Just because a filmmaker is short on funds, doesn’t mean they can’t make an excellent movie. Horror, in particular, is often considered to be at its best when expensive special effects and top-tier actors are replaced by imagination and a strong premise.
Some low-budget horror films are derivative schlock; low-risk endeavors with potentially high profit margins. For this list, we’re going to take a look at the real cream of the crop, movies which were able to stand head and shoulders above their peers, even with only meager production values. Here are 13 Low Budget Horror Movies That Hit It Big.
13. Friday the 13th
The original 1980 Friday the 13th cost a mere five hundred thousand dollars to produce. These days, if we wanted to kill Kevin Bacon, it would take at least a million.
Camp Crystal Lake is rocked by a spate of grisly murders. Many fans of the iconic image of Jason and his hockey mask might be surprised to learn that the killer in the original film is actually Jason’s mother, Pamela, played by Betsy Palmer. Jason himself doesn’t appear (save for a jump scare in the finale) until the first sequel, and he doesn’t even acquire his favorite sports-themed facial accessory until part three.
Friday the 13th was dismissed by critics as a cheap knock off of John Carpenter’s Halloween, though teenage audiences couldn’t help themselves and helped boost the film to a very successful $39 million in the United States. It spawned a ton of sequels, a crossover with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and a Michael Bay-produced remake in 2009. Even without the hockey mask, though, the original is still king.
Despite having a budget of only $1.2 million, Saw managed to rake in over $100 million worldwide. Though the film is credited with inventing the “torture porn” genre, this first entry in the series is comparatively more restrained, with the threat of violence being much more effective than the insane levels of blood and gore in the sequels.
Directed by James Wan, who would go on to make such films as Death Sentence, The Conjuring, and Furious 7, the main meat of Saw’s plot was about a serial killer, Jigsaw, who forces people to play sadistic “games” based on his own whacked-out moral philosophy. In-universe, the increasingly violent sequels were justified by Jigsaw passing the torch over to apprentices, who were much more unhinged and brutal than their somewhat morally-bound, if still ruthlessly murderous, predecessor. As the series wore on, the plot became a jigsaw puzzle itself, with an anachronistic presentation of events and a borderline ridiculous number of characters to keep track of.
11. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero is the father of the Zombie Apocalypse genre, and Night of the Living Dead is ground zero for every zombie film and television series that followed. Produced for just over one hundred thousand dollars, Night of the Living Dead was a massive box-office success. It courted controversy and calls for censorship from uptight with its startling depictions of violence by the flesh-hungry undead. As the MPAA ratings system had yet to be implemented until later that year… Well, there are plenty of middle-aged people out there with their own personal horror stories about being completely unprepared for the sheer terror of Night of the Living Dead.
Romero’s films weren’t just about zombies and survival, but the social issues of the day, such as racism and anti-military sentiment. Night subverted audience expectations with its deep characterization, and then dashed our hopes with its shocking twist ending, in which… If you somehow have yet see this legendary piece of American high art, then we won’t ruin the soul-crushing surprise. The film is in the public domain, so anybody can watch it legally on YouTube in HD quality, for free. You literally have no excuse.
10. The Blair Witch Project
The original micro-budget blockbuster, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was produced for a mere $60,000, and finished its global box office run with a stunning $248 million. Blair Witch is also responsible for kicking off the “found footage” phenomenon, where the feature is presented entirely from the point of view of cameras within the film. Later films to use this stylistic technique include Cloverfield, Europa Report, and Chronicle.
The Blair Witch Project was marketed as being a true story, not unlike Cannibal Holocaust, and the film was one of the first to be promoted mainly through viral marketing tactics via the internet. It was way ahead of its time and the hype made it something of an unlikely “event film.”
Artisan Entertainment followed up with a sequel the very next year, called Book of Shadows, which was met with poor reviews and tanked at the box office. The series has been long dormant since then, but we imagine it’s only a matter of time before the Blair Witch rises again.
