What is common between Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson? Both are critically and commercially acclaimed directors who have held the reins of very large franchises, the Spider-Man franchise in the case of Raimi and the Tolkien franchise in the case of Jackson. Both directors have been extremely successful and are heralded as pioneers and visionaries. However, something that most people might not know is where both directors cut their teeth – low-budget, B-grade horror movies that show sparkles of their genius to come.
Let us take a closer look at the fine art of low budget horror movies, with special focus on Raimi and Jackson who showed how to do it right.
Raimi and The Evil Dead
With The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi created quite a few firsts in the horror genre. This was a low-budget horror movie in the 80s, created independently with a budget under $400,000, where Raimi unwittingly initiated one of the first successful horror franchises while also creating a masterpiece in the genre of splatter films – a horror movie subgenre that focuses heavily on graphic portrayals of violence, loads of gore, and the grotesque.
Raimi can also be credited as a major force in the founding of one of the most famous horror movie tropes – the “cabin in the woods” genre of films.
A lot went into making Evil Dead a low-budget horror cult classic, a lot of which is squarely due to Raimi’s decisions during making the film. First up, the cabin Raimi found where most of the action takes place in Morristown, Tennessee has a real-life horror story that contributed to the creepy ambiance.
Then Raimi chose to make things very real for the cast and crew, which included using live ammunition for gunshot scenes, encouraging cast members to intoxicate themselves to help out with intense scenes, and including an extremely controversial and graphic scene where a woman is violated by a tree in a forest.
A major win for convincing, visually striking low-budget horror was the way Raimi and the crew handled special effects. A lot of viewers will remember the tacky but real horror effects of different shades of goo emanating from undead corpses as they meet their end. The melting corpse is infamous in horror circles, and the effects supervisor for the film used a plethora of practical, easily available ingredients to make things visually uncomfortable and real. This included things like oatmeal, marshmallow strings fashioned into guts, real snakes, and Madagascar cockroaches that the team acquired specially for the effect.
All of these decisions, coupled with the difficulties of a shoestring budget and money frequently drying up during the shoot, gives Evil Dead Its real, gritty feel.
Peter Jackson’s Start
Fans who know Peter Jackson as the visionary director of arguably the best adaptations in cinema, The Lord of the Rings series, would be surprised to know that Jackson got his start directing low-budget horror movies of a very particular kind – a genre known fondly as “splatstick”. This involves outrageously graphic violence and gore thrown into a horror-comedy frame. His first feature-length film was Bad Taste, shot on a minimal budget.
Bad Taste involves an alien invasion scenario where the alien species are interested in humans as a source of food. Needless to say, this gives rise to graphic and gratuitous violence that is represented on screen using practical, budget effects that look corny and very real at the same time. All of this experience goaded Jackson towards his true low-budget horror masterpiece, Dead Alive.
The gore can make a low budget horror movie like these almost unbearable for some, but the creative energy and whimsical pace carries the action admirably as events unfold in quick succession.
Essentially a zombie flick, Dead Alive involves a rabid rat monkey that carries the zombie disease and infects people through bites. The movie centers around Lionel, whose mother gets infected and starts infecting others. While Lionel understands exactly what is going on, he opts to keep things a secret and tries to take care of things himself.
This leads to some gory yet hilariously horrific scenes, including one where Lionel patches up his mother’s skin with glue. The movie culminates into a chaotic climax, where Lionel’s house party guests become infected in several unique, gruesome ways. One guy has his entire head skinned while alive while Lionel tries to put things in order while having to move around on a very slippery floor thanks to the blood and guts. Finally, Lionel has to make the tough decision to “eliminate” the problem using some garden equipment.
Low-Budget Horror Movie Pioneers
Raimi and Jackson have both done their bit to show the world that horror movies do not need big budgets to be either good or disturbing. With creativity, vision, and the will to do outrageous things that push the boundaries in terms of filmmaking technique and special effects, both directors laid the foundation for a whole slew of low-budget horror movies that came after.
