|Sarah Ingerson stars as Claire, in J.T. Petty’s Soft
Independent horror moviemakers
are a unique breed, like vampires in the daylight. Maybe they
have to be. Few other moviemakers have to face the challenges
independent horror director must face, whether it’s working
with horrific scripts, elaborate make-up or dealing with monsters,
real and imagined. But like hardened grunt soldiers, indie horror
makers can take anything that comes their way because, unlike auteurs
in other genres, they usually don’t have as difficult a
time finding an audience.
In the past 40 years, horror has
arguably been the most important genre in independent film,
particularly from a commercial perspective.
The trend began around the time of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 and
William Castle’s Strait-Jacket in the early ’60s, and continued
with such startling entries as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead,
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween.
What does it say about the genre to note that many of today’s most bankable
directors, including Coppola, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi,
Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg all got their starts here? What is
it about the genre that seems so ideally suited to the harsh limitations
low-budget, indie moviemaking?
Horror films are atmospheric, claustrophobic and
tense, parameters which fit well within the constricts of low-budget
moviemaking. Unlike other
genres, budget limitations can actually benefit those working in horror.
“Horror, by definition, thrives from a rough-around-the-edges quality,” says
Jeremy Kasten, director of The Attic Expeditions. Creating that
quality requires an innovative use of the camera.
“With my film, we did a lot of handheld work to get that edgy look,” says
Steve Cuden, producer-director of Lucky. “We also ‘dutched’ (tilted)
almost every angle to keep the viewer off-balance.”
It’s these same limitations that helped films like The Attic Expeditions, Friday
the 13th, Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre become
landmark achievements in cinema. “The limitations of budget and equipment
have lent a hand in making some of the most successful indie horror
movies in history, because it gave them that grainy, documentary, ‘news
at eleven’ type of footage that sells the whole ball of wax,” says
Tim Ritter, writer-director of Creep.
|“Horror is the rare genre where you can get away with a film
with no stars and still get some distribution,” says Maurice
Devereaux, writer-director of Slashers, with Christopher Piggins.
“The stories are easy to tell,” adds Cuden. “A character or characters
gets into trouble and then spends the whole movie being chased by a monster.
They’re mind games, mostly. And mind games are usually inexpensive to
Jacqueline Garry, writer-director of The Curse,
believes that audiences are more forgiving of a horror film’s flaws,
as long as the overall product delivers the goods.
“The horror crowd is willing to go with a film even if it doesn’t make
a lot of sense,” says Garry. “People don’t need explanations for everything
in a horror film, as long as they’re surprised, entertained, scared or
As the massive success of The Blair Witch Project proved,
a horror film still doesn’t need money or elaborate effects to be successful.
In fact, scaring audiences with what they can’t see is a key technique
in the genre. “The monster just off the edge of the screen has proven,
in recent years, to be scarier to the audience than anything that’s dead
center in focus,” says J.T. Petty, writer-director of Soft for Digging. “This
all meshes beautifully with the very concept of low-budget moviemaking.
You can make a scarier film on account of the monster you can’t even
afford to show.”
Horror films also have the benefit of being ideally
suited to 16mm and video. “If you do a drama or comedy and it’s not in 35mm, you’re going
to have a hard time getting a distributor,” says Kevin Kangas, writer-director
of Fear of Clowns. “Horror lends itself to 16mm and video—The
Blair Witch Project is a testament to this… With any other genre,
a distributor probably won’t even look at your movie.”
The notion of simultaneously scaring, amusing and compelling an audience
is key to why so many now-famous moviemakers were able to hone their
skills within the stringent confines of the horror genre.
“What more important skill can a moviemaker develop than learning how
to manipulate an audience to keep them emotionally engaged for two hours?” asks
Kasten. But manipulation isn’t the only lesson learned on set. “The horror
genre has all of the elements needed in making other films,” says Cuden. “There’s
a certain amount of action, suspense, character development, unfolding
emotion, humor, crazy angles and cool editing.”
“I think a good horror film shows more about a director than the next
boring, socially-conscious film coming out of Sundance,” says Garry. “You
get to make more stylized and creative films and I think that’s why so
many now-famous directors started out there. You get to take more chances
in horror—learning how to build suspense, create dramatic situations,
taking more chances with camera placement and movement and cinematography
|“Mixing blood is an art form,” says
Jacqueline Garry, who wrote and directed 1999’s The Curse,
starring Amy Laughlin.
“You can let your imagination run wild, but it’s not like
it was back in the early 1970s,” says Dante Tomaselli, writer-director
Playground. “Today’s horror movies don’t get the same respect, but
most of the greatest horror films have always been low-budget and independently
made, like Halloween and Night of the Living Dead. I think
this is because there is so much that has to be planned to make an independent
horror film—so much stress—that it gives the films a raw and immediate
quality. Passion and fear strike you in such a remarkable way and that
can yield brilliance.”
Larry Fessenden, the acclaimed writer-director of Habit and Wendigo,
believes that many moviemakers start here because horror films are easier
to finance. Fessenden did the opposite, spending the first 15 years of
his career making experimental films with little attention or fanfare.
It wasn’t until the release of No Telling in 1991 that he suddenly
gained unexpected attention and publicity.
“It’s easier to finance a horror film than a personal, inter-relationship,
coming-of-age film,” says Fessenden. “Horror is also sloppy, angry and
raw. And I suppose a young moviemaker with no money might find that the
best way to express himself is through the visceral issues/52/images of a horror
film. The themes are life and death, which are the same ideas that preoccupy
a kid who dreams of becoming a moviemaker.”
But just because it’s easier to sell, distribute and gain publicity
for a horror film doesn’t mean that it’s the right genre for everyone.
