October 31, 2023
·

Horror Hits: 10 Low-Budget Films That Launched A-List Careers

Daniela Bailes
Free ebook
Download Now
Free Template
Download Now

The horror genre is known for its ability to create compelling films with limited resources. Many of the most iconic horror films of all time were made on low budgets. In this blog post, we will take a look at 10 low-budget horror films that went on to launch the careers of some of the biggest names in entertainment. 

From Halloween to Hostel, these films demonstrate that with a great story, talented cast, and creative filmmaking, you can launch a successful career that transcends genres.

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968): George A. Romero

Before The Walking Dead, one zombie franchise reigned supreme. Made on a shoe-string budget, Night of the Living Dead is a cult horror classic that catapulted the career of director George A. Romero, who later went on to direct Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Stephen King’s screenwriting debut, Creepshow.

Known as the Godfather of the zombie genre, Romero’s influence is undeniable. References to his work can be seen in wide-ranging projects such as the Resident Evil franchise, Jordan Peele’s Us, and pop-culture hit Stranger Things. 

Romero himself was influenced by the Richard Matheson novella I Am Legend and wanted to use the idea of an infected population of monsters turning on the last survivors of humankind. 

However, Matheson’s story was well known. Romero wanted to make sure his film didn’t take on the exact same premise. 

Since Matheson’s story was about vampires, Romero pivoted his screenplay to focus on ‘ghouls.’ Or as we have come to know them, zombies. Romero’s success in launching the modern zombie genre gives him the number one spot on this list. 

Romero’s story is proof that even if your idea has been done before, you can still be (very) successful if you put your own unique spin on it.

Budget: $114,000

2. The Last House on the Left (1972): Wes Craven

The Last House on the Left is easily the most controversial film on this list. Originally rated X, this horror film definitely treads the line between guerilla filmmaking and the infamous video nasties genre of banned films. 

The graphic depictions of sexual assault and violence without the typical sound cues and cutaways audiences had come to expect cemented its shocking reputation. Independent film houses were reluctant to show the film’s original cut. 

This resulted in several different versions of the film floating around, which also varied in length.

Film critic Roger Ebert’s positive review put this movie on the map. The critic's enthusiastic recommendation appalled many of his readers. In fact, Ebert had to write a follow-up statement defending it. 

As Ebert’s review stated, 

“Wes Craven's direction never lets us out from under almost unbearable dramatic tension. The acting is unmannered and natural. There's no posturing. There's a good ear for dialogue and nuance. And there is evil in this movie.”

Following the film’s release, Craven was tapped to write and direct The Hills Have Eyes, and of course, the infamous A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. 

Most filmmakers want their first film to be a commercial success. But sometimes it’s more strategic to target a specialized audience. This includes film critics and festival programmers who have the ear of the industry. 

Budget: $90,000

3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974): Tobe Hooper

Originally developed as a simple story about the woods, isolation, and darkness, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has become one of the most recognizable horror franchises of all time. Tobe Hooper began working on the concept while employed as an assistant film director at the University of Texas. 

The shoot took place during a sweltering summer in Round Rock, Texas. To remain cost-efficient, the crew shot seven days a week and worked up to 16 hours a day. The brutal nature of the shoot left many cast and crew members upset with Hooper. As Hooper stated,

"Everyone hated me by the end of the production. It just took years for them to kind of cool off."

However, the effect of the final film was undeniable. The scorching heat and unforgiving environment produced a fever-dream-like quality. During its initial run, the film grossed over 30 million dollars against its low budget. This led to many additional opportunities for Hooper that included directing The Funhouse, Night Terrors, and of course, Poltergeist.

10 Low-Budget Films that Launched A-List Careers - Wrapbook - Leatherface
Part nightmare; part fever dream. SOURCE

By innately understanding the concept of "what you can’t fix, you feature," Hooper turned a brutal Texas summer into thematically striking staging. The final film is both disturbing and unforgettable. 

Budget: $140,000

4. Eraserhead (1977): David Lynch

Shot on the grounds of the American Film Institute where David Lynch was a student, Eraserhead’s surrealist horror hellscape was the kickoff to an impressive career. Like many independent filmmakers, Lynch faced funding challenges that left the film’s production in limbo. 

Lynch found mentors not only his alma mater, but in champions like Sissy Spacek. Her financial support helped get the film to the finish line. Lynch also saved money by editing the film himself, as well as handling a large portion of the score and sound design.

Eraserhead is noted not for its jumpscares, but for its strong sense of tension, body horror, and mounting dread. Shot in black and white, it’s a master course in filmmaking that upends anything you’d expect to see in a typical low budget horror movie.

Following the film’s success as a cult hit, Lynch went on to direct The Elephant Man, 1984’s Dune, Blue Velvet, as well as create the hit ABC series Twin Peaks. George Lucas even offered him the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi. (Lynch obviously passed.) 

