There was a bit of noise out of the Independent Spirit Awards recently surrounding the idea of ‘independent’ or ‘low budget’ and what that means. A twenty million dollar budget and a huge promotional machine behind a film seems, to me anyway, to strip away a little of what makes a film ‘independent.’
That said, I feel it is important as a film nut and a horror genre’ guy to seek out truly independent work as often as I can. Not just in horror, but in general. With that in mind, here are ten independent/low-budget horror films worth checking out of you haven’t already.
In every case, these are films I enjoyed and want to champion in some way or other. If you saw/see them and don’t like them, that’s fine. I figure it is better to seek out content and have an opinion rather than not make that effort. Onto part one of the list (in no particular order):
Lightning Bug (2004)
Robert Green Hall, who went onto work on Buffy The Vampire Slayer (TV Series) and the Laid To Rest films, started with this charming coming of age story about a horror obsessed young man (Green Graves – played by Bret Harrison) with big dreams of leaving his small Alabama town to pursue special effects in Hollywood.
The story is semi-autobiographical/fictional (sounds weird but makes sense when you see it) and follows his path contending with crazy church types, a spaced-out but caring mother, supportive but clueless friends, mysterious video store girl (Angevin – played by That 70’s Show’s Laura Prepon) and a terrible, scary ongoing ordeal with his stepfather. His artistic talent and drive propel the story into familiar plot territory but it is the thrilling, often sad elements that make it a special film. Green’s journey and his passions are familiar to many of us and it is the sincerity and care by which they are handled that make it worthwhile.
Abram’s Hand (2011)
I was lucky enough to get a chance to spend time with a collection of actors, producers and filmmakers last fall at the Scarlet Waters film event here in Austin. The event included a bunch of great shorts (including the fantastic ‘Desert Road Kill’ with Alejandro Patino) but the highlight was absolutely James Christopher’s full length film, Abram’s Hand. Like some of you, I was slightly disappointed by Kevin Smith’s Red State. To me, it was a great concept with less than great execution. Abram’s Hand tackles some of that same subject matter (crazed cult like church, lengths they will go etc) in the context of a weekend camping retreat between reuniting friends in a small Texas town.
Christopher executes the conflict/threat in a much cleaner and much more sinister way – we might think we know the direction the film is going but as the events unfold and things escalate, it becomes much more dire and ultimately hopeless. The resolution of the film (punctuated in one scene in the back of a car) is so absolutely chilling that I still can’t shake it months later. This one might not be easy to find, but, is worth checking out.
A Horrible Way To Die (2010)
This might fit more as a thriller than straight out horror, but in any classification, is a damned brilliant, dark film that I dearly love. One of the impressions I took away from it was the concept of different ways people die beyond just losing their life. Another I thought this was well addressed in was Adam Green’s Frozen – the scene in the car, looking out the window hammers this idea home (being vague on purpose).
You don’t have to be dead to die. In ‘A Horrible Way To Die’, Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is attempting to put her life back together with the help of group therapy, support from coworkers and a steady hand in the face of a terrible back story. She is taking small steps and even builds a tentative relationship with a groupmate (Joe Swanburg) but as things start to trend to better, normal, she is met with the reality that her ex-boyfriend (serial killer we see escaped from custody – played by AJ Bowen) is on his way back to find her. Saying much more would ruin things but I will say that it is beautifully shot (I mean just lovely to look at), well paced film that really hit me and stayed around well after the fact.
The Burrowers (2008)
I am nothing if not a big dork for practical effects – I get all childlike and giddy at the prospect of using them as much as possible in film. It is one of the reasons I really love J.T. Perry’s The Burrowers, but certainly not the only one. The story centers around the development of colonies in the American west in the 1870’s and what unintended consequences come from wiping out buffalo populations and brutalizing native indian tribes. Consequences, more specifically, in the form of vicious underground creatures and their new need to feed from a different source of food. The implied politics of the story are there, but I never felt as though it was purely a political film by any means.
The Burrowers is a thrilling creature horror film that says a lot about man’s relationship with nature and nature’s relationship with man. Save for some annoying digital blood use, the practical creature effects are fantastic and really add a dynamic to the film that is hard to compartmentalize. Also, the cinematography is breathtaking – wide shots across the plains are just remarkable. If you like creature horror and can change gears to a different era, The Burrowers is absolutely worth your time.
