The Babadook (and the five scariest low-budget horror films)
A quick flick through Jennifer Kent's filmography as an actress is enough to make you wonder if this is the same person who produced one of the standout films at last year's Sundance Festival. With roles in films like Babe: Pig In The City and inoffensive TV serials like The New Adventures of Black Beauty, there's nothing to indicate that this woman might produce one of the most gripping horror films we've seen on the big screen in recent years, but perhaps that has something to do with Lars von Trier.
Fed up with the types of roles she was being offered, the actress turned writer-director had something of an epiphany after watching Dancer in the Dark and was compelled to contact the controversial filmmaker to ask if she could work with him, sending him an email in which she wrote that she would “rather stick pins in her eyes than go to film school.” Whether or not that macabre image was the thing that piqued his interest, we can't be sure, but what we do know is that Kent ended up on set with von Trier throughout the making his 2003 film, Dogville, an experience which served as the beginnings of her education as a director. Fast-forward a little more than ten years and Kent was premiering her first full length feature at one of the world's most prestigious film festivals.
Created on a very modest budget of just $2m, The Babadook is the stuff of children's nightmares made flesh. The film's cast isn't packed with with big name stars but Australian actress Essie Davis leads the film in the role of Amelia, a single mother struggling to look after her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), following the death of the boy's father in a car accident. Since his death, Samuel has struggled with behavioural issues and in particular has developed a fear of monsters – a fear which gets much worse after Amelia reads him a story from a strange pop-up book she finds called The Babadook, featuring a story about a monster that hides in cupboards. Amelia reads him the story hoping that it will be a gentle form of exposure therapy for her troubled child, but strange things start to happen and when Amelia decides to get rid of the book by burning it, they only get worse.
Unlike some low budget films we've seen in recent years such as Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, The Babadook doesn't really on cheap jump thrills and instead the horror in Kent's film comes from the gradual psychological deterioration of one of its central characters. The result is a film that's gripping and genuinely unsettling, but it also tackles the idea of a mother that ends up becoming intimidated by her own child, a deliberate move by the director to tackle an issue that is rarely depicted in your average Hollywood horror flick.
Kent may not have had a huge budget to work with but her talent is clear and her debut feature film marks her out as one of the most promising directors the genre has to offer. The Babadook is in good company though and there are many great horror films that have been a success despite surprisingly limited funding. We've picked out five of our favourite examples to keep you hiding behind the sofa while you wait for The Babadook's release on DVD & Blu-Ray next week (February 16th). You can also watch the trailer below...
One of many Japanese films to be given a big-budget Hollywood remake, Hideo Nakata's original version of Ring was a lot cheaper to make and is arguably even more chilling than it's more expensive sibling. Produced in 1998 on a reported $1.2m budget, Nakata's film centres on the tension between traditional Japanese culture and modern technology and, in this case, the instrument of horror is the humble VHS tape. Based around the story of a notorious video which is said to cause the death of anyone who watches it within a week, Ringu is atmospheric and tense throughout, but the film works by virtue of Nakata's skilful employment of one of the undeniable facts about modern horror films: stuff that comes out of the screen is scary. Highly recommended, but not for that faint of heart.
The Purge ($3m)
Much was made of of The Purge's tiny budget when it was released in 2013- and let's be clear, $3m is practically peanuts in Hollywoodland – but it actually has the largest budget of any of the films on our list, which just shows you that you don't necessarily need piles of cash to make a great movie. Ethan Hawke leads the cast list in James DeMonaco's film about a near-future society in which crime levels have dropped to almost zero. The reason? It's all down to the fact that the population has one day of lawlessness each year to get all that violence out of their systems. With a dystopian concept that's just as terrifying as anything else in this film, The Purge has already spawned one sequel and there may well be more on the way.
With a ridiculously small budget of just $325,000 (stumped up almost entirely by a single investor), John Carpenter's classic 1978 film Halloween must rank as one of the most profitable horror films ever made, grossing over $70m at the box office worldwide. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis as the sister of the murderous maniac that is the film's mask-wearing killer, Michael Myers, Carpenter's iconic score adds to the sense of dread that permeates the suburban neighbourhood where the film is set. Spawning a number of sequels over a period of more than two decades, this is just a classic.
Kill List ($800,000)
One of the cheapest films to make on this list, this horror-thriller from Brighton-based director Ben Wheatley is also one of the most unsettling. Fans of Channel 4's disturbing series Utopia will recognise Neil Maskell in the role of Jay, a hitman who, just a year after a botched killing assignment, takes the opportunity for a big payoff for three murders. It all seems pretty straightforward but things soon start to unravel and Jay finds himself in a very dark place indeed. To say any more would spoil the film, but this is a must watch.
Werckmeister Harmonies ($1.8m)
Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr is a true outsider and has made some of the most challenging and remarkable films ever to grace cinema screens in recent years, not least his seven-hour opus Sátántangó, but this film from 2000 was made on a budget of less than $1.8m and is one of he most disturbing and thought-provoking psychological horror-thrillers you'll ever see. Set in a nondescript Hungarian town during the Soviet occupation following WWII, a dark circus comes to town and begins affecting the behaviour of its citizens. As much a rumination on the political landscape as it is on the human condition, this film will leave an indelible mark on your psyche. If you really fancy being scared on several levels at once, drop what you're doing and freak yourself out to this immediately.