You have to have money to make a movie. Budgets for blockbusters can run up to hundreds of millions of dollars. However, finding money to make a film can be difficult, even at the best of times. Because horror has sometimes been pushed to the fringes of the movie industry, finding money to make scary movies, especially ones with first time directors, can be difficult, if not impossible.
This means that occasionally fright films are made on a shoestring budget. Several movies in this article were made with under $100,000, with one being made with an unbelievable $15,000. Working on a film with a $15,000 budget is difficult, and can make the film seem like an underdog that’s bound to fail. So, it’s satisfying when a movie such as this manages to bring home $193 million (which it did).
The films on this list run the gamut of horror films– from zombies, to slashers, to demons and witches, to ghosts, and back again. They include jump scares, stalking menaces, scary music, and moments of tense anticipation. Most did pretty well at the box office, with some even becoming international sensations.
Here are the 15 Most Terrifying Low Budget Movies Ever.
15. Night Of The Living Dead
In the pre-VHS 1960s, parents often dropped their kids off at local cinemas for an adult-free Saturday afternoon of movies. Then came George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, complete with an army of murdering zombies intent on cannibalism.
Children were traumatized and parents were outraged. What Romero turned out on a budget of only $114,000 was a groundbreaking picture that virtually invented the Zombie Apocalypse genre. In an era when color dominated movie screens, Romero purposefully chose to film in black and white, using dark film noir lighting.
At a time of racial tension and Civil Rights protests, he made a black man the hero. In 1950s horror movies, the military often saved the day. Here, however, Romero brings in pompous, ineffectual generals who underscore the growing hopelessness of the situation.
The exploration of social issues, such as racism, consumerism, and the military, is a hallmark of Romero’s films. Add to this a sense of stalking horror, pretty decent acting, and subtly shot scenes of blood and gore, and you have a winning formula that added up to $12 million domestically at the box office.
John Carpenter’s revolutionary 1978 slasher Halloween was made on a shoestring production budget of $325,000. It was a simple formula: a man in a eerie mask brandishing a knife kills terrified, screaming teenagers.
It’s a potent combination of tense suspense and jump scares were made memorable due to Carpenter’s masterful direction. The musical score is a big part of the scare element of the movie. In fact, when Carpenter first showed the un-scored film to studio executives, they were unimpressed. The music, he has said, saved the film.
Halloween is a merciless thriller that was originally best enjoyed in a packed theater on a weekend night. Things– both good and bad– popped up out of nowhere and everyone screamed at the same time. Audiences did not so much “see” the film, but instead experienced it.
Michael Myers, the man in the mask, went on to kill some 111 people over the course of ten Halloween films.
13. The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project was effectively the first English language “found footage” horror movie. The premise was refreshingly original: student filmmakers toting video cameras go into the woods in Maine in search of the Blair Witch, which leads to their eventually disappearance. Their footage is later found and made into the movie.
The beauty of found footage films is that audiences experience them in the moment, living the terror as it supposedly happens. The Blair Witch Project used grainy and jerky images, close ups of terror-filled eyes, a lurking, never-seen evil, and an enigmatic ending, to turn a film made on a budget of $60,000 into an international box office hit, with receipts in excess of $140 million domestically.
It also used a marketing campaign that included issuing “missing” posters for the three missing students. Its success made found footage movies popular, and influenced films such as The Visit.
However, the 2016 reboot Blair Witch divided fans and critics, with some praising Adam Wingard’s direction and others criticizing its use of found footage movie cliches.
12. Friday the 13th
Campfire boogeyman film Friday the 13th is probably not a good movie. However, it is a scary one and has become a cult classic. In fact, some fans consider it one of the top jump scare movies of all time.
The tale of a group of teenage counselors reopening Camp Crystal Lake, and then being targeted one by one, introduced serial killer Jason Voorhees– an iconic character who has stalked and murdered his way through twelve Friday the 13th movies.
One of the final scenes of the 1980 film– in which Jason’s mangled corpse drags counselor Alice from a drifting boat into Crystal Lake– has become a jump scare classic moment. Amid a critical and parental storm over its level of violence and gore, Sean S. Cunningham turned a $550,000 production budget into $39.7 million domestically at the box office, and launched a franchise worth around $400 million.
