Over the last few years, we have seen a resurgence in the popularity of low-budget horror films with films such as Paranormal Activity and The Babbadook outstripping the box office success of some of their high-profile counterparts. Why is it that these films are proving so popular?
Slowly we are seeing the decline of the noughties torture porn with notable high-profile horror films such as Annabelle, Jessabelle and The Woman in Black 2: Angels of Death heralding this change. However, these sink on shoddy storytelling and an over-reliance on stale old methods to make us jump; lower budget films such as The Purge: Anarchy; The Guest and The Babadook signal even better developments. In the words of Jeff Bock, of film industry research firm Exhibitor Relations, “Mainstream horror these days is really all about whatever’s clever – a new twist on an old story”. Much of the success of these lower budget films comes from their return to the tropes of the classics. The Purge: Anarchy is an opportune return to Seventies films with an element of socio-political observation and The Guest makes brilliant use of Dan Stevens’ chilling stare to bring some new twists to traditional psycho-killer tropes.
Today, people are far more desensitized and it takes a lot more to scare people. For one to truly feel fear you must honestly feel as if you are there, rather than just watching the story; however, typically, higher budget films rely on dazzling visuals and CGI which take us away from the action of the film. Lower budget films utilise clever cinematographic techniques which make you feel like you are the one at risk. “Found footage” and Point-of-View films, like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity follow the action through handheld cameras or through CCTV footage which really works to put you into the story and get inside your head. The use of these as intentional cinematographic decisions masks the size of the film’s budget by negating the need for excellent quality cameras.
In the technology age of today, social media reaction is everything and can make or break a film. Those films which can generate discussion, or at least content, on social media show a far greater success. If we look at a comparison between The Dark Tower and It – both high-profile films born from Stephen King novels – there are many reasons why It was far more successful but one of the key reasons was the social media reaction. If you use social media regularly you will likely have seen the rise of the Pennywise meme “What would Pennywise have to say to get you to go down there with him?” With over 2.4 billion people having access to the internet and the rise of streaming sites such as Netflix and NowTV lower budget films without big Hollywood premieres are far more accessible, combine this with a lot of content on social media and you don’t need a blockbuster marketing budget. The flawlessly created and acted horror hit, The Babadook, was made in Australia for just $2 million; however, due to positive word of mouth and accessibility, it managed to gain a foothold in the mainstream consciousness.
When compared to literature the general consensus is that it takes a lot less of a commitment to watch a film compared to reading a book. In the most, a novel is a commitment of at least several days whereas a film is only one of a few hours. For this reason, people are more likely to watch and stick with a less well-known, lower budget film; at the end of the day, if the film is terrible then you have only lost a few hours. It is this mindset which makes it possible for lower budget films, with a less well-known cast and director, to be successful – because people are willing to risk the time it takes to watch the film.
This also leads on to one’s motives for watching a horror film. Obviously, people want to be scared, they like that little rush of adrenaline; however, another big motivation for watching horror films is for entertainment. It is not overly common for someone to go to watch a film by themselves, it is a social activity; and, with horror films, a large part of this is watching the film as a group and being able to laugh both at the film itself and at those being scared. By extension of this, it is often films that do not take themselves too seriously which are more successful. Cult classics like the Sharknado series are not in themselves scary but people watch them to be entertained.
To conclude then the rise of lower budget horror films can be attributed to many factors: their focus on story and inclusion over fancy cinematography; the rise of social media and accessibility and people’s desire for entertainment.
Check out the trailer for Sharknado 5: Global Swarming below: