“The bigger, the better” isn’t always true when making an unforgettable and timeless horror movie. This genre is often stereotyped as an extravaganza of gory visuals, multiple false jump scares, and the usual Hollywood story tropes. The following movies on this list only needed a novel and gripping story and a subtle touch of gore only when necessary. Most importantly, these films don’t have a mammoth budget to begin with! All they did was provide a strong tension and suspense that left people uneasy and hooked. Note: we only included films that have a budget below $3 million.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Here is a classic example of a viral marketing done right. The Blair Witch Project scored a whopping $248.6 million worldwide with a budget of only $60,000. The secret of the success of this movie is its strategic false marketing that was done through the Internet. Before its release, there were faux police reports, newsreel-style interviews, and even a missing persons poster that surfaced on the web.
This marketing ploy that is disguised as a real-life incident left people curious. The Blair Witch Project is supposed to be the documentation of what happened in the woods during the time the three students went missing.
Three film students aimed to produce a documentary about the mystery surrounding the Blair Witch. They conducted interviews about the legend then they set out into the woods to investigate even further. The three disappeared but most of their shot footages were found a year later.
Aside from its box-office success, The Blair Witch Project ushered in a new style of filmmaking: the found footage technique. Films such as the Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield replicated the success of this movie by doing the exact same style. A sequel called Book of Shadows was released in 2000 but it was poorly received. Blair Witch was released in 2016 that does not acknowledge the events in the Book of Shadows.
The Blair Witch Project shattered expectations by proving that you only need a camera and a gripping storyline to capture viewers’ interests. Additionally, a viral marketing campaign can go a long way too. Orson Welles approves.Advertisement
The Evil Dead (1981)
Ash comes to mind whenever someone mentions Bruce Campbell. Rightfully so, the actor delivered a one-of-a-kind performance to pull off this maniacal role. The Evil Dead became a cult horror classic with its claustrophobic setting, dark humor, and gore-fest mayhem.
For their vacation, five students went to a secluded cabin in a remote area. Everything was well until they played an audiotape that unleashed demons and spirits. They have to survive multiple demonic possessions afterward.
Sam Raimi and Bruce teamed up for this project that was inspired by the director’s short film Within the Woods. Raimi approached one of his friends to give his thoughts about the short film. He was unimpressed and advised the director to gather enough funds to produce a feature-length movie. Campbell asked a bunch of his family members while Raimi reached out to some people who might be interested in their project. In the end, they got about $350,000 to create the movie. The rest is history.
Commercially, The Evil Dead found a meager success in the US grossing $2.4 million. Nobody expected that it will be a huge success internationally earning $27 million more. This paved the way for a movie franchise that has one of the largest cult followings for the horror genre. The critics also loved Sam Raimi’s direction for the film, praising the inventive camera work and the film’s audacity. The film was followed by two sequels, a 2013 reboot, and a TV series called Ash vs. The Evil Dead, which starred Bruce Campbell again.
It Follows (2014)
The critics clamored for this film after its debut in the 2014 Cannes Film Fest. It Follows explored some dark themes involving Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV/AIDS. Other people perceived it as a statement regarding our anxieties towards intimacy.
The story centered on a young girl named Jaime (Maika Monroe), who's being followed by a shapeshifting entity after she had sex with her boyfriend. She has to escape before the entity gets and kills her first.
The film’s director, David Robert Mitchell, came up with this concept because of his recurring dreams as a child about being followed. True enough, the film captures the unnerving feeling and paranoia of being stalked. It Follows grossed $23.3 million worldwide scoring 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
The movie is visually stunning with the use of a wide-angle camera work and the overall look of the monster. What gave it the most buzz from critics is its social commentary on sex. “We're all here for a limited amount of time, and we can't escape our mortality ... but love and sex are two ways in which we can – at least temporarily – push death away," said Mitchell.