11. It Follows
It Follows is a stylish supernatural psychological retro-feel horror movie that skillfully employs a shape shifting “It” that stalks Jay, a teenage girl played by Maika Monroe, after she has sex with the new boy in town. The movie was the break out film for director David Robert Mitchell and, on an estimated production budget of $2 million, earned over $14 million domestically at the box office.
The scenes where “It” shape shifts into the half naked mother of Jay’s friend Greg and kills him, as well as the final scene in which Jay and her new lover Paul are followed down a street by someone or something, are spine tingling chilling.
The sometimes rumbling and electronic score is a synth-heavy stand out and synchs perfectly with the slow camera movements. Mitchell has waved away film critics’ insistence that the movie is about fear of intimacy or HIV/AIDS, saying he doesn’t really care where “It” came from.
After her appearances in Adam Wingard’s The Guest and It Follows, Maika Monroe has been dubbed the “Scream Queen” of her generation.
Pi‘s $60,000 production budget was ridiculously low. Director Darren Aronofsky could not even afford to buy filming location licenses, and so crew members acted as look outs, warning the set team whenever the police were near.
Pi follows the story of Max, a brilliant, tortured reclusive mathematician who suffers from terrible headaches and his search for the perfect number that will unlock the key for understanding all of existence. He is stalked and hounded by sinister forces that want to use his research to unlock the secrets of the universe.
His mad obsession is as frightening as the forces of evil which surround him. The film is shot in a rough, high contrast black and white, which adds to the sense of madness and menace, and gives the film a retro feel.
At the end, driven mad by his quest and stalkers, Max takes a drill to his skull, thereby obliterating both his headaches and his genius. Critics praised the tale of a man pursuing a dangerous obsession, and the movie made $3 million domestically at the box office.
9. Evil Dead 2
What makes Evil Dead 2 so good? Well, other than actor Bruce Campbell’s character Ash and Sam Raimi’s direction, the movie is a scary/funny “cabin in the woods” film, which acts as a “macabre Saturday morning cartoon.”
It focuses on Ash, who– after being the only survivor of the flesh-possessing demons in Evil Dead— makes the mistake of taking his fiance to a secluded cabin in the woods where, no surprise, more demons are lurking.
It’s an energetic romp in which Ash, having beheaded his demon-possessed fiance, battles a headless ballerina, demented animal heads, and even his own hand. The action never stops, and it certainly never slows down.
It is funny and terrifying at the same time: the almost comical battle with his possessed hand ends with Ash severing his hand with a chainsaw. The budgets for Raimi films are hard to pin down, but some sources peg the budget for Evil Dead 2 at around $3.6 million. It managed to bring in $5.9 million domestically at the box office.
8. Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Tobe Hooper took $300,000 and made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, an unabashed and unashamed exploitation film that gave the world a chainsaw wielding assassin called Leatherface, a being who systematically stalks, slices up, and then wears the skins of his victims.
It is extremely gory and gruesome, and seems to exist only to induce fright and revulsion. At that, it succeeds brilliantly. Because it was ingeniously and falsely advertised as a “true story” it attracted a wide audience and eventually raked in more than $30 million domestically at the box office.
Many critics had to admit that the movie was well done, and had some pretty spectacular special effects. Its horror was beyond mere schlock horror, and the film was initially slapped with an X-Rating. In spite of originally being somewhat exploitative, it has become a horror classic.
7. 28 Days Later
The 2002 British film directed by Danny Boyle (Slum Dog Millionaire), 28 Days Later, is a post-apocalyptic horror movie that involves in which a virus kills off most of mankind. Cillian Murphy’s Jim wakes up from a month-long coma to discover that he is sharing London with hordes of virus infected zombies. He, of course, joins forces with some other survivors and the battle begins.
Visual and sound jump scares alternate with a stalking menace, in order to provide a regular dose of surprise, with a touch of suspense. Then, when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the survivors find themselves ensnared in a sinister military plot to force the surviving women into sexual slavery in order repopulate the world.
Their leader, Major West– a demented and dangerous psychopath– is as much a threat to the group as the zombies. Evil, it seems, is inescapable. At the end of the film, Jim lies dying in a hospital bed.
6. Paranormal Activity
Paranormal Activity is another found footage classic. It follows the story of boyfriend and girlfriend Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, who move into a tract house only to find that there is a supernatural presence in the home with them. They then set up a video camera to shoot footage.
Sound and visual jump scares, as well as a series of lurking demonic presences and shadows, are interspersed into the footage. Even when nothing is happening, audiences are straining to see what could possibly happen next.
