Ah horror, one of the most maligned genres. For good reason, too. Simply put, the modern era has not been kind to this film style. The majority of what’s out there are remakes of remakes, or they rely too heavily on special effects to do the work, oftentimes both. One of the benefits of the recent rise in digital filmmaking is the new life that’s been breathed into this genre. When filmmakers have a small budget to work with, they are forced to get creative and find ways to scare the audience. The end result: films which are reminiscent of horror classics from the 60’s and 70’s. It’s no coincidence that almost every film on this list was made for a budget of less than $5 million. Recent indie horror films, specifically in the past three years, have seen a renaissance in the genre. Sometimes the small budget gets a limited release and gains a cult following. Or, if they’re lucky like a few films on this list, a small budget can show returns that no one could have imagined.
#1 Creep (2014)
Found footage is one of the easiest ways to make a film while maintaining a low budget. Although the filming style is meant to give off a distinctly amateur vibe, the filmmakers behind Creep are far from novices. The Duplass Brothers produced, and Mark Duplass stars in, this aptly titled thriller riddled with jump scares (more than any other on this list) and pure nightmare fuel. No strangers to the micro budget, the Duplass Brothers brought their mumblecore sensibility to horror with Creep and succeeded. Seeing Duplass, who typically plays either the “cool dad” or “man child,” as a terrifying psychopath is jarring. If you’re a fan of literally being on the edge of your seat (and on the edge of a heart attack), this film will become an instant favorite.
#2 It Follows (2014)
In a time when remakes and reboots prevail, a fresh idea can come around and take the film world by storm. This movie, from young director David Robert Mitchell (a Michigan native), shows how a little bit of creativity can truly shake up the horror genre. Said to be inspired by a reoccurring dream the director had as a child, this is the kind of film which might not scare you in the moment, but will haunt you forever (much like the creature the whole film’s premise rests on). It messes with your perception of time and space in the subtlest ways to foster an unsettling feeling, much like iconic horror classic The Shining.
#3 The Babadook (2014)
The recent influx of horror films directed by women is a part of what has contributed to the genre’s rise in quality. Jennifer Kent’s film about a mother and her hyperactive son fighting off a demon who entered their house through a seemingly innocuous children’s book is a masterclass in how to make a modern day horror classic. Probably the most traditionally scary film on this list, you will never be able to forget the chilling imagery or terrifying voice on the other end of that unknown number.
#4 Don’t Breathe (2016)
Although this film is the surprising outlier budget wise (made for $9.9 million), the amount of tension packed into 88 minutes alone was well worth it. Three teenagers who desperately want to escape from their lives in Detroit decide to rob a blind man who is rumored to have a large amount of cash stored somewhere in his house. Because they do small heists all the time, they think this one will be a piece of cake. Nearly right away they realize they are in for much more than initially expected. This heart-pounding thriller made its way onto this list because of its addition to the shockingly robust “horror films set in Detroit” category and its great female protagonist, former network sitcom star Jane Levy who has truly found her niche.
#5 The Invitation (2015)
This carefully paced, sensually lit thriller skillfully blends relationship drama with horror in a way that will appeal to even those who find the genre unappealing. Set at an “olive branch” dinner party between a divorced couple and their new partners, the sultry cinematography puts the viewer at ease while flashbacks and music let the viewer know something is very wrong. The film is just as the title states, inviting. Sit back with a glass of wine and drink up this adult twist on what can be a rather juvenile genre.
#6 Get Out (2017)
Typically, when a horror film is made, there is bound to be some dissenting opinions amongst critics. Not with this one though. Get Out is one of the few films to have ever garnered a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Other films on this list have been slowly laying the groundwork for the aforementioned horror renaissance, but this one will likely be the signifier of how the genre can be a powerful agent of social change in this current political climate. The skillful way it mixes real life horrors with the twisted world of genre classics will no doubt be listed as the turning point when horror became a more respected genre in the modern era. The social justice thriller is a little utilized form of filmmaking and Jordan Peele has truly tapped into the niche we didn’t know we needed.
#7 The Final Girls (2015)
When venturing into the comedy/horror subgenre, is can be near impossible to stay away from either parody or camp, like the Scary Movie franchise. This film manages to be perfect for the horror novice, who might be too scared for others on this list, or the seasoned pro, who will get all of the references to 80’s classics. A cast filled with today’s young Hollywood from just about everywhere you can find a screen (television comedies, miniseries, Disney movies, etc.) keep the film firmly rooted in the modern horror idiom. For a film named by one of the most tried and true tropes in the genre, it stays comically self aware and turn the stereotype on its head.
#8 Green Room (2016)
When maintaining a low budget, keeping the majority of shots to one room is almost always a safe way to go. It not only keeps a contained and singular storyline, but it plays on audiences’ general claustrophobia. Green Room follows a punk band that plays at a white supremacist bar in the middle of nowhere and accidentally falls into a conspiracy bigger than they could have imagined. The film remains enthralling throughout. Green Room is also one of the best films for gore fans because of its “back to basics” approach to special effects.
#9 XX (2017)
The anthology method of storytelling has really shot off in the past few years, specifically in television. With the success of shows like True Detective, American Horror Story and Fargo, it was only a matter of time before the anthology style experienced a resurgence in film as well. The cool thing that sets this film apart is that every sequence is directed by and focuses primarily on women. Even indie pop favorite St. Vincent tries her hand at directing in this experimental film. Each director was given full creative control over their piece as long as they worked within the budget and focused on female driven stories. The results are of mixed quality, which is typical of the anthology format. This interesting and innovative cinematic effort is a must see because of the way it celebrates women’s stories both in front of and behind the camera, and it is pretty darn creepy.
#10 Under the Shadow (2016)
Under the Shadow is similar to Get Out in that it mixes a real world issue with supernatural horrors. In this case, the tragedies of the Iran-Iraq conflict from the 1980’s are intensified by shape shifting creatures that seep their way into the lives of mother/daughter pair Shideh and Dorsa. Somewhat of a slow burn in terms of actual scares, the film’s 80 minute run time is well worth it to get to the truly chilling last 20 minutes.