Eli Roth, writer-director of the recent very successful indie horror
flick, Cabin Fever, believes that moviemakers can start out
in any genre, as long as they care about what they’re doing.
“Stanley Kubrick hadn’t made a horror film before The Shining,
and that was a great film,” says Roth. “Hitchcock and Polanski also proved
that you can take on the horror genre later in your career.”
Maurice Devereaux, writer-director of Slashers,
believes that many moviemakers approach horror simply as a way to get
a movie distributed. “I
think half of the moviemakers start out in horror because they have a
passion for it and the other half because it was easier to finance the
film,” he says.
“The fact is that horror is the rare genre where
you can get away with a film with no stars and still get some distribution.”
Tony Urban, writer-director of Kottentail,
cautions against approaching the genre merely as a stepping stone to “real
“The fact that many famous directors got their start in horror has had
a negative effect on today’s horror films,” claims Urban. “Aspiring moviemakers
have seen ‘nobodies’ like James Cameron and Oliver Stone get their start
in horror and now all they think they have to do is show some blood and
tits and in a couple of years they’ll be making the next Titanic.
True horror fans can tell the difference between an independent horror
movie shot by a genre fan and a movie shot by someone just doing it to
get their foot through the door. It makes all the difference in the world.”
But what about the technical tools—the “tricks of the trade”—that
moviemakers are using to make accomplished horror films for little
or no money? Some,
like Brad Anderson, writer-director of Session 9, use little
more than atmosphere and sound.
“I wanted to make a film about mental illness, but then we found this
abandoned asylum to film in and it became much more of a horror film.
It was really just because of the effect the place had on us,” says Anderson,
who found earlier success with romantic-comedies like Next Stop,
Wonderland, before coming to horror.
|“Limitations of budget and equipment have lent a hand in
making some of the most successful indie horror movies in history,” says
Tim Ritter (kneeling), with producer Michael Ornelas (behind the
camera) on the set
“It had the kind of things you can’t buy—dark corridors,
underground tunnels and a gruesome history. One of the keys with Session 9 was
that we shot on HD 24p as opposed to DV, and that made a big difference
in terms of creating great visuals and getting lots of long Shining-type
shots down the dark hallways. If we’d gone with DV, we wouldn’t have
been able to get those same shots because DV looks too murky. The asylum
was so scary itself that we didn’t need to add effects and the outside
light was the perfect counterpoint to what went on inside.”
When it comes to the technical elements, most horror
helmers feel that simple is better. “In Soft for Digging,
I used a lot of the tricks I learned from animation classes,” says Petty. “I shot all of
my own titles off codeliths on a light box. My so-called ‘special effects’ were
done in-camera, using frame-by-frame pixelation with live actors—some
of which were shot on a Bolex, some on a K-5. We even made our own filters
by sandwiching gels between glass… Being able to do a movie as cheap
as we did Soft for Digging requires obsessive planning and calling
in lots of favors.”
Of course, blood is always one of the most important
elements in any horror film, though it’s not always the easiest to
if you’re making it yourself. “Mixing blood is an art form,” says Garry. “On The
we did the effects ourselves. The store-bought stage blood is expensive,
but it looked good and we used it for the close-ups. However, for the
shower scenes we mixed our own, using dark Karo syrup and food coloring.
You start to adjust the recipe depending on whether you need the blood
to look fresh or old. We couldn’t afford realistic body parts, so we
used a cheap rubber arm we found in a prop store (we just never put the
camera too close to it).”
Many moviemakers prefer to let sound take the place
of elaborate and gory effects. “I would advise any moviemaker to invest in a good sound
mix, because it can make or break a horror film,” says Jeremy Kasten.
Clive Saunders, writer-director of Gacy, concurs. “You don’t need effects,
because the essence of horror moviemaking is the creation of a sense
of confinement and claustrophobia and there’s no reason why that has
to cost money.”
But lack of money hasn’t stopped some moviemakers from adopting computer
effects for their films. Peter and Michael Spierig, twin brothers and
co-collaborators, used effects created largely on a home computer to
make 2003’s Undead. “We’d trained with CGI doing short films
and commercials,” admits Peter. “The trick was to expand the various
sets and scenes with the help of computer effects, and that takes time
to learn. It took us a year to do the film’s 305 special effects and
our computer crashed several times. It’s not something that you can do
on the run, cutting corners, especially with a limited budget. We really
advocate that colleges embrace the technology now available to moviemakers
and expand their courses accordingly. The truth is that you need to use
some computer effects if you want your movie to look a lot bigger than
Lighting is another factor that can make or break
a horror film. John Carpenter’s innovative use of daylight in Halloween,
for instance, has had a major impact on today’s moviemakers.
“[Lighting] might be the most important thing in making a low-budget
horror film, as it creates mood and tension better than anything else,” says
Urban. “Having a good lighting kit—I use a Lowell Basic 3 and tons of
Kangas advises aspiring horror moviemakers to find
a DP who can light scenes well—or find a new DP. “If your DP only knows how to light a scene
so everything is visible and doesn’t realize how to get a dramatic lighting
set-up, either lose the DP or get a gaffer with experience who can tweak
If there’s one thing that all moviemakers can agree on, it’s that the
most important element to making an independent film a success hinges
on the cheapest element: the screenplay. “It all starts with the script,” says
Ritter. Beyond the requisite great script, perhaps the most important
asset would-be indie horrormeisters need is resourcefulness.
“The only tool necessary is smarts,” offers Fessenden. “Horror
is the only genre that can be made in any format and be recognized. 28 Days
Later was shot on DV. Nowadays, you have to compete with CGI, but
the playing field is still wide open if you’re resourceful. Audiences
prefer horror that’s authentic; something that can be accomplished with
innuendo, practical effects and film technique. A horror film rises to
the top if it shows craft, discipline, insight, originality and vision.” MM