Indie Essentials: Low-Budget Horror

Elizabeth Olsen stars in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Since the most nightmare-inducing aspects of horror films are often what’s left unseen, nothing diminishes the scare factor like a big budget. Can anyone honestly say that Jan de Bont’s effects-laden $80 million adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel is a fraction as scary as Robert Wise’s elegantly subtle, psychologically taut 1963 version (which was made for a slim $1.4 million)? In this special Halloween edition of Indie Essentials, let’s look at ten films that inspired multitudes of sleepless nights on a limited budget…

Psycho (1960) $806,947

While his last crowd-pleasing hit, “North by Northwest,” was made for well over $3 million, Alfred Hitchcock worked on a vastly smaller budget for his next project, which raised many an eyebrow among even his most ardent fans. In order to adapt Robert Bloch’s gruesome novel, Hitchcock utilized black and white photography, planned an unusually brief shooting schedule and hired the crew from his television show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (it’s not for nothing that the opening Paramount logo is made to look as if it’s being viewed through a hazy TV screen). This stripped-down approach allowed the Master of Suspense to get away with murder, and boy did he ever. This is the “Citizen Kane” of modern horror, as further illustrated in Sacha Gervasi’s upcoming film about the making of “Psycho,” featuring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch. It’s still as terrifying as the day it was made, and also just as much fun.

Carrie (1976) $1.8 million

Made for one-eighth the budget of 1975’s “Jaws,” Brian de Palma’s beloved adaptation of Stephen King’s trashily entertaining novel is one of the best films ever made about adolescent angst. Sissy Spacek is sensational as the titular teen who’s bullied at school and abused at home until she finally snaps. The film is really one exquisitely constructed build-up to a final jump scare that has caused me (and my friends) to leap from their chairs even when viewed on the smallest of TV screens. The film is hugely enjoyable, but also immensely disturbing as a metaphor for the violence that erupts out of everyday occurrences in schools across America. In the age of cyber-bullying, this film is more relevant than ever. Though there’s absolutely no reason for another version of “Carrie” to be made, the powerhouse trio of Kimberly Peirce, Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore has gotten me cautiously stoked for next year’s remake. I already like the film’s marketing campaign, which invites fans to call Carrie’s home phone (dial 207-404-2604–if you dare!). William Castle would’ve loved it.

Halloween (1978) $320,000

The grandaddy of all slasher blockbusters was so profitable that it inevitably spawned an endless franchise, so it’s easy to forget just how masterful the original truly was. Director/composer John Carpenter took a minimalist approach to the score that allowed every piano note to burrow deeply within the skin. As a masked killer calmly crosses the street to off his latest victim as she desperately cries for help, the score sounds something like this: “Dun! Duh-dun! Dun! Duh-dun!” It’s every bit as effective and iconic as the violin shrieks in “Psycho” and the chomping refrain in “Jaws.” From the opening POV shot of young Michael Myers taking part in his first bloodbath, cinematographer Dean Cundey’s sly lens maintains a predatory focus on the doomed characters. This culminates in one of the scariest denouements in film history, as Michael’s breathing is heard in various empty rooms where he was previously witnessed wreaking havoc.

Hansel and Gretel (1988) Budget unknown

This one is for the kiddies. I always found witches to be the scariest seasonal ghouls, with their grandmotherly kindness giving way to bloodthirsty wickedness. The movie that continued to give me nightmares throughout my childhood was Len Talan’s little-seen adaptation of the Brothers Grimm faerie tale. Cloris Leachman’s performance is so impactful that it haunts every frame of the film, despite the fact that she doesn’t appear until the halfway point. Her transformation from a hilariously kooky granny into a vile, cackling demon was absolutely galvanizing to me as a kid. I was terrorized by her, and yet I loved her all the more for it. The big scene where Gretel first encounters the witch owes a great debt to the performance of young Nicola Stapleton (future star of “EastEnders”), who looks genuinely freaked beyond belief. In fact, once the tykes enter the haunted forest, the film casts the sort of eerily claustrophobic spell that could never be achieved on a big budget. Apparently Canon Movie Tales had such a low budget for this picture that they shot it simultaneously with another faerie tale film, forcing both crews to share sets, costumes and various equipment. (note: the clip below is missing a key shot at 4:52, where Gretel is awoken by a psychotic laugh emanating from the basement–it made me jump every time).

