Is there any genre of film that has mastered the art of low-budget productions quite like horror? Of course not. The two often go together hand in hand. Moreover, some of the best horror films have been made on ultra-low budgets, displaying some of the ingenuity of great directors who found inventive ways to make their creations look fantastic for pennies. One of the reasons horror movies were low-budget is that studios – particularly in the past – were reluctant to back them. But profitability cannot be ignored. Today, you’ll find horror at every level of the box office, as well as dedicated streaming services like Shudder. The genre has permeated into games as diverse as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Plants vs. Zombies and Halloween Fortune slots, some of which are tongue and cheek, others outright scary. But so much of the influence of what we term horror today came from directors and storytellers determined to make a movie out of nothing. Here are five of the best made on a shoestring budget:
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Box Office: $248 million
One of the most profitable movies in history, The Blair Witch Project was famously made on a shoestring budget. Most of the money seemed to go on post-production costs to edit down the 20+ hours of “found footage” into an 81-minute movie. As for the movie itself, well, it’s a masterclass in how to scare an audience without actually showing them anything. You experience terror through the eyes of the actors, and your own imagination of what is lurking in the woods. Contrary to assumptions, the movie did not invent the found footage technique, although it did revive it for modern audiences.
Box Office: $70 million
While Halloween’s budget is not tremendously cheap when adjusted for inflation, so too is its impact and influence not measurable in its box office takings. Even non-horror fans are aware of Michael Myers by now and perhaps many of us are sick of the sequels and reboots, but the original is a masterpiece, with director John Carpenter deftly conjuring up Hitchcockian scares with gory twists. Interestingly, Halloween wasn’t beloved by critics at the time, but it has gained its respect in retrospect. Its backers set out to make a movie as impactful as The Exorcist. It certainly achieved that.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Box Office: $194 million
We are cheating a little bit here because Paranormal Activity had an extra couple hundred thousand dollars added to its budget once the original movie was picked up by Paramount. This allowed for a new ending for the movie. Anyway, it’s another episode of the found footage genre, but it’s a super scary one. Again, it’s one of those movies that puts the fear in your mind. In fact, there are long periods where nothing really happens. That is suspense in a nutshell. One might argue that its impact has been diluted by the many sequels, but the original shocked audiences to the core in 2007.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Box Office: $30 million
Like most of the movies on this list, Night of the Living Dead is the original picture that prompted many sequels and copycats. It is a low-budget movie in every respect, with the legendary director George A. Romero scrambling to get the movie finished and coming up with innovative ideas to polish the product. There is a touch of comedy in the horror, something that tends to characterize a lot of zombie movies. But over 55 years later, Romero’s classic still holds up.
Budget: $1.8 million
Box Office: $30 million
Carrie is the most expensive movie on this list, but we wanted to mention it due to its role as a starting point for so many of those involved in it. It was based on the debut novel by Stephen King, starred Sissy Spacek and John Travolta, and it was directed by the magnificent Brian de Palma. Spacek, who was Oscar-nominated for her role, is the heart and soul of the movie. It asks the question, which is the real horror: the girl with supernatural powers or the ‘normal’ teenagers who torment and bully her at school?