9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Before Friday the 13th, and even before Halloween, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is regarded by genre fans as the first “slasher movie.” Despite being billed as “based on a true story” and claiming inspiration from the Ed Gein case, Texas Chainsaw is, fortunately, entirely fictitious.
A true indie film, Texas Chainsaw was produced on a mere $300,000 budget and ultimately brought home over $30 million in box office revenue. It spawned a handful of sequels and spin-offs of wildly varying quality, but none captured our terrified imaginations like the original grimy classic.
Fun fact: the narrator of the 1974 film is John Larroquette, who would go on to win four Emmys for his role in the classic NBC sitcom, Night Court. Larroquette returned to narrate the 2003 Texas Chainsaw remake, as well as the prequel to the remake, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.
8. The Descent
This British horror film from Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones, Black Sails) is oppressively claustrophobic, and a real test of endurance for the viewer. The concept is simple: a handful of unlucky women are spelunking in a deep cave and encounter frightening creatures who mercilessly kill them off, one by one. Despite all of the characters being women, and their femininity does play a role in the plot, the film never goes out of its way to patronize the audience with heavy-handed messages. The cast of The Descent are people first, and women second.
As the characters descend deeper into the cave, so do the increasingly few survivors descend into the depths of madness, never to return. In fact, the film’s original ending (as seen in UK theaters) was considered too bleak and grim for American audiences, so it was edited to include at least a faint glimmer of hope at the end, instead of the absolute oblivion of the original release.
7. Paranormal Activity
Paranormal Activity is remembered as something of a punchline these days, with the series devolving into an endless chain of anti-climaxes devoid of resolution. However, back in 2009, when the first film released, it became a big event due to Paramount’s masterful, if manipulative, marketing campaign: while touring the film at festivals and college campuses, the distributor essentially held the film hostage, saying they’d only give it a wide release if it got one million requests on Eventful.com. It worked, and the first movie went on to become (officially) the most profitable film of all time, grossing an incredible $193 million worldwide off of a reputed fifteen thousand dollar budget.
After the film’s major success, an inevitable trail of increasingly desperate sequels followed. However, though box office returns eventually dropped, the budgets for the series have always been incredibly low, so even the most under-performing entries still manage to turn a tidy profit. The most recent entry in the series, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, could only scrape together $78 million worldwide, but on a mere $10 million budget, it still came out way “in the black,” as they say.
6. It Follows
It Follows came out of nowhere to be the premier high-concept horror flick of 2015. Domestically, it earned back more than ten times its minuscule $2 million budget. It wasn’t exactly a breakout mainstream hit, but it was still noteworthy in the annals of Dimension Films.
As a character within the film explains, a person infected with “it” will be stalked by an invisible creature which can only be seen by the infected person, and which can take the form of anybody. It will merely walk towards them at a leisurely pace, but it will never stop, ever, until it catches its victim… Or until they pass the infection to someone else, via sexual contact.
Some, including Quentin Tarantino, argue that the film fails to reach the lofty heights of its bold and exciting first half, and that its underwhelming climax ignores the established logic of “it.” We’re inclined to agree, to an extent, but we could never deny the style and irrefutable charm of It Follows.
5. 28 Days Later
Danny Boyle may be known more for movies like Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, and last year’s Steve Jobs, but horror fans also know him from his excellent work on movies like the little-seen cerebral sci-fi horror flick Sunshine and the universally beloved 28 Days Later, the film which popularized the “fast zombie” breed of the undead which would later be seen in films like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and the divisive box-office hit, World War Z.
28 Days Later is set nearly a month after a viral infection decimates London, turning its inhabitants into rabid monsters with a murderous bloodlust. The film is notable for being among the first to be shot mainly on inexpensive digital cameras, which was the only way to depict a desolate and devastated London without spending tons of money shutting down large areas of the city. It’s a film as gorgeous as it is gory, and its deep heart and characterization helped to usher in a whole new era in zombie movies.
4. The Purge: Anarchy
The Purge was a typical home-invasion film wrapped in a high-concept shroud. Most critics felt that it failed to live up to the promise of its premise. It made great business at the box office, however, leading to director James DeMonaco to write and direct a superior sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, which improves upon the original in every way and really allows the excellent core concept to shine.
