A Look at Some Great Low Budget Horror

By Matthew Cabe

Fall 2014

About Autumn, Charles Kuralt wrote, “It arrives on a signal not audible to the human ear, a sigh or whisper in the wind that tells the trees, ‘Let go.’” As soothing as this sounds, the reason for our inability to hear Autumn’s signal is not a peaceful one. For clawing at the heels of the new season is Halloween, which comes with its own signals that drown out all else with a brutal cacophony of fear that convinces hordes of victims to let go by way of axes, chainsaws, infected gashes, knives, revenge, insanity, mutilation, and paranoia.

I’m writing, of course, about horror, that bastard-son genre of the movie world. Every year, to celebrate Halloween’s arrival, I compile a list of 31 horror films to watch each night of the month. The list normally includes a majority of favorites that have stayed with me over the years along with a few new additions sprinkled in for good measure. This year, however, I decided to try out a low-budget theme since—for the sake of old-fashioned pretentiousness—I’ve been on that sort of a kick lately.

The experiment, I must say, has gone rather well. As far as the films are concerned, there’s much to be said for the ingenuity that can occur when the crew has very little money, an asset that many people today mistake for creative vision. This isn’t to say though that large budgets can’t produce art, or that one production is better than another simply because a minimal budget was utilized. Because, to be clear, I watched some truly godawful cinema during the past month.

But I also watched some truly inspired and inventive (and scary) cinema, and it’s those films I want to laud as we approach that holiest of unholy holidays. So, without further rambling, I present my ten favorite horror films with a budget of less than one million dollars.

10. Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow (2013). $650,000.

It’s probably reaching, but I was reminded of filmmaker Don Bluth, who was once one of Disney’s top animators, as I watched first-time director Randy Moore’s insanity tale, Escape from Tomorrow. When Bluth left Disney in 1979, it was more for creative differences than it was for a loathing of the company itself, and soon after he started his own rival company and went on to direct such classics as An American Tail and The Land Before Time. Despite being marketed as a subversive glimpse into the idolatry at the heart of everything Disney embodies, Moore’s film seems more concerned with the story itself. For those who are unaware, Moore and his crew shot nearly every scene at both Disney World in Orlando, Florida and Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and they did so without permission. But as the film progresses, it becomes less about the dangers of consumerism and corporate worship, and more about the struggles found at the heart of family life. Moore definitely uses common knowledge to his advantage when filming everyday goings-on at the two theme parks; “It’s a Small World”, for example, will always be terrifying. But in Moore’s film, the parks are relegated to mere backdrop over time as opposed to serving as an overwhelming force of evil comparable to The Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The result is a semi-subversive dive into psychosis brought on by work-, family-, and sexual-related failures, which, to Moore’s credit, is still one hell of a creepy ride.

9. John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). Budget: $110,000.

Although filmed in the mid-eighties, McNaughton’s intimate look into the life of a serial killer wasn’t released until 1990 due to MPAA rating disputes and marketing conundrums. The delays wound up creating a happy accident though since the overall aimless tone of the film pairs nicely with the mindset of the generation those delays made the film a part of. In 1991, one year after Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was finally released, Richard Linklater’s Slacker took the independent film world by storm, and in the process became a rallying cry of the X generation. With the likes of Kevin Smith’s Clerks showing up in 1994 along with Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski in 1998 (to name a few), the decade brimmed with stories of angst sans outlet. But whereas these other films—Slacker and The Big Lebowski in particular—embraced the nothing-to-do-so-do-nothing approach, Henry offers an example of the dangerous pitfalls that lie in idleness. The film opens on the eyes and mouth of a woman lying in a field. The sun is shining. Birds chirp in the distance. The camera then pans back and tilts slightly askew—an homage to Hitchcock’s filming of Janet Leigh’s lifeless eye at the end of the shower scene in Psycho. Slowly, it’s revealed that the woman is dead. She’s naked with a bloody gash across her stomach. The scene is a shock to disturb the otherwise tranquil setting, and it inflicts a mood of unsettling nonchalance that persists throughout. Henry chooses to kill in the same way other people choose to go out for a beer; there’s simply nothing better to do. But killing doesn’t satisfy anything within him. Oddly enough, the film slowly becomes less about Henry’s violence and more about the violence of his friend Otis, who gets more than enough satisfaction for both men. In a pivotal scene, Otis and Henry sit slumped on a couch watching a snuff film they’ve made. They’re transfixed on the images of molestation and death as if they hadn’t committed the acts. When it’s over, Otis rewinds the tape. Henry asks him what he’s doing. Otis responds, “I want to watch it again.” The two then fix their gazes back on the television screen. What else is there to do, anyway?

8. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Budget: $100,000.

Cannibal Holocaust is partly a tragic found-footage story that chronicles the ill-fated adventure of four rebel documentarians who travel to the Amazon to film the cannibalistic rituals of indigenous tribes, and has, for many reasons, achieved cult status. It lives on today as the precursor to other found-footage films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. The other, less convincing part of the film is a morality tale that follows an NYU anthropologist, Harold Monroe, who leads a rescue mission in search of the missing filmmakers. The found-footage aspects of the film are the most convincing and the most disturbing. Deodato went well out of his way to achieve what many at the time thought to be authenticity. He shot on location in the Amazon, filmed real Amazonian tribes, and had his four main actors sign agreements stipulating they wouldn’t appear in public or in other films for at least one year in order to keep up the illusion that they were, in fact, dead. His diligence led to the film being banned and confiscated almost immediately following its release, and landed Deodato in court where he was nearly convicted of murder. Watching the second half of the film makes you understand why. It’s entirely convincing. That there are several instances of real and cruel animal death (a scene involving a turtle being the most heinous) only adds to the illusion that the humans suffered the same fate. The morality tale aspect of the film, however, never convinces in the same way. At one point, Monroe’s team stumbles on the remains and (conveniently) the footage of the four filmmakers. Once studio executives get wind of the footage, they naturally want to exploit it for a profit. Monroe refuses; he believes the footage is too graphic for public consumption. Questions like, “How far is too far?” and “Who is truly uncivilized?” are inevitably asked, but given the lengths he goes to in order to ask them, Deodato’s own moral certainty falls into question.

7. Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project (1999). Budget: $25,000.

Assisted by a convincing internet marketing campaign, Myrick’s found-footage tale of  the fabled Blair Witch became an instant sensation at the end of the last millennium. Like most successful horror filmmakers, Myrick is savvy to the history of what scares the shit out of people. Hitchcock’s oeuvre teaches that it’s anticipation, everything that leads up to the big moment. In that sense, The Blair Witch Project could possibly be the most frightening anticipatory film of all time. As we follow the three student filmmakers who are making a documentary about the Blair Witch, the scares come from snapped twigs, nauseating camera movements, and paranoid minds rather than a physical entity. The amateur team only grows more hysterical after they get lost in the woods while conducting their research. Above all, The Blair Witch Project is clever. People don’t die; they disappear. Scary moments are heard, not seen. Everything is suggested. Roger Corman, the master of making extremely low budgets work to his benefit, filmed a bank robbery scene in Machine Gun Kelly using only a window and shadows because he couldn’t secure a location for shots of the bank’s interior. Similarly, Myrick films the sounds of sticks breaking, and the wide, tearful eyes of the documentarians as they slowly lose their minds. But who or what is killing them? That the film lacked money enough to show us only makes the Blair Witch more ubiquitous and more frightening.

6. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Budget: $325,000.

To say that Halloween established the tropes of the slasher film sub-genre isn’t exactly true. Wes Craven’s debut feature, Last House on the Left (1972), included all the same youthful mistakes (e.g. drug use, premarital sex) that lead to death. What was new about the tropes in Carpenter’s film though was how he used them as motives for killing, and the film stands as an Old Testament-style reminder that sinners will be punished. So smoking a little grass and relieving a few bras of their weight is probably not a good idea. But teenagers will always abide when it comes to making poor decisions. And the wrath of Michael Myers will always leap from the shadows to administer swift justice. The killer-with-godlike-powers aspect of the film is highlighted even more every time Dr. Loomis, Michael’s psychiatrist, explains that his patient is not human. Along with setting a precedent for the slasher formula, Halloween also proved that formula to be profitable, which is why the theaters in the 1980s were overrun with low-budget offerings like Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. That’s not to say those films are bad, by the way. They’re just familiar. What sets Halloween apart is its moody deliberateness. It’s possibly more accurate to label it a stalker film as opposed to a slasher since Michael spends as much time watching his victims as he does making them victims. Make no mistake though. Michael isn’t a voyeur. Judging, vengeful eyes lurk behind that expressionless, William Shatner mask.

5. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985). Budget: $900,000.

Herbert West sums up the premise of Re-Animator in the opening scene. When a nurse accuses him of killing a renowned Swiss doctor, West replies boldly, “No I didn’t. I gave him life.” And so begins a tale of one medical student’s quest to bring the dead back to life. It’s difficult to explain why I like the film as much as I do. I’m a sucker for humor though, and Re-Animator has plenty, mostly by way of great one-liners. For example, when West comes face-to-neck the re-animated and headless doctor who stole his life-giving re-agent to, in turn, use it to gain notoriety, he asks, “Who’s going to believe a talking head?” But I digress. Appreciation for the film starts with Jeffrey Combs’s performance as West and ends with the special effects. Combs plays West in the vein of Norman Bates. He starts out as a quiet, seemingly innocuous though not exactly likable sort, who becomes maniacal and desperate as the proceedings slip farther from his control. Outside of the decapitated Dr. Hill’s re-animated corpse, Combs’s West is far and away the most memorable character. Speaking of Dr. Hill, the film boasts the biggest budget on this list, and my guess is most of the $900,000 went to his special effects, which are inventive, gruesome, and often played for laughs. The head and body of Dr. Hill is the crowning achievement and a scene involving both, along with the unconscious Megan (girlfriend of West’s cohort, Dan), is perverted yet uncomfortably funny. There’s a long line of horror films about the re-animation of life in one form or another, but what separates Re-Animator how it hams up the follies of a doctor playing God. Essentially, West yearns to create a cure for death, but each re-animated corpse comes back to life in worse shape than the last. He clearly has no clue what he’s dealing with, which, thankfully, gives the film its life.

4. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Budget: $114,000.

Traditionally great zombie films are about survival—not only how to survive, but contemplating whether surviving is even worth the trouble, as well—not how or why people become zombies. Night of the Living Dead is responsible for this. A small budget limited Romero and his crew in almost every aspect of production. Very few locations were used, chocolate syrup stood in for blood, chunks of ham for devoured human entrails. The list goes on all the way down to the makeup applied to the actors who portrayed the undead. Despite a few instances in which the effects team was able to splurge a bit, the majority of makeup used to zombify the actors was merely a whitening of the skin and a blackening around the eyes. More than likely it was accidental, but the effect this creates is a humanizing one, which creates conflict and torments those characters still capable of running for their lives. All zombie-themed movies include that moment in which a character must choose to off an infected loved one, but at times in Romero’s classic there is a feel that everyone might be a loved one because, for the most part, everyone still looks recognizable, alive, and only a sociopath would have no qualms with murdering another human. Romero made a storied career out of directing zombie pictures (he might as well call his next film Empire of the Dead), and zombie culture has since become a worldwide phenomenon. But Night of the Living Dead remains the benchmark against which all others are compared.

3. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Budget: $93,000—$300,000.