Based on Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie shocked everyone with its chilling take on telekinesis, religion, and bullying. This Brian De Palma’s classic thriller launched the acting careers of Sissy Spacek and John Travolta on a high note. More so, it is the first horror film to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards for the performances of Spacek and Piper Laurie.
Despite the accolades and its legacy to the horror genre, Carrie has almost never made it on the big screen. Stephen King’s brilliant novel could have ended up in the dumps, literally. His wife, Tabitha, fished the unfinished novel out of the garbage can and provided some assistance for the female perspective.
Sixteen-year-old Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) experienced her first period as she showered after the gym class. Unaware, she thought that she was bleeding to death, causing her classmates to laugh at her and throw tampons. She discovered that she has telekinetic powers that led to the bloodiest prom ever.
Brian De Palma worked hard to stretch the limited $1.8 million into pure magic. Stephen King praised the director for what he did to the movie adaptation of his book. "De Palma's approach to the material was lighter and defter than my own—and a good deal more artistic ... The book seems clear enough and truthful enough in terms of the characters and their actions, but it lacks the style of De Palma's film,” King emphasized.
Critics and the audience members love Carrie’s way of delving into the cruel reality of high school. The movie doesn’t shy away from showing how far other people can go just to torment somebody. The iconic prom scene is parodied and copied multiple times in pop culture.
After its success, Carrie was followed up by a horrible sequel The Rage: Carrie 2, a sub-par 2002 TV movie remake, and an unsatisfying 2013 remake starring Chloë Grace Moretz. We can only agree on one thing: never remake this classic film again.
The Babadook (2014)
Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut surprised everyone with its deep exploration of loss, depression, and trauma in a horror flick. The Babadook reveals that the real monster is not the one that lurks in our basement, but the darkness in each of us that is threatening to drive us mad.
The story follows a widow named Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) and her 6-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), as they deal with the pop-up storybook monster called the Babadook. The Babadook makes its presence felt while Amelia shows erratic and violent behavior. She even brandishes a knife to her son. In the end, Amelia finally tamed the monster that is inside of her by showing that she is more caring to Sam. The Babadook is still there in their basement, only this time, she is able to control it much like her grief and anxiety.
Due to its limited release in Australia, The Babadook didn’t receive commercial success at first. The film got the buzz after it showed at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It finally obtained the attention it deserved in America and Europe, grossing $7.5 million against a $2 million budget.
Years after, the Babadook monster became an iconic symbol for the LGBT community. First, it started just a joke by a Tumblr user saying that the monster is openly gay. Surprisingly, some critics supported this because of the character's dramatic persona and grotesque costume. I wonder if Pennywise and the Babadook really dated as rumored in Twitter.
The Omen (1976)
Ranked fifth as the highest-grossing movie in 1976, The Omen gained tremendous success domestically with $60.92 million with only $2.8 million budget. This film revitalized Gregory Peck’s career and made a staggering amount of money for the 20th Century Fox allowing George Lucas to finish making Star Wars.
American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) secretly adopts an orphan when their son died after birth. His wife (Lee Remick) didn’t know as mysterious and mysterious events plagued their home. Their adopted son, Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens), was revealed to be the Antichrist that will bring doom to the humanity.
This film received two Academy Award nominations and winning for Best Original Score. The American Film Institute included The Omen for their 100 Years... 100 Thrills list. Moreover, it started a successful franchise and some International versions.
Amidst The Omen’s success, various shocking incidents plagued its production. On the first day of its shoot, several members of the crew were involved in a head-on collision. When their production crew canceled a flight, the new people that replaced them were all killed because the plane crashed.
The biggest coincident would probably be the car crash of John Richardson, the movie’s special effects designer. He survived but his assistant, Liz Moore, was cut in half. He managed to crawl out of the car and saw a road sign that said it is 66.6 kilometers away from the town of Ommen. I don’t know about you but that really sounds ominous. Yikes!
