Big Chills, Small Bills
Some of the most iconic horror films have been made on what are, by Hollywood standards, shoestring budgets. The movies may be cheap, but the thrills aren’t. This map explores the connections among six influential—and highly profitable—low-budget horror movies.
The golden age of horror began in 1931, the year Universal Pictures released Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, and James Whale’s Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. Many monster movies followed, including box office–destroying King Kong (1933). In 1942 RKO Radio Pictures hired Val Lewton to produce a series of low-budget horror films to compete with Universal. Jacques Tourneur directed the first, Cat People, which was an immediate sensation. In the film, Irena (Simone Simon) falls in love with a young engineer (Kent Smith). But the couple never get much further than their nuptials, because Irena believes she will transform into a man-eating panther at the first kindling of passion.
Lewton proved a studio could produce great horror films for pocket change. Twenty-seven years later, George Romero proved you didn’t even need the studio and, with Night of the Living Dead, reinvented the genre Lewton and Tourneur took on with their second film, I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Until Living Dead, movie zombies were mostly the product of voodoo “doctors” and generally confined to Caribbean islands. Romero’s undead menace suburban neighborhoods and shopping centers, and the only doctors are the brave few struggling to stem the epidemic.
In George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, an army of flesh-eating zombies besieges a group of people holed up in a secluded farmhouse. Remarkable both for its gore and its bleak ending, Night of the Living Dead inspired a slew of sequels, remakes and parodies, and launched an entirely new horror genre: the zombie epidemic. Romero has made only six Living Dead films, but his influence, seen in innumerable movies, TV shows, video games and books, shows no sign of waning.
Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been nearly as influential as Romero’s zombie cycle. In Hooper’s low-budget flick, five unsuspecting friends are similarly harassed by a clan of frightening flesh eaters. But these villains are very much alive, members of a backwoods family intent on murdering (and eating) any wayfarer unlucky enough to stumble into their path. Like Living Dead, Chain Saw is often credited with spawning a horror genre—slasher films—though some cinephiles claim that honor belongs to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Slasher movies remain enormously popular with a ravenous fan base fed on such classics as Halloween (1978), the Friday the 13th franchise (1980–present), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996).
One villain in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre endures as an icon: Leatherface, wearing a mask made of his victims’ skin and revving the titular chainsaw. Preeminent among the murderous and cannibalistic freaks Sally and Franklin Hardesty and their friends happen upon as they return to their family homestead, Leatherface is grotesque, terrifying, single-minded and unstoppable.
Four years after the release of Chain Saw, John Carpenter’s Halloween introduced audiences to another relentless masked killer: Michael Myers. Halloween opens with a flashback to 1963, when six-year-old Michael murdered his older sister for reasons not entirely clear but almost certainly sexual in nature. Fifteen years later Myers has escaped the asylum to which he’d been committed and proceeds to reenact his sister’s murder on a series of hapless and mostly half-dressed young women, while stalking his younger sister, played by a plucky Jamie Lee Curtis in her star-making film debut. Throughout the ensuing rampage, Myers hides behind a misshapen white Captain Kirk mask.
The expressionless masked murderer quickly became a staple of slasher films—as did scantily clad young women. My Bloody Valentine (1981), the Friday the 13th franchise (1980–present), Scream (1996) and The Strangers (2008) all feature both.
In the 1950s Hollywood responded to the increasingly popular small screen by going big—very big. Budgets grew, screens widened, and the flops—many of them of the musical variety—kept coming.
Some people began to think movies would not be saved by Hollywood but instead by the mostly independent filmmakers gaining ground (and audiences) after the mid-century mark. As film critic Dave Kehr wrote in the Chicago Reader in 1979, movies like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and John Carpenter’s Halloween seemed destined to “promote America’s beyond-the-fringe filmmakers from the drive-ins, their traditional domain, into the plush suburban shopping center theaters long exclusively held by the Hollywood majors.”
But the small-budget, independent auteurs of the 1960s and 1970s never reached the promised land of middle-class acceptance—at least not during their films’ first runs. Moviegoers would have to wait until the 1990s before a truly independent, low-budget horror movie garnered real mainstream success.
The best low-budget directors turn cash shortages into cinematographic coups. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre sidestepped costly permits by filming in a secluded rural setting with mostly little-known actors. Hinting that it was based on actual events, it slyly cashed in on audiences’ fear of America’s hinterlands.
Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez made The Blair Witch Project using student actors, savvy Internet marketing and a shooting budget of less than $25,000. Blair Witch’s opening credits go even further than Chain Saw’s, suggesting the film is reality: the only surviving record of the events it depicts. The footage was supposedly shot by three student filmmakers who set out to document the legend of the Blair Witch—and promptly disappeared. Blair Witch’s shaky handheld camerawork—reminiscent of Chain Saw’s rough style—disorients viewers and traps them inside the characters’ limited perspective. Filming from the victim’s point of view was itself a reversal of the stock horror technique, since 1978’s Halloween, of shooting from the killer’s perspective.
The Blair Witch Project earned a quarter-billion dollars worldwide, achieving mainstream success and breaking all records for a movie’s return on its shooting budget.
With The Blair Witch Project, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez overcame the challenges of low-budget filmmaking—limited sets and costumes, unskilled acting, less than professional camerawork—by manipulating these deficits to give Blair Witch an inescapable sense of reality. Add to this the viewer’s knowledge from the beginning that the characters are doomed and you’ve got a nail-biter. The sense of foreboding steadily increases as the student filmmakers stumble upon strange artifacts, jump at mysterious noises and fight desperately with one another as some malicious person or thing stalks them.
Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity adds little to the above formula, yet the film manages to be just as frightening—and profitable—as Blair Witch. Again, the audience is told it’s watching found footage. Katie (Katie Featherston) has been haunted by a malevolent demon for most of her life. Her irreverent husband, Micah (Micah Sloat), decides to capture the paranormal activity on camera. During much of the film we watch the young couple sleep while nearly nothing happens. But as in Blair Witch, the strange occurrences start small and end cataclysmically.
Seven decades have passed since Cat People proved it doesn’t take millions of dollars to scare moviegoers. Since then much has changed, and some things have come full circle. Cat People, as inexpensive as it was to make, does not lack for production values. The actors, crew, writers and director were mostly Hollywood stalwarts, and the final film looks as polished as anything the major studios produced.
But a horror movie is more than its camerawork, mise-en-scène and actors’ shrieks. Paranormal Activity’s director, Oren Peli, knows this well. The pacing, storytelling and narrative techniques Peli employed in Paranormal Activity largely resemble those used in Cat People. In both movies, a woman is haunted—in Cat People by a curse, in Paranormal by a demon—or is she? She and her skeptical husband try to work through their paranormal predicament; meanwhile, things go from bad to worse. Something lurks in the shadows, beyond the camera’s frame. A man-eating panther? A malevolent demon? The filmmakers taunt and tease—just when we’ve steeled ourselves for the big scare, we discover there’s nothing there. Eventually, of course, they terrify us. That payoff is why, even as budgets shrink, box office receipts do not.