As many horror fan’s know there are many awful low budget horror films out there from enthusiastic but misguided filmmakers. But, equally, looking back at many of the established classics of the genre – Night of The Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Evil Dead (1981) to name a few – we find that many were originally independent, low budget pictures from emerging directors. Compared with other genres this is quite unusual and yet when analysing the horror genre itself you find this to be a simple reflection of its very nature.
One reason to perhaps explain this is the potential that raw creativity and ingenuity can create within the context of low-budget, independent films and which has enabled various film-makers to channel a raw nature into their work. In one aspect this almost recalls the base instincts of human nature from which horror often draws its inspiration. For example in The Evil Dead the decision to simply attach a camera to a basic plank of wood, thereby resulting in the films unique and fluid POV shot’s, was partly achieved because Sam Raimi couldn’t afford expensive professional equipment. Yet the film is all the more effective as a result, achieving a feeling of vivid and immediate terror.
Viewing the classic ghost story The Haunting (1961) by Robert Wise you get an impression that Raimi may have done the same at a young age. The camera zooms and disorienting angles are very similar in both film’s. In this aspect I would argue that we relate to other fans turned film-makers more and therefore appreciate what can be viewed as respect through approach rather than specific references found in meta-horror films such as Cabin In The Woods (2013).
What this certainly points to is the dedication of horror fans. Today this is illustrated by the sheer number of international festivals concentrating on the fantasy/horror genre including Frightfest, Dead by Dawn and Sitges, and what Ken Gelder in his book, The Horror Reader describes as the “archival search of uncut, uncensored original prints” of certain films by fans. Given the nature of exploitation/independent films this it is not surprising. Controversy or the actions of different distributors in varying countries has often resulted in cut versions of films. Terry Levene of Aquarius Releasing who was responsible for the renaming and distribution of many 1970’s/80’s Italian exploitation films for America’s Grindhouse theatres is just one example.
Perhaps the prime example of successful independent horror is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here the film’s grainy semi documentary aesthetic contributes to it’s power and which in combination with its opening narration makes it seem terrifyingly real. Conditions while filming the original, according to all those involved in the 2000 documentary The Shocking Truth genuinely lived up to the film’s name. They included upwards of 12-15hrs a day in the Texan summer heat, in clothes unwashed throughout filming and authentic animal carcasses decomposing on set.
In this film the gruesome furniture and its form, constructed from real animal bones and skin by Robert A. Burns constitutes an important element rather than, as in the new Texas Chainsaw 3D the physical anatomy of the human leads. The contrast between this gritty style and the clearly intended appeal of the new film’s attractive, young leads is impossible to avoid. Now low-budget origins don’t always work in a films favour. Bad acting, bad special effects and bad direction are all the hallmarks of, admittedly, many poor quality independent films to be found within the horror genre’s history. But as Ken Gelder further states in The Horror Reader (Pg. 312) “Low budget horror is (often) fetishised as real and authentic, a point made apparent with the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999)”. This is supported by “The attraction to a uniqueness of vision in low-budget horror”. Certainly this view speaks to the broader context it is placed in. Despite the low-art associations of exploitation films, as early as Reefer Madness in 1936, these films have dared to explore realistic issues of drugs, sex and violence which audiences could relate. In 1974 Tobe Hooper was one film maker among a new generation that attacked the very concept of the American Dream which had already been damaged by traumatic national events such as Vietnam and the assassinations of JFK and Luther King. To this trend we can also add films such as Night of The Living Dead (1968), The Last House On The Left (1972) and House On The Edge of The Park (1980). Meanwhile Hollywood continued to release a significant amount of horror films with central supernatural elements such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) , The Exorcist (1973) , The Omen (1976) and The Car (1977).
Day of The Dead (1985) is another interesting case in point. It’s original script proposed a zombie film on a much larger scale but Romero was unable to acquire the necessary budget for the rating he desired from United Films. Subsequent re-writes to retain a genuinely horrific vision at a smaller budget resulted in the film we see today. Without these changes I doubt the film would be my second favourite horror film of all time. In the end the film’s claustrophobic underground environment allowed Romero to concentrate on what he arguably does best. This is the characterisation of an inherent aspect of human nature; the conflict between groups of individuals of a human race facing extinction.
What the success of American Mary (2013), with its elements of body-mod culture also proves is that it is the independent pictures in the horror genre that often set the agenda through innovative and to varying degrees original approaches. It is predominantly Hollywood that follow the resulting trends. At the time of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s release Blaxploitation films were prominent. Many cite the film that had started this sub-genre as Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). By 1974 the major studios had largely saturated the genre with the likes of Cleopatra Jones (1973) – with its James Bond inspired components – in their pursuit to capture the potential black audience and subsequent revenue with the inevitable result of declining popularity. The very nature of exploitation cinema demands that its film-makers identify new subjects to ‘exploit’, as the major studious eventually learned.
In the end though it cannot be denied good storytelling has its place in all the greatest horror films, low or high budget, what films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre perhaps tell us is that the rawest origins in combination with engaging concepts and stories provides the lithest terrors for audiences.