German film by Tilman Singer uses hypnosis induced recreations, a clever sound design and only a few different locations to tell us a story that spans back over the course of years. The film cleverly uses its budget constraints to deliver information in a way that enhances the film stylistically. Luz is vague enough that it lets our mind fill in the blanks along the way, which gives the story a certain eeriness.
Prevenge (2016) - Alice Lowe ($104,000)
One thing people tell you when writing is that you should write what you know, and that’s exactly what Alice Lowe did on Prevenge. While being ten months pregnant herself, Lowe wrote, directed and starred in this revenge movie about a woman who is convinced her unborn baby is possessing her to take revenge on the people responsible for the death of her husband. It mixes a very british sense of humour with great and simplistic slasher deaths all while dealing with very heavy subjects like grief and motherhood. Prevenge stands as a testament to using the resources you have around you to make a film.