Horror Movies the New 'in' Indie
By Karen Melgar
Deep in the woods of Siberia, there is an abandoned building haunted by pain and suffering. Nearby, 34 unidentified bodies were found and never investigated upon. Five people come in to film an investigation for the paranormal television series Darkest Secrets and are never heard from again. This is the premise of the 2013 Best Sci-Fi/Horror Feature winner at the London Independent Film Festival. The feature is called Entity (2012), and it was director Steve Stone's debut film. The
horror genre has, in recent years, a certain clout that perhaps it didn't before. The reason is probably that box-office hits such as The Sixth Sense (1999), The Ring (2002), and The Conjuring (2013), draw crowds of regular moviegoers looking for a scare as well as the hard-core horror-genre aficionados.
From the early days of film, there existed a subculture of horror-genre fans. The German Expressionist movement is synonymous with films like Nosferatu (1920) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which for their day were frightful and had their admirers. More importantly, these German Expressionist films influenced the next generation of directors with their advanced techniques and styles. These directors would go on to create some memorable horror films, like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). From these German roots, horror films have evolved to fit the times – the ever-popular invasion films of the 1950s, like I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), externalized fears of a Communist invasion.
Today, the horror genre is stronger than ever. On the list of Forbes' Top Grossing Scary Movies of All Time, only three out of 17 were produced before 1990, and on Business Insider's list of Twenty Top Grossing Horror films, only two were made before that year. While the surge in horror films' popularity can be attributed to a number of factors, including a desensitization of audiences and an ever-growing need to enjoy blood and gore, it isn't just big-budget films that are getting in on the action. Independent features are getting in on the horror movement. Horror-genre fans set up independent film festivals exclusively to enjoy their fascination with fright. Independent filmmakers are learning that you don't need a big budget to make a horror film.
Independent director Jim Towns has been receiving praise from critics for his thrilling feature House of Bad (2013). House of Bad was shot with a small budget and in just eight days, with a couple of pick-up days. This film follows three sisters who have a stolen case of drugs they intend to sell. They decide to hide out for two weeks in two of the sisters’ childhood home, and that's when strange, paranormal activity begins. “Because it's a heist film and a horror film, you double up on where the danger is coming from to the girls. It's coming from outside, but it's also coming from inside the house,” says Towns about his movie. “It mixes with other genres really well because horror is so strong; it holds its own and tends to not get diluted by something else — it tends to get strengthened. The contrast of a thriller or crime element within it just makes the horror part of it stand out, and that's what we tried to do with House of Bad.”
This holds up when we look at other popular and independent works. From England, we saw Shaun of the Dead (2004) sprout out of North London, and true horror fans embraced it. Director Edgar Wright has called the cult film a romantic-comedy that turns into a zombie film. It is a reflection of the way horror lends itself to a collision of genres, as well as what can come out of a hardcore horror fanbase. Shaun of the Dead alludes to the horror films that undoubtedly inspired Wright to be a filmmaker, with a title that harkens back to the 1978 George A. Romero classic Dawn of the Dead. Shaun of the Dead went on to be recognized in the horror, comedy, and independent categories, winning a number of awards. It also solidified the international careers of the main actors, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as the genius Wright's career
The willingness to embrace the quirkier side of the horror genre, as well as the foreign features, can be attributed to what Towns calls the “collector mentality” of horror-genre fans. “I think horror is such a staple of indie cinema and low-budget filmmaking because I think there always will be a fan base for it. . . . Even beyond the quality and how much they enjoy the film, you know, real horror fans just have to see everything that comes out. There's this need to see every single horror film and add to your mental collection,” says Towns. The Hollywood Studios, as well as any independent filmmaker, knows this to be true too. It's obvious with the attempt to bring in audiences on the sequels to the independent hit Paranormal Activity (2007), which grossed around $193 million worldwide at the box office with a $15,000 production budget.
Ultimately, it comes down to what works. Entity director, Steve Stone says “If Paranormal Activity succeeds like it did — it was a box-office phenomenon — then so many are going to be spawned and that, in terms of the kind of risks that investors will make, narrows the field because they're less likely to [invest in other films].” Fortunately, filmmakers like Stone have the opportunity to broaden the scope. While Entity tells the story of five paranormal TV-show makers and uses some found footage, it is not a found-footage film; Stone mostly uses the third-person camera. The film is genuinely frightening, which can be attributed to the power of suggestion. “The biggest inspiration for me was the 1961 film The Haunting. The horror is what's around the corner . . . I was watching an interview with Steven Spielberg where he said that there is nothing more scary to an audience than what it has in its imagination,” and that's exactly how Stone executed his film — making the audience wait to see what's around the corner. “The thing I liked about Paranormal Activity is that it made the audience wait. I love that experience of waiting for something to happen,” Stone said.
It has, in recent years, become easier for independent filmmakers to have access to equipment necessary to make the kind of horror films they want to produce. “Digital technology. That's got to be the single biggest reason for why so many films are able to be made now,” says Stone. This is an exciting time in independent filmmaking for this reason alone. Filmmakers like Stone produce quality work that not only deals with scaring and thrilling audiences, but touches on the important aspect of filmmaking, the story. Even in gory films, the story matters. Stone says that “horror comes out of the human condition . . . I say we make films that are about the horror inside of us, inside of our own imaginations, inside our demons. Those are the kind of demons I want to talk about and make in film.”
With a strong fanbase with a collector's mentality and passionate filmmakers that continually take the horror genre into new depths, it's truly no wonder that that there's a surge in horror indie films. The desire to come face to face with demons of any kind, to force the past to meet the present, and to almost viscerally experience what we fear will keep horror films on the rise.