UPDATED 10/26/18; originally published 10/20/14
It wouldn’t be October without a few good scary movies to get you through the
California drought autumn. And whether you prefer haunted houses, cursed dolls, or emo vampires (or a combination of all of the above), chances are your favorite horror film owes a debt of gratitude to independent film. For years, Horror (and its sub-genres) has been the place for low-budget indies to break through and become massive successes, both financially and culturally. But in case you’re not well-versed in indie horror, we’re here to give you an overview of some of the most influential independent horror movies since the dawn of man.
Nearly a decade before Universal Pictures got in on the vampire game with their classic Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula adaptation, German independent filmmaker F.W. Murnau made his own bootleg Dracula, changing enough of Bram Stoker’s novel to pass it off as original (it didn’t work – Stoker’s estate successfully sued the filmmakers and the production company never made another film again). But if blood-sucking is your thing, you can’t get creepier than Nosferatu‘s Count Orlok. Dude came around before the invention of sound, and he’s still way scarier than any movie monster CGI could come up with today.
See also: Blacula, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Near Dark, Shadow of the Vampire, Let the Right One In, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Transfiguration
The Blob (1958)
A tentpole of the nuclear era’s most popular horror genre: “The ____ from another world!” This time that fill-in-the-blank is a… bunch of goo (it’s actually more menacing than it sounds). The Blob was made independently for $110,000 (coming in $10k under budget!) by a director (Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.) whose credits to that point had mostly been educational religious films. In addition to being a financial success, The Blob is also notable for being the film debut of Steve McQueen, pushing 30 but playing a high school student trying to warn his small town about the amoebous alien life form that is taking over. Fitting with the “parents just don’t understand” themes of 1950s teen rebellion movies, the grownups don’t listen to Steve… until it’s too late!
See also: Godzilla, The Brood, C.H.U.D., Mimic, The Descent, Feast, The Host, Monsters
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Nope, not the one where Steve Martin sings about being a dentist. The “the ____ from another world!” strikes again in this Roger Corman cult classic, which added some campy comedy to the alien invasion. In proper Corman fashion, the film was shot over just 2 days on a $30,000 budget. The story about a man-eating plant (co-starring a then-unknown Jack Nicholson in a supporting role) was too ridiculous to be truly scary, so the filmmakers amped up the humor, proving that you can laugh while watching people get murdered and not feel bad about it.
See also: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, The Toxic Avenger, Re-Animator, Shaun of the Dead, Teeth, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, What We Do in the Shadows, Tragedy Girls
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Not the world’s first zombie movie, but definitely the world’s most important zombie movie. George A. Romero created an empire (he was still making sequels up until 2009!) from this inexpensive hit, employing cheap-but-effective special effects makeup and social commentary, and using controversy to its advantage (Variety called the movie an “unrelieved orgy of sadism”). The Walking Dead may have broken records as the most-watched show on cable, but none of it would have been possible without Romero’s original DIY zombie flick.
See also: White Zombie, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Planet Terror, Maggie, Pandemic, The Girl with All the Gifts
Black Christmas (1974)
Yes, John Carpenter‘s Halloween gets much of the (well-deserved) credit for launching the slasher movie into a full-on phenomenon (and becoming one of the most successful indies of its day). But four years before Michael Myers stalked Jamie Lee Curtis’s tough-as-nails babysitter, this little indie out of Canada featured a deranged killer targeting a house full of sorority sisters (including Lois Lane and Juliet) – and on Jesus’s birthday, no less! While not as iconic as Carpenter’s own holiday-themed masterpiece, Black Christmas will still make you yell at the girls on your TV screen for going into dark rooms to explore strange noises. And what’s more fun than that?
See also: Psycho, Friday the 13th, The Burning, Sleepaway Camp, Scream, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, You’re Next, Happy Death Day
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Whether you call it a “Splatter Film,” “Torture Porn,” or good old fashioned “Gore Fest,” the mother of them all is Tobe Hooper‘s low-budget indie about a man from the Lone Star State who is covered in skin — other peoples’ skin. With elements of the slasher genre (including Marilyn Burns as the “final girl”), Texas Chainsaw drew outrage upon release for its disturbing violence. The film was banned in parts of Canada, and theatergoers in San Francisco reportedly walked out in disgust (yes, people in SAN FRANCISCO in the SEVENTIES thought the film was a little much). But like any good cult film, it eventually gained a rabid following, made some money, and has cemented its legacy as one of the most famous horror movies of our time.
See also: The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, May, House of 1000 Corpses, Saw, The Human Centipede, The Green Inferno, Downrange
The Evil Dead (1981)
A list of influential horror films wouldn’t be complete without a little haunting from the malevolent spirits of Sam Raimi‘s ultra-indie Evil Dead – the quintessential “cabin in the woods” movie. (Moviegoers had seen haunted houses before, but haunted CABINS?!) The $90,000 budget provided for a tumultuous production in the Tennessee wilderness, but Raimi’s distinct visual style quickly put him (and star Bruce Campbell) on the map, and deadly camping trips and evil curses would become Halloween staples for years to come.
See also: Carnival of Souls, Phantasm, The Amityville Horror, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Cabin in the Woods, The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Found footage movies are a little played out now, sure, but think back to when The Blair Witch Project was first released and the “is it real?” frenzy that ensued. One of the best marketing campaigns in history helped usher in a new renaissance of docu-style (read: super duper inexpensive) horror films that could shoot on mini-DV, edit on a laptop, and make a hundred million dollars in the theaters. Who would’ve thought all that success and influence could stem from a shot of an unknown actress snot-crying in extreme close-up?
See also: Cannibal Holocaust, [Rec], Paranormal Activity, V/H/S, The Sacrament, Creep, Unfriended, The Visit
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE INDIE HORROR FILMS?
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