Aggression Scale (2012)
I’ve written in the past about the ‘stick on your ribs’ or the ‘glue’ idea when it comes to movies and last year’s Aggression Scale certainly fits that bill. It is a film that I quite liked upon the first viewing and was still thinking about a few weeks after the fact. The story centers around a blended family on the run (or relocating, depending on how you read the ‘family adventure’ spin from the father) from some seriously bad dudes (including Derek Mears and Dana Ashbrook) looking for stolen money for their boss Bellavance (played by the ever grand Ray Wise).
The son of the family sits at the very peak top end of a physiological measurement tool for aggressive behavior and this, mixed with his autism, makes for a powder keg waiting to explode. I don’t want to give away more than I already have but sufficed to say, this film balances a steady hand equally with thoughts about bonds of loyalty and reality through the filter of mental illness along with utterly palatable tension and vicious, justified violence. It is damned brilliant and a lot of fun.
A film like Absentia is a great example of what I consider to be the gold standard for independent film making, especially of the scary kind (watch the making of on the DVD, seriously). The story centers around two sisters, a pregnant Tricia (Courtney Bell) and wayward soul Callie (the lovely Katie Parker) reuniting over a traumatic event. Tricia’s husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) has been missing for seven years. Callie arrives to help Tricia through the process of declaring her husband dead in absentia and is confronted by the dumb mistakes of her own past and their effect on her relationship with her sister as well as her sister being pregnant by the detective that worked her husband’s missing person case.
Haunting and terrifying visions of Tricia’s missing husband start happening as the house gets packed up and legal paperwork is processed. While these visions are happening, strange goings on in and around a nearby pass through tunnel startle and confuse Callie (a profoundly unsettling scene with Hellboy’s Doug Jones) and suggest that something more sinister might be going on. Things continue to slowly, steadily amp up with a series of nerve wrangling incidents that start to bring what happened to Daniel and what is happening to all of them now to a head.
None of the twists and turns and supernatural elements work without the fully realized relationships the characters have and the care we as the audience have for them. The suspense of the final act is greater because of the investment the viewer has and as everything falls into place, the tragedy of it is felt more honestly and fully. I cannot say enough how much the craft of this film and the work put into the ground level of it makes the whole of the rest of it that much better…none of the emotional and tragic turns the story takes would mean a whole lot without it. Mike Flanagan, Morgan Peter Brown and company have made what I consider to be a unique and wholly remarkable film that I absolutely consider to be an excellent example of how to bring elements of drama and horror together to craft a near perfect story of loss and change in the face of unseen, deadly dangers.
Burning Bright (2010)
Okay, so I think this might be a divisive one as I’ve read pretty wide ranging opinions about it since it’s release. I’ve seen well more than I care to mention predator/animal attack films and by and large, they are a relatively dumb lot. There are a few gems out there but more often than not, man vs big-ass mean bear/shark/wolf etc etc etc follows a pretty ‘paint by numbers’ formula. Burning Bright, however, doesn’t fit neatly into that ‘animal attack’ mold at all and instead is a first rate thriller/horror pitting a college age girl (Briana Evigan) and her low functioning autistic brother against a very hungry bengal tiger in a boarded up house.
Silly sounding you say? Well yes, the premise sounds absurd. But, as I’ve told many people since first seeing it, about 10-15 minutes in it seems more like a story you could’ve seen on Dateline NBC. The suspense of the thing is tempered by the question of ‘will they or won’t they’ and where you think the filmmakers will go with it. In the interest of allowing people to see it the way I did (very little knowledge going in beyond that Garret Dillahunt of Raising Hope was in it and that one sentence summation above), I’m not going to say anything more than I already have. I will say that the tension of the ordeal is nothing short of fantastic and… man, the laundry chute and, no, not saying anything more.
In the age of remakes and re imaginings and all the rest of those things, original creature-feature type films are becoming more rare. I don’t get it – but, in the interest of not sounding like a grumpy curmudgeon about it, I’ll move on. I only write this because a film like Splinter is a grand example of how to do a lot of things right and produce a fun, balls-to-the-wall splattery monster movie that is just an absolute blast to watch. There is nothing tired about the setup, the creature threat or any of it. It is just awesome.