The Blair Witch Project (1999) $60,000

Speaking of witches, an extremely small number of found footage films have come close to equaling the overwhelming power of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s microbudget masterpiece that jump-started the entire genre. Actors Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams also deserve an enormous amount of credit, since the film consists entirely of their own dialogue and camerawork (they play documentary filmmakers who explore a forest supposedly haunted by the legendary “Blair Witch”). It’s the reality that these three actors create within the boundaries provided them by the directors that makes this cinematic nightmare so spellbinding. The surrounding environment is so convincing that when something surreal happens, it chills the viewer to the bone. The final shot is utter perfection.

Open Water (2003) $500,000

One of the most astonishing tour de forces in modern independent film, Chris Kentis’s edge-of-your-seat nail-biter centers on the bobbing heads of two abandoned scuba divers furiously treading water in shark-infested waters. It’s one of those films where the audience spends much of the time asking themselves, “How did they do that?” Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis are entirely convincing as the stranded couple, while the cinematography by Kentis and his wife Laura Lau causes the audience to shiver at every movement that occurs beneath the water’s surface. A sequence set during a nighttime thunderstorm is the very definition of nerve-fraying.

The Descent (2005) $5.6 million

Neil Marshall’s cave-dwelling creature feature is one of the scariest films of the decade precisely because its creatures are glimpsed only sparingly. Much of the screen time is devoted to the relationships between an adventurous group of female explorers, including the heroine (Shauna Macdonald) still traumatized by a personal tragedy, which is graphically witnessed in the film’s shocking opening minutes. Though Marshall certainly doesn’t spare the audience of blood and guts, his film still manages to play on the mind rather than the gag reflex.

Paranormal Activity (2007) $15,000

If “Paranormal Activity 4” proved anything all, it’s that the waning franchise has now targeted pre-teens as its ideal demographic (which is why the R-rating marred its box office). These sequels have forgotten what made Oren Peli’s phenomenally successful landmark smash so effective: its complex level of subtlety. Peli’s background in graphic design was apparent in the spine-tingling shadows that inexplicably appear on the walls of Katie and Micah’s bedroom, while a stationary camera records the events. Whereas so many horror flicks resort to choppy editing for cheap effect, Peli reminded audiences just how excruciatingly creepy a still frame can be. The film ultimately played on the primal fears of a young couple who are living together for the first time and still have a lot to learn about one another. You think you know your partner intimately, but do you really know what’s going on inside his (or her) head? When Katie gets out of bed and stands while looking at her sleeping boyfriend, the camera’s speeding time code (which ends up spanning a few hours) matches the audience’s quickening pulse.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) Under $1 million

Sometimes the best horror films are the ones that don’t appear to be a part of the horror genre. Sean Durkin’s marvelously structured thriller initially appears to be a chilling psychodrama about a girl, Martha (an electrifying Elizabeth Olsen), who escapes a dangerous cult and invades the life of her older sister (an equally superb Sarah Paulson). The film shifts back and forth between Martha’s present surroundings and her memories (or nightmares?) of the cult itself, headed by the predatory Patrick (John Hawkes, scary as hell). Durkin brings the audience so deep within the character’s paranoid psyche that we end up looking at everything through her eyes. Many recent indies have featured potentially delusional characters who question their reality, but this is the best. The very last sequence includes perhaps the most potently ambiguous (and deliciously unnerving) cut to black in film history.

Entrance (2012) Around $6,000

Many festival audiences were fooled into thinking Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath’s microbudget feature was a mere “mumblecore” drama that followed a sad woman through the daily grind of her listless life in LA. I’m not sure how these audience members could’ve kept feeling fooled until the final act of this picture, since there are endless clues strewn throughout its first hour that hint at sinister forces lurking around the corner. The tension in this film is so thick that it could be sliced with a knife, and when the knives finally appear, they increase the horror tenfold. It’s interesting that “House of the Devil” director Ti West championed the film on its DVD, since his segment in the found footage anthology “V/H/S,” shares several striking elements. It’s a credit to Hallam’s cinematography that the last twenty minutes triumphantly achieve what “Silent House” had only dreamed of pulling off. This is, by far, the scariest film I’ve seen this year.

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