Defying the Low Budget Horror Aesthetic
(contributed by writer Ben Mangelsdorf)
As films like the Evil Dead series have become more and more popular, low budget horror movies have slowly started to become a genre of their own. The gritty practical effects, the writing that blurs comedy and horror, and the strong presence of archetypes have become horror mainstays that appear even in movies that have more than a few bucks to throw around. A movie like Zombieland, for instance, wore its schlocky influences on its sleeve despite having a budget of $23.6 million.
But, like everything that eventually becomes iconic, the low budget horror aesthetic is now ripe for subversion. Films made without much money in the modern day often don’t resemble the clumsily fun flicks of the 80s. No, this new breed of low budget horror filmmaker leaves it up to Hollywood to appropriate that dated look. The majority of horror movies that find success without much money now emphasize qualities like writing, atmosphere, and tension; in other words, elements that don’t require a big budget to make a big impact.
A prime example of this is 2014’s The Babadook. Although its budget of $2 million may seem large, that’s nothing in film terms (the recent Conjuring film, for instance, had about 20 times more to spend). Instead of burning away the majority of that $2 million on special effects, The Babadook instead took a “slow burn” approach. The majority of the time, the monster is just implied. The tension is built largely just by two actors. Nearly all the action takes place in just one house.
This approach paid off in dividends. The Babadook ended up being a critical darling – it currently holds a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. It has also helped increase the popularity of a more reserved, atmospheric style of horror movie that now seems to have replaced the thrill-focused slashers of yesteryear. From relatively humble beginnings, the movie managed to garner a ton of praise and influence. Hell, even William Friedkin sang its praises on Twitter.
Other low budget horror movies have tried the same approach as The Babadook. The Eyes of My Mother had only $300,000 to work with, but it managed to be viscerally terrifying. Oh, and we absolutely shouldn’t forget The Blair Witch Project, proof that the idea that atmospheric horror made with low budgets is nothing new. In fact, one could even point to Psycho as the godfather of this type of filmmaking, as it made $50 million out of only $800,000. Actually, speaking of unlikely box office successes….
Low Budget Horror is Popular
Although it seems counterintuitive, low budget horror movies often do surprisingly well at the box office. Sure, it’s easy to point to films like Ouija Shark and say that B-movie horror is doomed to a dark destiny, but that’s not always the case. (By the way, if you’ve never seen Ouija Shark, do me a favor and watch the trailer. You won’t regret it.)
In fact, horror seems to be an odd exception to the cinematic rule that you need to spend money to make money. Some of the genre’s heaviest hitters came from filmmakers with modest wallets. The aforementioned Blair Witch Project is part of the modern horror canon, and it made a mind-boggling $248 million starting with just $60,000. Another iconic film, Paranormal Activity, might have an even more impressive return on investment: it made $193 million off of $15,000. Do the math on that if you want to feel like you missed out on the filmmaking opportunity of a generation.
A weird part of this dynamic is that the popularity of low budget horror doesn’t seem to be a trend. As mentioned earlier, Psycho showed what was possible with less than $1 million way back in the 60s. 50s creature-features demonstrated that to a lesser degree even earlier. 1978’s Halloween had a budget of $325,000, and 1980’s Friday the 13th was made with only $550,000. Every decade has tons of examples of low budget horror films that somehow broke through into the mainstream.
What is it about low budget horror that makes it able to succeed where other genres like drama might fail? It’s hard to say. For one, the sheer versatility of horror helps it out in this regard – a great horror movie can be hokey or tense, and both of those feelings can be accomplished with a small budget. Horror also doesn’t rely on name recognition, so hiring no-name actors can often work out. Additionally, horror fans tend to spread the word about their favorite films, allowing word of mouth to really help popularize unknown movies.
But, then again, maybe this just proves that scares are cheap.
Low Budget Horror’s Future
Where does low budget horror go from here? There are multiple different approaches that are possible, and there are decades of precedence to draw from. In my opinion, low budget horror will continue to operate outside of the mainstream while still influencing it. As the A24-style “elevated horror” flicks gain popularity, perhaps the pendulum will swing back the other way and bring Raimi back into style. It’s hard to say, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the underground to watch what happens.
Last Updated on July 31, 2022.