Horror movies continue to be a hugely successful cinematic genre. Whether campy, terrifying or full of scares, audiences love to be stimulated. Fear – and the anticipation of fear – is a great way to induce a psychological reaction. Therefore, horror movies can be a great way to get your storyline off the page. While many have amazing CGI and big-budget sets, the truth is smart concept and simple effects can go a long way when trying to scare your audience, making low-budget horror films an accessible route to independent filmmakers to complete projects and launch their careers.
Let’s look at some amazing examples of low-budget horror movies and explore what made them so scary.
Blair Witch Project (1999)
In 1999, a small group of filmmakers created a cultural phenomenon and launched “found footage” cinema on the map. Daniel Myrick and Ed Sánchez have created a 35-page treatment about three college students who disappear after going into the woods to make a documentary about a legendary witch. The students were never found, but their images remained.
The co-directors took a big risk by not using a script but instead relying on the actors’ improvisation. For eight days, the actors lived in the woods, filming themselves and using GPS to find locations left by the crew where they would leave their footage, pick up food, and review director‘s notes.
It cost around $35,000 to shoot the movie and around another $270,000 to edit and market it, but it paid off. The documentary-style film with eerie child voices, satanic-looking woody relics and a possession-style finale didn’t just become iconic — it played Sundance with a line around the block and sold out. for a million dollars before earning $248 million at Box Office.
The takeaway for the writers is that a small cast in an existing location is enough to tell a compelling and chilling story. The Blair Witch Project never actually shows the witch – instead, she’s an looming presence in the dark, creating a sense of being trapped, lost, and hunted.
Think about the scariest times you’ve had in your life: the feeling of something eerie with you in the dark, the vulnerability of your bare feet when you walk up to a bed not knowing what’s underneath, or when someone you trust starts acting unnatural. Go for the realistic things in life that lift the hair at the back of your neck – no CGI needed.
PRIME: paranormal activity (2007)
Inspired by The Blair Witch Project, creator Oren Peli shot paranormal activity home for seven days and seven nights. The film plays on the fear of something plunging you into darkness while you sleep — and it grossed $193 million at the box office on a budget of $15,000.
Get Out (2017)
Easily the most expensive movie on this list, get out had a budget of $4.5 million, low for industry standards. It not only grossed $255 million at the box office, but also garnered tons of accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the director. Jordan Peele, as well as three other nominations including Best Picture. Not only that, but Peele fundamentally redefined the horror genre with get out. Not too shabby for a low budget horror movie.
get out is a disturbing and haunting film about a black man who uncovers a sinister secret upon meeting his white girlfriend’s family. Not only is it a terrifying horror concept, but the film’s resounding success is also undoubtedly due to its brilliant commentary on modern and historical racism.
“The best and scariest monsters in the world are human beings and what we are capable of, especially when we come together”, Peele shared with Indiewire. The realism of get out – and the haunting fate of its victims – has added an extra charge to its fear factor that is both timely and shrewd.
If your horror script can scare people and score a point, you’re on your way to major screenwriting success.
Monsters is a low-budget sci-fi horror film set years after a NASA probe crashes in Mexico, taking giant tentacle monsters with it. It follows an American photojournalist who accompanies his employer’s daughter back to the United States via the infected zone of Mexico. With a budget of $500,000, director Gareth Edwards shot the film in three weeks with a six-person production team. The film then premiered at South by Southwest, grossed $4.2 million at the box office, and launched Edwards’ career (he went on to helm the 2014 films Godzilla and a small project called A thug).
Monsters is another example of a filmmaker who remains very demanding when showing his monsters. Like the Blair Witch, they loom as a threat in the dark. They make terrifying noises at night. We see their destruction long before we actually see them.
Like other heartbreaking horror films (see 28 days later), it is often the humans around you who can become a threat. Monsters keeps its audience on the lookout and shows how you can indeed create something amazing on the cheap.
Horror movies are all about concept – a good screenwriter uses anticipation, innate fears and curiosity to delight and satisfy their readers. Great horror movies let audiences experience alternate realities like zombie apocalypses, alien invasions, or hauntings. They teach us about the dark side of humanity and maybe even encourage us to savor some Midsommar revenge.
Take the time to develop the psychology of your low budget horror movie. What makes it scary? What makes it exciting? What piques a morbid curiosity? What sense of accomplishment will the survivors leave?
And above all, have fun – no one chooses to scare themselves because they think it’s boring!
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Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, his articles have appeared in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come and play on instagram and Twitter!