Lynch’s story is proof that no matter how talented you are, mentorship is important. Whether it’s impressing the faculty at your school, or building your creative network, strong relationships are one of the key components to launching a successful filmmaking career. 

Budget: $100,000

5. Halloween (1978): John Carpenter & Jamie Lee Curtis

If there’s one actual horror film to rule them all, it’s probably Halloween. John Carpenter created the ultimate boogeyman in Michael Myers. And if that wasn’t enough, he also composed one of the greatest scores in horror history. 

Carpenter is unique from many filmmakers on this list, most notably in that he already had an Oscar win for a short film he worked on prior to Halloween. While his Oscar for The Resurrection of Broncho Billy was definitely a notch in his belt, it didn’t launch him immediately into the big leagues.

Originally conceived by the producers as a film about a psychotic killer who stalks babysitters, Carpenter agreed to work on the film as long as he had full creative control. This included casting, where he chose ingénue Jamie Lee Curtis as the film’s lead. 

Curtis was no stranger to Hollywood. Her mother Janet Leigh was one of the original scream queens. While there’s no doubt Curtis was helped by her Hollywood pedigree, the film is unimaginable without her take on the shy-to-badass babysitter, Laurie Strode. 

A mainstay of the franchise, she’s had almost as many reincarnations as Michael himself. 

Both Carpenter and Curtis have obviously had long and extremely successful careers in Hollywood, proving a rising tide raises all ships. You can only be as good as your collaborators, so pick great ones!

Budget: $300,000

6. Saw (2004): James Wan

Before creating the highest-grossing horror franchise of all time with the Conjuring Universe, James Wan shot a short proof-of-concept for his first horror film, Saw

The film’s team originally tried to get funding in their home country Australia but pivoted to America where the film received more interest. It eventually premiered at Sundance before being distributed by Lionsgate.

Saw (along with its below contemporary Hostel) would kickoff a genre some critics called “torture porn.” While the Saw franchise definitely revels in all things gory, Wan was able to expand his brand to include more subtle supernatural forces in franchise hits such as The Conjuring, Insidious, and Annabelle

Wan’s career has included films in other genres, including Aquaman and Mortal Kombat, but horror has definitely remained his mainstay. 

When it comes to Saw itself, what stands out is not the gore or violence, but the simple complexity of the film’s taunt pacing – and excellent twist ending. The film’s ending is not your typical horror cliffhanger. Instead, it’s a brilliant kickoff to what will clearly be a long-running franchise. 

As Wan stated regarding the genre, 

“We think craft is important, and the irony has always been that horror may be disregarded by critics, but often they are the best-made movies you're going to find in terms of craft. You can't scare people if they see the seams.” 

Budget: $1.2 million

7. Hostel (2005): Eli Roth

Eli Roth has had a long and storied career in entertainment, starting with being Howard Stern’s personal assistant on the movie Private Parts.

After releasing the extremely buzzy Cabin Fever, Roth gained the attention of Hollywood heavy-hitters. Quentin Tarantino himself encouraged Roth to make Hostel as his follow-up. The film’s initial concept was based on a murder vacation website from the dark web. 

Hostel was released to tremendous success, especially for fans of the splatter genre. Not only did the film deliberately not shy away from gore, but also the original cut featured an actual sex scene, giving it an NC-17 rating.

The released film grossed $80.6 million and opened the door for even more directing and acting opportunities for Roth. It also allowed him to launch a monster-focused horror production company and distributor, CryptTV

As noted by his previous boss Stern, Roth was a very hard worker. He was never afraid to grab a coffee or take an entry level position to learn something new. It’s certain his on-set experience was a major asset when making his own films. After all, there are some things film school just can’t teach. 

Budget: 4.8 million

8. The VVitch (2015): Robert Eggers, Anya Taylor-Joy, & Ralph Ineson

Inspired by his New England field trips growing up, Robert Eggers created one of the most memorable historical horror films of the decade with The VVitch. Historical accuracy was very important to Eggers and the team, which is evident in the various details of 17th century life. 

Originally trained as a ballet dancer, Anya Taylor-Joy was cast to star as the teenage protagonist. This was her first major role and led reviewers tonoting her standout performance. 

Ralph Ineson had originally enjoyed success in the BBC version of The Office but could show his range in a definitely non-comedic role as the film’s Puritanical family patriarch.

Eggers went on to direct several lauded films including The Lighthouse and The Northman. Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy has enjoyed much career success appearing in everything from prestige series such as The Queen’s Gambit to blockbusters like The Super Mario Bros. movie.  

Ineson also has enjoyed a successful and varied career with roles in Chernobyl and voice acting in huge gaming franchises, such as Final Fantasy XVI and Diablo 4.

In horror it’s less important to have big names. This gives filmmakers the freedom to cast the right names. Taylor-Joy and Ineson’s performances definitely cement this film as a brooding masterpiece. 

Budget: $4 million

9. Get Out (2017): Daniel Kaluuya & Jordan Peele

Veteran comedy writer and actor Jordan Peele’s career took a turn when he directed the horror smash hit Get Out. But eagle-eyed fans of Peele may have noticed his horror roots as early as his MadTV days. 

Several sketches Peele wrote on his Comedy Central show Key & Peele also had a distinct horror vibe.

If there wasn’t the humorous button at the end, it would definitely fit in the midnight shorts program of any film festival.

The film’s lead Daniel Kaluuya also began his career in improvisational theater, and had done some work in genre. This included appearing in science-fiction series such as Doctor Who and Black Mirror. However, it was his stellar performance in Get Out that would lead to his first Oscar nomination.

The film led to several Oscar nominations, and one win for Peele for Best Original Screenplay. The first draft took him around two months to write. Regarding comedy’s similarity to horror, Peele stated, “So much of it is pacing, so much of it [hinges on] reveals.”

Peele went on to direct several more successful films in the horror genre including Us and Nope. Peele and Kaluuya's successful improvisational careers helped them pivot to horror where they both found new heights. This proves that genre need not define a creative mind, and sometimes it pays to go off the beaten path. 

Budget: 4.5 million

10. Hereditary (2018): Ari Aster

Like David Lynch, Ari Aster also got his start at the American Film Institute, where his short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons revealed an uncanny knack for the domestically disturbing. The buzz continued with his follow-up, the silent short Munchausen which premiered at Fantastic Fest. 

The above shorts put Aster on the radar of A24, leading to him pitching them his first feature, Hereditary. Initially reluctant to do a horror movie, Toni Collette signed on as she felt the script was ultimately about the complicated dynamics of trauma and loss within a family. 

The film was a box office success, grossing $82.5 million.

Aster followed up this strong debut with the folk horror Midsommar and the surrealist Beau is Afraid

Never afraid to be controversial or take risks, Aster’s career is built on writing compelling roles for actors that are rife with meaning and subtext. Noted Joaquin Phoenix regarding Beau is Afraid

“There’s so many rich, complex themes in this film, but it’s such a visceral experience to watch it. Then you leave, and when that feeling subsides, you start thinking about it.” 

You have to stand out in an increasingly crowded media landscape. The lesson to learn from Aster is that you have to take risks if you want people to see you.

Budget: $10 million

Honorable mentions: 

While the below films weren’t quite blockbuster hits, they did feature heavy-hitting talent who would go on to create Criterion Collection work, win multiple Oscars awards, and oversee billion-dollar franchises.  

Piranha ll: The Spawning (1982): James Cameron

Before he was directing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic, James Cameron was overseeing another body of water in a film he remembered with,

“I worked for a few days and got fired off of it. I don’t put it on my official filmography. So there’s no sort of fond connection for me whatsoever.” 

Budget: $150,000

Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988): George Clooney

Believe it or not, George Clooney was in fact in this very campy sequel to a very campy movie. That said, we highly recommend watching Rubber instead if you’re into inanimate objects that suddenly start attacking things.  

Budget: $1 million

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995): Renée Zellweger & Matthew McConaughey 

While obviously not as successful as its precursor, this sequel did feature the two future Oscar winners – as did Dazed & Confused. Alright, alright, alright.

10 Low-Budget Films that Launched A-List Careers - Wrapbook - Texas Chainsaw
They’d like to thank the Academy. SOURCE

Budget: $600,000

Tromeo and Juliet (1996): James Gunn

Can you even make a horror list without a Tromeo film? James Gunn was paid $150 for writing the screenplay in this retelling of Romeo & Juliet. We’re guessing these days he charges a bit more for his services. 

Budget: $350,000

Wrapping up

The above films are proof you don’t need a high budget to make an impactful film that can launch one, if not several careers. If you want more specifics on how it’s done, check out the Wrapbook case study for The Full Budget & Income Breakdown for The Blair Witch Project

Need another case study? We’ve got you covered with The Full Budget & Income Breakdown of Paranormal Activity. Also check out our Indie Producer’s Guide to IATSE Film Budget Tiers to start getting prepped for your next production.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Daniela Bailes

Daniela Bailes is a working film and television writer whose work travels across genres. A proud alumnus of the Yale Writer’s Conference in New Haven, she was mentored by literary luminaries before being selected for the National Hispanic Media Coalition TV Writer’s Program, a feature writer on the Latinx Black List, and as a participant in the Sundance Episodic Lab. Her most recent work was staffing on the upcoming Paramount science-fiction series, The Shift, also selling a feature script to A+E Networks.

Stay In The Know

Sign up for the Wrapbook newsletter where we share industry news along with must-know guides for producers.