Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: When Microbudget Horror Gets It Right

Posted on September 13, 2012 by Ben

by Ben Bussey

It’s no accident that the words ‘cheap’ and ‘nasty’ so often go hand in hand. Horror is perhaps the one film genre which can be done on an ultra-low budget without damaging its chances of reaching a wide audience (well, there’s also porn, but let’s not get into that now). Indeed, it can be argued that the roots of most modern independent cinema are in horror, with the likes of Night of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead and more recently The Blair Witch Project providing not only a creative template but also a business model for generations of cash-strapped filmmakers. However, this has long proved to be something of a double-edged sword. Many inexperienced filmmakers do not approach the genre as fans, but simply as an access point into the film industry. Certainly, there are instances when this approach has paid off – by all accounts Sam Raimi didn’t like horror at all before making The Evil Dead – but more often than not it results in tedious, formulaic dross, the likes of which so often threatens to drown the marketplace. Too many filmmakers and distributors seem to view horror as nothing more than a licence to sell crap, and by extension view genre fans as uncultured, undiscerning numbskulls who’ll happily snap up anything with a bit of sadism in it. (And that perception extends into the popular consciousness, as demonstrated recently by a jawdroppingly awful excuse for journalism at a supposedly upmarket website, which I will not deign to link to here…)

As much as I hate to say it, I can’t help feeling things have only gotten worse this past decade. The digital age has of course brought many tremendous advantages, allowing fledgling filmmakers to massively reduce their budgets and production time, and Blair Witch, 28 Days Later and Paranormal Activity proved that films shot that way can make crazy money. But – and this a big but – the aesthetics of DV leave so much to be desired. The debate rages on as to whether shooting on film will soon be a thing of the past, and I’m sure it will continue to rage on for some time; I look forward to seeing Keanu Reeves’ new documentary on the subject. I’m nowhere near technically knowledgeable enough to contribute to that debate, but so far as I’m concerned one simple fact remains: unless you’re using the absolute top of the range stuff, digital simply does not look anywhere near as good as film, and I get the feeling that’s not going to change.

Then, of course, there’s that key underlying problem with how DV enables anyone with access to a camcorder and a PC to create their own films: the fact that a great many so-called filmmakers don’t have the first clue what they’re doing. I don’t wish to seem elitist or undemocratic, but seriously – a lot of the people out there making films today are simply not cut out for it. I think I can speak for just about everyone in the horror critic community when I say there are few moments I dread more than when the latest no-budget screener lands on my doorstep. Nine times out of ten it’ll have some mindnumbingly prosaic title, and a logline cut-and-pasted from Chain Saw/Dawn of the Dead/I Spit On Your Grave/Blair Witch/delete as applicable. Before you’ve even hit play every fibre of your being is warning you that it’s going to be beyond awful, and very rarely does that feeling prove wrong. A small part of me is tempted to name and shame every bargain basement abomination I’ve had to endure in my tenure at Brutal As Hell, but I’m not sure I have the emotional strength to undertake such a task. And anyway, believe it or not, I don’t write about films because I want to bitch about how terrible everything is; I do it to share with others my own excitement when I happen upon something cool.

And this is the problem with modern microbudget horror: once we’ve endured more than a few of the aforementioned festering piles of elephant shit, it can result in a knee-jerk reaction when approaching other digitally-shot films. It can become hard to see past the wobbly camerawork and flat sound mix, and to appreciate those comparatively rare occassions on which a microbudget horror film actually brings real skill, passion, intelligence and wit to the table. Every once in a while, if you look hard enough, you might even find they’re doing something genuinely new and different. Isn’t that what we look for in independent film overall: a unique perspective and aesthetic that we don’t get from the glossy, overpriced mainstream?

With this in mind, here are what I consider to be some of the best digitally shot microbudget horror films of the past five years, listed in descending order of production cost. They stand as proof that even in the cut-price section we can find real filmmaking craft and ingenuity. None of them are flawless, and certainly none of them will be to all tastes (as if any horror film ever has been); but all of them are different, and anyone looking to pick up a DV camcorder and get to work on their own macabre masterpiece would do well to take note of them all. 