Despite costing only $9 million to produce, The Purge: Anarchy manages to outshine much more expensive movies with its impressive world-building, riveting action, and a storyline full of unexpected twists and turns. Frank Grillo shines as a badass military dude who begrudgingly winds up protecting a group of stranded citizens on Purge Night, an annual twelve-hour event where all crime is legal.
Anarchy has more in common with movies like Escape From New York than the more traditional horror aesthetic of the original film, but such a change was absolutely for the better in this case. We’re also looking forward to The Purge: Election Year, scheduled for release on July 1st.
3. The Devil’s Rejects
Hard rocker Rob Zombie burst onto the cinema scene with 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses. It perked up the ears of some moviegoers, but it was 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects which really made the former White Zombie frontman a household name to horror devotees, combining ludicrous levels of blood and gore with heavy metal sensibilities and a unique point-of-view. While many horror films ostensibly focus on the plucky teens while still clearly championing the crowd-pleasing villain, The Devil’s Rejects boldly presents its vile evil-doers as the straight-up protagonists of their very own horror show.
The Devil’s Rejects is a nihilistic horror film, with bad people murdering and torturing other bad people. It’s not for everybody, and it can be a little too morbidly violent for all but the most passionate genre fans, but Zombie has a disturbingly compelling style and you can’t help but need to follow his tale through to its bitter conclusion. Whether Zombie’s love of excess made him the right fit for the 2007 Halloween remake and its sequel is often the subject of heated debate, as his is a love it or hate it style. Any way you cut it (or brutally slice it with a rusty blade, as the case may be), Rob Zombie movies definitely stand out among their peers.
John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher film was a revolutionary game-changer. There would be no Friday the 13th without this, the original “masked man killing teenagers” slasher movie which still holds up remarkably well to this day… And we’re not just talking about that legendary theme song. Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode was the definitive scream queen of an entire generation, and John Carpenter’s masterful direction hides the shoe-string budget, despite tell-tale signs, like the presence of palm trees in what is supposed to be Illinois. Whoops!
Halloween was followed up by about a million sequels, but if one wishes for the complete experience, our recommendation is to view it as a trilogy: start with the original, follow-up with 1981’s almost-as-good Halloween 2, and then skip all the way to 1998’s grand finale, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later. Terrible title, satisfying film. The Rob Zombie remake can then be perused as a curiosity. If anyone asks about Halloween: Resurrection, in which Busta Rhymes uses kung fu on Michael Myers, just ignore their blasphemous lies. That film is just an urban legend and never actually happened.
1. The Evil Dead
The budget for Sam Raimi’s B-Movie masterpiece was so low that they couldn’t even afford a prop chainsaw for a vital scene. Their solution to this problem? Just have Bruce Campbell use a real chainsaw and try very hard not to eviscerate his co-star. True story.
The Evil Dead takes the tried-and-true premise of a group of bland twenty-somethings at a haunted cabin in the woods and turns it into a glorious nightmare, equal parts terror and laughs, most of them surely intentional. The demonic Deadites are endlessly quotable, and Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams would go on to become the ultimate B-Movie hero in the increasingly audacious sequels. Sam Raimi himself would eventually develop one of the most critically acclaimed superhero sagas of all time, the beloved Spider-Man trilogy. This film would be pointlessly remade in 2013, with all the joy and imagination removed, but Raimi and Campbell returned to the universe they created in Ash vs The Evil Dead, which will be airing its second season on the Starz network later this year.
The Evil Dead, despite its pittance of a budget, made groundbreaking use of steadicam technology, which Raimi used to great effect, showing the evil presence chasing the protagonists through the woods and violently breaking into the cabin. Though the shoot was a living hell for the cast and crew, it ultimately paid off in what is one of the most revered horror classics of all time.
What do you think? Did we miss any classics? What are some of your favorite low-budget horror films? Sound off in the comments below!