Everyone say thank you to indie horror.
Horror and independent cinema have a deep and intertwined history since the genre often exists outside of the traditional studio system. While promoting his newest film X, Ti West told The Daily Beast that
“Horror and porn, certainly in the ’70s, have this sort of symbiotic relationship of being the outsider genres that you could make without any permission or any access to the things that Hollywood had to offer, and you could go direct to an audience and you could find a lane there.”
However, this is not solely a tradition; it continues in the present. Filmmakers like John Carpenter, George Romero, Sam Raimi, Ana Lily Amirpour, and Jennifer Kent cut their teeth making indie horror films. What makes the genre successful within indie cinema is using its low to ultra-low budgets to its advantage, having a built-in audience for distribution, and being willing to go against current trends of mainstream horror. Independent cinema helps prevent the genre from becoming stagnant and allows creatives to make their mark on the genre.
Historically, studio horror films have a much lower budget than other genres like dramas. The already low budgets are slashed even more for indie horror and force filmmakers to become more scrappy and creative. Classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, The Evil Dead, and even recent films like It Follows, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and The Blair Witch Project have budgets ranging from $315,000 to under $1 million. Most impressively, though, is how the ultra-low-budget often helps the movie stand out. Since indie horror filmmakers do not have the same resources as major studios, they have to adapt and figure out solutions.
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Although indie horror may not have the same level of polish as studio films, the lower budgets allow them to take more risks and let the creatives have that freedom. Because of this, skilled filmmakers can turn these weaknesses into strengths of the film, such as setting a slasher film in the American suburbs or having an invisible monster that only those targeted by it can see. The best example has to be the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which perfectly utilizes the dusty Texas setting, cinematography, and production design to transport the viewer into Leatherface and his family’s world.
Similarly, indie horror’s success can be tied to the genre’s built-in audience. Although not all genre fans are interested in the same subgenres, the fandom’s dedication to watching the newest horror flick gives the film an audience. In the past, indie horror often relied upon traditional theatrical distribution. But over the years, that changed due to the rise of home video and streaming.
As soon as VHS became widespread and accessible, it provided another avenue for indie horror filmmakers to reach their audience if they could not receive wide theatrical distribution. After VHS, DVDs, and Blu-Rays provided another route for distribution.
Right now, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Shudder further widen the net of potential viewers for movies that might not be easily accessible due to limited or art house distribution. Shudder has the most impressive collection of independent horror films on any service and makes an effort to promote them.
The home distribution market also changed since companies like The Criterion Collection, Vinegar Syndrome, and others preserve and redistribute oldie indie horror movies for a wider audience. There are currently more avenues for audiences to consume independent horror, and the base only grows larger. Even though they might not reach the exact audience numbers as a traditional studio film, the filmmakers and movies can bypass theatrical distribution and find success on home video and streaming.
Independent horror has a history of often diverting or countering the trends of mainstream horror at the time of its release. 2007’s Paranormal Activity went against remakes of classic J-horror and the end of the torture porn era. It was remarkably successful at the box office.
Before that, Night of the Living Dead not only popularized the modern zombie subgenre, but the gore and violence contrasted greatly with other horror films of the 60s. A side effect of indie horror is that they often popularize new trends for mainstream and other indie horror films to try to mimic or copy.
The original Friday the 13th was independently made, and its financial success spurned big studios to pump out other masked slashers instead of trying to understand what made it work. Both Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project’s success led to the rise of found footage films. Going against trends also means creating work that might not be traditionally commercial. Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night combines western, romance, and the vampire subgenre spoken only in Persian with English subtitles might not be a project a major studio would greenlight. Still, through crowdfunding, she was able to make it. David Lynch’s surrealist horror film Eraserhead also fits the bill and found an audience despite not existing within the traditional narrative of the genre. By not replicating current trends, indie horror creates its niches and can inspire future similar works.
Currently, indie horror is experiencing a resurgence. As a lifelong fan, it’s great seeing the versatility of the genre and how different filmmakers are exploring it. Whether it be The Babadook, Saint Maud, or The VVitch, they’re breathing fresh air and helping propel horror forward. Yet, there is the discourse about the label “elevated horror” being applied to recent indie horror to criticize them for not being “scary” or not fitting within the traditional mold.
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Criticisms like this are not new, and certain beloved older indie horror movies would also fit under this label. On the bright side, distributors like Neon and A24 are making an effort to promote indie horror and make most of their offerings accessible theatrically. The other great thing about current indie horror is the sheer variety. There’s a film for every type of horror fan. Overall, independent cinema and horror have propelled each other towards success while moving the genre forward. Independent cinema and horror will live on and inspire screams for years to come as long as there is an audience.