Absentia (Mike Flanagan, 2011)
Production budget: $70,000

This one was a really pleasant surprise earlier this year. Funded through Kickstarter, Mike Flanagan’s low-key supernatural chiller works for the simple fact that it has good actors, good writing and good direction. The premise may be reminscent of J-horror, but the film is wise enough not to ape that style, doing its own thing in a simple and understated fashion. Low on special effects and obvious scare tactics, Absentia’s most powerful attributes are Katie Parker and Courtney Bell, whose brilliant performances drive the film. And Flanagan clearly knew the film needed these actresses above all else, as he rejigged the script to work in the fact that Bell was heavily pregnant at the time of shooting; a wise move indeed.

Read my full review here.


Blood Car (Alex Orr, 2007)
Production budget: $25,000

Proof positive that it is possible for a modern horror film to be largely based around environmental and political concerns without being all preachy, po-faced and humourless about it. In fact, it’s possible to do that and still deliver all the schlock, gore and gratuitous nudity that genre fans know and love. Yes, Alex Orr’s film has its cake and eats it too. It’s helped considerably by above average performances from Mike Brune, Katie Rowlett and Anna Chlumsky, but the wit of the direction and writing really lifts it above the pack. The practical gore ain’t bad either.

Read my full review here.


Small Town Folk (Peter Stanley-Ward, 2007)
Production budget: £4,000 (approx US$6,500)

At a glance, Small Town Folk seems like nothing more than another backwoods hillbilly horror, but it takes the concept in a really quite unexpected direction, giving that time-honoured Hills Have Eyes set-up a surprisingly upbeat, action-adventure flavour. And on a microbudget, no less. Peter Stanley-Ward’s film is also particularly noteworthy for making a real virtue of its lo-fi aesthetics; much of it is shot in the Sin City style on blue screen with digitally imposed backdrops, which lends a suitably otherwordly, cartoonish feel to proceedings.

Read my full review at B Through Z.


Dead Hooker in a Trunk (Jen & Sylvia Soska, 2009)
Production budget: $2,500

I rather doubt this film or its writer-directors require any introduction at this point. However, I’ll be the first to admit that on seeing the film at its world premiere over two years ago, I was initially dismissive of it, owing largely to that knee-jerk reaction to DV that I spoke of earlier. It was only when I took a step back that I realised just how much Dead Hooker In A Trunk breaks with conventional wisdom. Where so many first-time filmmakers restrict their action to a single location and a minimal cast, the Soskas keep things moving at all times, hopping locations as gleefully as they cross genre boundaries. Once again, good writing and acting really saves the day, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that there are stunts and special effects which are significantly above average for films made at this budgetary level, not to mention how good CJ Wallis’ soundtrack is.

Read my full review here.


Cockhammer (Kevin Strange, 2009)
Production budget: $500

Given that the very first shot of this film is a woman’s naked breasts, and within two minutes said woman is being bloodily beaten to death, you’d be forgiven for thinking Cockhammer was just another sick, juvenile piece of trash. Well… actually, Cockhammer is another sick, juvenile piece of trash, but it also sports some of the sharpest, funniest and most mind-bogglingly verbose writing I’ve come across in recent years. It’s no mean feat to get an amateur cast to deliver this kind of ridiculously overloaded, expletive-ridden dialogue at a machine gun pace, without faltering or corpsing – sample line: “I swear to God Gert, I don’t know what’s worse, sitting here in this cold damp room waiting to be butchered on film by a fucking lunatic, or the fact that I haven’t had a hard dick in my ass, mouth or vag in hours!” – but Kevin Strange and his ensemble manage to make it seem effortless. Even if you don’t care for the ultra-low brow mish-mash of weed, dick and fart jokes, you have to acknowledge the skill with which it is executed.

Read my full review at B Through Z.


Colin (Marc Price, 2008)
Production budget: £45 (approx US$70)

Few films of recent years have surprised me as much as this one. First of all, it’s hard to believe there haven’t been more zombie films in which the central protagonist is a zombie; secondly, when you hear a film was made for such a pittance, you certainly don’t expect something as intense, atmospheric and artful as Marc Price’s film proves to be. Colin is another film which makes a virtue of its lo-fi production value, boosting the sense of intimacy, and demonstrating that you don’t need to go the found footage route to justify shooting on DV (a lesson that should not go unheeded). And the most vital thing Colin can teach any would-be filmmakers: if you’re going to cast your friends, try to have friends who are as good at acting as Alistair Kirton. Great performances, great scripts: the cheapest special effects of all.

Read my full review here.

%d bloggers like this: