As audience members, we sometimes take for granted what directors can accomplish with proper financial backing for a film. For contemporary studio fare (Andy Muschietti’s IT, for example), having a bigger budget often indicates a studio’s faith in the filmmaker or project, and in the best cases, that confidence translates to the screen, whether in production design, CGI, costuming, or star talent. A bigger budget undoubtedly gives the director more room to groove, allotting him or her more tools to ultimately help manifest their vision into a cinematic reality. And while I surely don’t mean to discredit artists fortunate enough to have millions at their disposal, there’s a certain beauty to the low-budget bravado of movies like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s Halloween.
If you’re Guillermo del Toro and have over $50 million to create a gorgeously ethereal haunt-scape like Crimson Peak, then more power to you. However, there’s a lot of to be said for films that can pull off a white-knuckled 90 minutes with only shapes, lighting, and bone-chilling scores at their disposal. Horror is, after all, a genre infused with ingenuity, which has challenged many directors to employ cost cutting camera techniques and practical effects that deliver some of the best and most influential work the genre has seen. After all, a dreadful tone and terror that gnaws under the skin aren’t necessarily qualities one can buy.
Here’s a spotlight on a few low-budget beauts that pulled off scares minus the millions:
The Evil Dead: In the early 1980s, Sam Raimi and a group of friends headed to an isolated cabin in Tennessee to film what would eventually become one of the greatest horror and cult films of our time: The Evil Dead. The production had a lot working in its favor: an original script written by Raimi, a self-produced short of his idea that helped raise funds, and a gang of friends stockpiled with heart and motivation for the project. What they didn’t have was a sizable studio-backed budget. So, what’s a filmmaker to do? For Raimi and his team, it was time to get creative.
While Raimi reportedly made his movie for between $350,000–400,000, the charm of his film is its homemade style, which was perhaps less of an artistic approach than a financial one. Tom Sullivan’s special effects on the film were almost entirely sourced from hobby shops, hardware stores, and supermarkets. Sullivan estimated that he spent no more than $400 on makeup supplies. Now that is artsy.
The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis: Though Lewis’ films aren’t what many would call “great,” they make up a seminal cog in horror history. Often called the “Godfather of Gore,” Lewis was known for his exploitative bloodbaths, including Blood Feast and The Wizard of Gore, the former of which is often considered the genre’s first splatter film. Though his work at times showcases shaky stories and amateurish acting, Lewis pulled off gory triumphs using practical effects and animal organs (gross on screen and off), often for under $100,000, and in some cases, as low as $25,000 per movie. The gore in Lewis' films is shocking, appalling, and cheap enough to make a modern genre buff wonder how he could’ve possibly pulled it off in the ’60s.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977): Wes Craven knew how to stretch a buck. Though one could certainly look to The Last House on the Left as a prime example, Craven’s tale about desert cannibals stalking a suburban family is perhaps more impressive. The film includes loads of fiery goodness (including explosions and a flaming crucifixion), twisted makeup effects for the cannibal gang, and some impressive blood and gore effects. Craven pushes his cast to the brink, with the Carter family struggling to survive as they’re picked off one by one. The movie is bleak and insufferable at times, playing on the fears of watching one’s family die torturous, slow deaths. It’s a disturbing 89-minute affair, produced for a modest estimated sum of $230,000, and yet it works on every level.
Alice, Sweet Alice: Alfred Sole’s slasher entry (released pre-Halloween) is an excellent film produced before the boom that made slashers a dime a dozen. While it may not be chock-full of pricey wizardry, Sole showed that a movie can be captivating, chilling, and mysterious—all without mega dollar signs attached. Utilizing an original script co-written by Sole and Rosemary Ritvo, Alice investigates the murder of nine-year-old Karen, who is strangled by a masked killer in church just as she’s about to receive her first Holy Communion. The movie is a clever whodunnit that twists and turns, bolstered by believable plot development and capable acting. For only an estimated $340,000, Sole’s second feature turned out to be one of the genre’s most distinct and underrated slashers, proving that expensive visuals aren’t necessary to enthrall audiences.
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive: The maestros are maestros for a reason. In 1974, Tobe Hooper pulled off The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for just an estimated $300,000, using real animal blood and carcasses to adorn the grisly home of his main monster, Leatherface. (Picking up road kill—what a way to save!) But making something out of virtually nothing was the name of the game for many of these legends in the making, and Texas Chain Saw remains one of the most terrifying horror movies ever put to film. The sound of the chainsaw, the terror-induced screams, the living hell of that Texas farmhouse: simplicity worked to build and capitalize on the film’s barren anxieties, and Hooper didn’t need much movie magic to heighten them.
In 1977, Hooper had more tricks up his sleeve, this time swapping chainsaws for reptiles. Eaten Alive follows Judd, owner of the Starlight Hotel, and his not-so-friendly pet alligator. Guests check in, but they rarely leave... because they are eaten by a killer gator! While this one’s strange as hell (and that’s an understatement), filming on a soundstage helped shorten the shoot and cut costs, and the production became yet another fine example of Hooper’s hustle.
The Blair Witch Project: Love it or hate it, not only did The Blair Witch Project popularize the found footage filmmaking technique that spawned a gaggle of knock-off wannabes, but in 1999, the film felt like the freshest moviemaking approach that horror had seen in quite a while. Sure, its mastermind marketing paved its path to success, but you have to hand it to directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, who created a phenomenon for a measly estimated budget of $60,000 that banked a wowing $248.6 million! While not a personal favorite, it was an event at the theater that summer, a feat in low-budget filmmaking that’s impossible to ignore.
There are far too many movies that deserve recognition in this discussion of practical mastery and directing prowess. From cult films (Blood Rage) and other found footage movies (Paranormal Activity) to more contemporary fare like Mike Flanagan’s Absentia, filmmakers from every decade have found ways to get crafty, using practicality and a keen eye for scary storytelling at the forefront of their methodology. No shade to the big dogs and blockbusters, but I’ll always be in awe of—and in line for—the ambition of smaller productions.