The story centers around a young couple (Jill Wagner formerly of the TV show Wipeout and Paulo Costanzo) headed on a camping trip in Oklahoma who get carjacked by an unstable junkie woman and her escaped convict boyfriend. Not long after the carjacking, the four main characters are sidelined by a flat tire (caused by…) and soon find themselves in a gas station, seemingly empty. We know full well that this gas station is not a good place to be (referencing back to an intro scene at the start of the film before we meet our main characters) and things go downhill in a hot, fast hurry and the fight for survival is constant and intense. The creature that’s after them is a parasitic type of thing that takes over bodies of dead and living animals and sort of… combines them. The creature and effects work are just plain fantastic – it is just god-awful (and amazing) to look at in its various forms and provides a scary and all together badass villain to root against. Toby Wilkins’ Splinter is just grand and should be seen by any genre’ fan.
The Revenant (2009)
The Revenant is a great example of a film that got buried in the shuffle, somehow, after great initial response at festivals and otherwise and fought like hell to get back out in front of people damn near three years later. It is a crime because the film is a killer: at times a buddy comedy, other times a gross-out dark humor whirlwind a la Re-Animator (which I don’t say lightly, it’s one of my all time favorites) and often a somewhat intense rumination on the nature of mortality, power and base level instincts.
It tells the story of a soldier Bart (David Anders) killed in an ambush while on patrol in Iraq who then, somehow, finds himself back alive and awake in his coffin back home in Los Angeles. He makes his way back to his house and to his very startled best friend who, after a hilarious startoff, slowly start to work out what the hell is happening or happened to Bart. His need for blood (not a vampire, more the true definition of a revenant) and inability to eat actual food becomes too much and, with the help of his goofy and all together nutty friend, they set about getting food and/or stopping bad guys (written, this sounds absurd – but go with it).
This quickly unravels and becomes a cat and mouse game with both Bart’s condition and those around him and becomes a much larger musing on that nature of death and rebirth in the face of human cruelty and desires. With its micro budget, don’t expect big flashy effects, but do watch for the eye of a director who really knows what the hell he is doing. Scenes like the feeding sequence in the back of the car (you’ll know what I mean when you see it) and the convenience store shooting are just so perfectly crafted, you forget you’re watching a first feature from an unknown quantity. It is a wholly original and marvelous film I feel lucky to have discovered and greatly enjoyed.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
I wrestled with what to include in the final spot of this list, primarily because things I wanted to include (Resolution, Spiral, Good Neighbors, Red Hill) were things I’d either written about recently, or, in the latter three cases, not true horror. That isn’t to take anything away from them: Spiral is profoundly unsettling in a surprising way, Good Neighbors unnerving in a, well, funny/icky kind of way and Red Hill is just a badass survival Aussie gut-punch that resonates. I finally decided that Behind the Mask was the way to go though because I thought if anyone out there hadn’t actually seen it, I should make an effort to put it in front of them.
The film is initially presented as a documentary – a student film crew is planning to profile a true life serial killer (Leslie Vernon – played brilliantly by Nathan Baesel) and go through his methods, his process, back story, all of it in an effort to tie real life serial killers to the mythos of big screen legends and how they work. The crew is slowly, methodically seduced by Leslie’s seeming every day charm and brought into his world in such an innocent way that once they are in beyond escape, they’ve gotten there willingly. The whole first leg of the film is so funny and engaging (especially watching as a horror fan) that you, like the crew, begin to forget the nature of the film project and of the subject himself. Explanations of how killers survive, how they stalk prey, how they make doors close, all of it, are straight out of horror movies 101. I can’t say enough about how fun this part of the film is – the humor of it is absolutely inside baseball but, that’s okay, it makes it all the more fun for the genre’ fan.
Once things hit a fevered pitch, the format changes and we’re into more familiar horror movie territory. This is both a positive and a negative – it fits the plot, but, keeping the documentary feel could have been even better. Regardless, if you’re reading this and you’ve not seen it – rectify that soon. It is a blast. It is a film made with a loving heart for all of us genre’ fans without being overwrought or too proud of itself for its cleverness. Appearances by Zelda Rubinstein (as the sage type character) and Robert Englund (as the Dr. Loomis character) don’t hurt either. Go find it and have fun, because that’s the point right?