The pace is genius, with minor creaks and bumps building to a full blown demonic possession of Katie and the murder of Michael. The movie was absolutely dedicated to maintaining its found footage status.
There were no titles or credits, and the movie focuses only on the families of Micah and Katie at the beginning and “whereabouts unknown” card for Katie at the end. It cost director Oren Peli $15,000 to make and grossed $107 million domestically.
Ugly and scary as he is, the scariest thing about Sinister is not, in fact, the demonic Babylonian deity Bughuul. True, he provides a few jump scares, but the scariest things in the movie are the little kids with dead eyes who kill their own families, while home movie cameras record the event.
A true crime writer, with a touch of hubris, named Ellison (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a house– where a family of four had previously been murdered– in the hopes of finding out what happened. The fifth family member, a daughter, originally went missing after the murder.
Gradually, Ellison realizes there has been a string of similar murders, each with a missing child. Then the murderous clan of missing children and Bughuul pop up in his house. Ellison’s terror, as he comes to the realization that there is no way out, is truly chilling.
4. The Conjuring
Ed and Lorraine Warren were paranormal investigators who knew how to get attention and make money. The Amityville Horror is based on one of their investigations. James Wan’s The Conjuring is also based on one their investigation of, which focused on a demonic presence in the Perron family home in Rhode Island.
In the hands of James Wan, the story is told in a way that Roger Ebert likened to being taken on a tour of a haunted house, with bad things popping up at every turn. There are indeed a series of well-paced visual and sound jump scares, and Bathsheba, the scary witch, is forever popping up to attack or possess a victim.
The Perron house, shrouded in fog, is a big part of the scare factor. It is just the kind of place where bad things would happen and long-dead witches would out of the woodwork. With a $20 million production budget, it’s the most expensive movie on this list, and was able to make $137 million domestically.
3. Get Out
If you simply read through the plot of Get Out, you will be forgiven for thinking it is beyond bizarre. It involves young black people being “prepped” by hypnosis, before being tied to chairs, and having the brains of older white people transplanted into their bodies. However, it is actually a very good movie.
Made on a budget of $4.5 million, it deservedly made $175 million domestically, and is director Jordan Peele’s first film. It follows Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris, a young black man, who goes with his white girlfriend Rose to meet her parents at their secluded estate.
There’s something going on– people are behaving strangely, and very gradually audiences begin to sense the real evil at work. However, it is not until Chris wakes up tied to a chair that the full horror is revealed. It is as if Chris has made his way through a maze only to find a dead end. For a time, you’re not certain if he’s going to make it out, which is the truly scary thing.
2. The Last Exorcism
The Last Exorcism follows the tale of Patrick Fabian’s Cotton Marcus, a charlatan minister who performs fake exorcisms and eventually runs up against the real thing. With a film crew in tow, The Last Exorcism is yet another found footage movie. It was made on a budget of $1.8 million, and managed to gross more than $41 million domestically.
Director Daniel Stamm provides audiences with some jump scare nods to classic movies, such as The Omen and Poltergeist, with a touch of animal cruelty. There are the usual exorcism happenings, with snarls, floating bodies, demons, and crosses in good measure. It’s real horror film horror.
The Last Exorcism manages to feel like a safe movie, but then comes the ending, which is when audiences witness the full reveal of evil. Marcus becomes a believer and rushes, cross in hand, into the fray. Then the screen fades to black as the camera man is killed. It is Rosemary’s Baby for the 21st century. However, the final scene is probably scarier than the one in the 1968 movie, and audiences came away wondering what became of Cotton Marcus and his cross.
1. Don’t Breathe
A rich old blind man in an old house seemed an easy target for three juvenile delinquents with a history of house breaking and burglary. However, “they’re wrong,” says the tag line for the film.
Don’t Breathe has a hold your breath tenseness about it, as the old blind man, a trained soldier and killer, traps and stalks the three juveniles who have broken into his house. At first, instead of popping up, things start to creep up. Then, a series of jump scares, a rampaging attack dog, and, finally (and literally) lights out.
A lot was expected from a movie that combined the talents of Fede Alvarez and Sam Raimi, and Don’t Breathe certainly delivers. Made on a budget of $9.9 million, the movie made $89 million domestically.
Can you think of any other terrifying horror movies that were made on a small budget? Let us know in the comments!
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