James Wan once again proved that he can make effective horror films with Saw and The Conjuring. Directing Insidious was more challenging considering that its budget was just only $1.5 million. The film opened with $13.3 million and finished with a total box office success of $97 million. It was the first movie of what later turned into a franchise.
A couple struggles to get their son back after being comatose. His body became a vessel for ghosts in an astral dimension that want his body. They need to find a way to avoid this before it’s too late.
The director made a statement following the success of Saw. Many people refused to work with him because of the amount of violence and gore he put in it. Insidious is his response that he can also make a subdued horror film without splurging a lot of blood on screen.
Critics were impressed by the film’s scary ambiance that pays homage to the classic haunted house style. They also lauded Wan’s ability to create great suspense and tension. They also commended the film’s lack of violence, as opposed to what the director was first known for. Way to redeem yourself, James.
Ringu turned out to be one of the most iconic Japanese horror classics with its multiple international remakes that turned into a profitable franchise. How can anyone forget the killer videotape, multiple pop culture parodies, and a terrifying long-haired ghost named Sadako?
Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), a reporter, started to investigate the untimely death of her niece and friends in the same week. Apparently, Tomoko watched a cursed videotape that kills the viewer after seven days. As Reiko discovers the truth, she bears witness to Sadako’s dark past and what made her seek revenge.
Ringu explored themes like the ambivalence about motherhood, which Reiko showed as she didn’t turn into a conventional caring mother archetype. Instead, she pursues an independent identity through her career subsequently neglecting her child.
With $1.2 million budget, the film made about $9.12 million (1 billion yen) and followed by some sequels and crossovers. Most importantly, it pioneered a trend for Hollywood to remake clever scary Asian films like Ju-on: The Grudge and Dark Water.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
This film has been dubbed as the most profitable ever made based on its incredible return on investment. Paranormal Activity made $193.4 million on a tight budget of $15,000. That’s 13,000 times more than its production cost. Unbelievable! Moreover, it’s the first widely released film shot entirely through cell phone cameras.
A young couple moves to San Diego. Things are going well for the both of them until Katie (Katie Featherston) reveals that she is being followed by an evil presence since her childhood. During the night, various weird activities are caught on camera, which ultimately leads to a suspenseful climax.
The found footage film style is pure gold in horror as we all know from The Blairwitch Project and Paranormal Activity. On its first release, viewers wondered whether the events in the film happened in real life. We fell for the realism brought by this style of filming again. I guess we never learn.
From a low budget film, it blossomed into a lucrative franchise. It was followed by three more sequels including a spin-off called Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. The fifth and final installment called Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension was released in 2015. The franchise earned $889.7 million against the total production cost of just $28 million.
The first Paranormal Activity movie received mostly positive reviews from the critics. The eerie silence and the well-established tension make this film suspenseful. It turns out that sometimes, all you need is an entrancing plot and a camera to unsettle audiences.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven took some inspiration on the formula John Carpenter used in making Halloween. It involves a low budget, some horny teens, and a killer on the loose. The late 70’s established a horror trend that involved killing teens for being sexually promiscuous. Hence, the term slasher film was born.
What made A Nightmare on Elm Street stood is its supernatural element. The movie explored the concept of the need to survive both in reality and in a dream. Correction, nightmare! The paranoia of the characters was apparent as they were sleepless and desperate.
Four teenagers are followed in their dreams by Freddie Krueger, a burnt killer that used a glove armed in razors as his weapon. Their parents knew a secret that may be the only escape to this dilemma.
The film grossed about $25.5 million in the US box office alone with just $1.8 million production cost. Some critics said that this movie alone re-established Craven’s career after a series of mediocre films like Swamp Thing, The Hills Have Eyes Part 2, and Invitation to Hell. It has turned into a prized franchise for the New Line Cinema, scoring $457,001,847 at the box office.
Another reason to watch this film: it’s the first-ever film that starred Johnny Depp!