The downfall of many recent horror films is their desire to tiresomely explain. But a pitch black room usually isn’t scary once the lights flicker on, and the rebellious auteurs working during the early years of the 1970s played upon this. They exploited audience’s fear of the unknown by creating brutal films that are remembered for their depictions of random acts of violence that made anywhere feel unsafe. Tobe Hooper’s sweltering nightmare is no exception. Everything The Texas Chain Saw Massacre stands for is laid out in plain view during its final shot of Leatherface’s grotesquely beautiful highway flailing. Naturally, there’s the group of unlucky kids and the hitchhiker they pick up who’s into self-mutilation. The off-kilter locals and their questionable barbecue. The slaughterhouse. The meat hooks and the masks of human flesh. The real blood used when its fake counterpart looked unconvincing on camera. And that fucking chainsaw. But it’s the final shot that explains nothing and everything. There’s one victim left to disembowel. She’s managed to survive the terrorizing night that claimed the lives of her brother and their friends for no reason other than they just happened to be in the killing path. Leatherface nips at her heels. With the help of a passing trucker who bops Leatherface on the head with a wrench, she eludes death (though not hysteria) by flagging down another motorist and jumping into the back of his pickup truck. He speeds off. Leatherface gives brief chase before admitting defeat by extending his chainsaw far above his masked face. And then he leads his chainsaw in a dance. He spins wildly and lifts the chainsaw like a skilled, willing partner. The dance is unexpected, a celebration of death, but also an enraged acknowledging of the one that got away. No explanation. Just psychotic glee expressing itself because it must. The sun rises on the scene. Leatherface is alive, free, still wielding his murder weapon. Still chaotic. Still among us.

2. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1983). Budget: $90,000—$400,000.

Sam Raimi’s campy film about the unintentional awakening of a demonic presence is the embodiment of excess that came to define the 1980s. More blood spills from the orifices of the characters in The Evil Dead than from those characters in all the other films on this list combined, and it’s the result of Raimi wanting more blood, not that of a larger body count. Also in excess are the warning signs the five friends encounter on the way to the now infamous cabin in the woods. The car’s steering wheel that mysteriously sticks and nearly causes a head-on collision. The dirt-cheap price they paid for the cabin. The rickety bridge that almost collapses. The swing that bumps against the cabin’s porch wall until it unexpectedly doesn’t. The clock that stops time. Cheryl’s ensuing mini-possession that produces a drawing of a sinister-looking face. The cellar door in the floor that attempts to open itself. The cellar door in the floor that does open itself. All are hints that Ash and his friends should get the hell out before it’s too late. But, of course, they don’t. The logic of The Evil Dead would never allow for such an illogical decision. So instead, each peculiar happening makes the kids all the more curious and plunges them deeper into a ridiculous nightmare that’s beyond comprehension. Which is the point. You don’t attempt to understand the absurdity. You embrace it. Like the characters themselves, you become it. There’s truly nothing like The Evil Dead—except The Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. If it’s paying homage to anything it’s not one film in particular, but the slew of films released after Psycho that attempted to one-up the shock value of Hitchcock’s 1960 game changer. Raimi’s masterwork is daring, chaotic, transgressive, irrational, and reason behind why people think Hell will be more fun than Heaven.

1. David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Budget: $100,000

Immersion into David Lynch’s debut feature demands a keen ear. The visuals are haunting in and of themselves, but the eerie effect they achieve is heightened to disturbing levels by the mechanized drones and hisses of the industrial landscape that are omnipresent throughout. At it’s core, Eraserhead is a rumination on bewilderment and the anxiety that manifests as a result thereof. The slew of disfigured oddities encountered by Henry Spencer seem to be byproducts of the noisy factories that are always distant, offscreen and yet somehow penetrating. Something is amiss with everyone. Mary X (Henry’s girlfriend) and her mother have unexplained seizures with such regularity that no one pays them any mind. Bill X, Mary’s father, has an arm that’s numb and immobile. The Lady in the Radiator—who Lynch has described as a beacon of light within a dark world—is also not immune; her otherwise beautiful face is overwhelmed by two bloated, possibly infected cheeks. Henry, on the other hand, remains physically unaffected; his affliction occurs within his mind and is noticeable in his inept stares. He’s rendered speechless by the horrors of the world around him. Processing what the hell is going on is impossible so he dives deeper into himself, only to discover anxieties that were brought on by, and further, his ineptitude. Eraserhead is not only a horror film though. During my most-recent viewing, I found myself laughing most of the time. But it’s not only a black comedy either. The story, which took Lynch five years to piece together, takes on a strangely ordinary feel with each subsequent viewing. Something familiar starts to emerge within Lynch’s nondescript, surreal netherworld, something within that chicken dinner that never quite turns out right, and that job that makes Henry feel like he’s vanishing, slowly being erased. And that something is reality.

Matthew Cabe is an avid moviegoer and writer.


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Film Still from Eraserhead, Photography Courtesy of Libra Films

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