10 Horrifically Profitable Films

As Paranormal Activity scares up $100 million from a budget of loose change, we look at history's lowest budget horror hits

by | December 2, 2009 | Comments

Oren Peli’s debut feature Paranormal Activity — an ingenious horror movie set in a house as a young couple attempt to capture a spectre on camera — was made on video for a tiny budget of just $15,000. But with a smart marketing campaign and viral word-of-mouth from audiences that propelled it from limited release into wide theatrical distribution, the shoestring fright flick has now taken more than $107 million in the US alone. What’s more, it marks an all-time record return on initial investment. As the film finally arrives (on a wave of hype) in the rest of the world, we decided to take a look at 10 other profitable horror films throughout history. After all, it’s the genre to be in if you really want to make a low-budget killing.


Not to be confused with Paul Schrader’s ’82 skin-flick remake with Natassja Kinski, this wartime classic from producer Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur is a masterpiece of horror-noir mood and suspense scares. The story of a feline fatale cost just $141,659 — a small budget even then — but grossed $4m over the next two years and saved the studio, RKO Radio Pictures, from the financial ruin incurred by releasing box-office flops like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and his follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons.


Independently produced by a savvy operator named Jack Harris, who coughed up the $300,000 budget himself, this perennial favourite B-flick has alien jelly invading a small town, with the most memorable scene having The Blob ooze its way into a movie theatre packed with teens. No doubt the kids of the day thought it was a blast, daddy-o. A young jobbing actor named Steve McQueen was tapped for the lead and offered a choice: he could take a $3,000 fee upfront or get 10 percent of the gross box-office. Figuring The Blob would be just another creature feature, he opted for the former. Bummer. The movie grossed an astounding $12m, which would’ve earned McQueen $1.2m and set him up for life.


Long before sophisticated marketing campaigns and the Internet, George A. Romero started the whole zombies-feast-on-the-flesh-of-the-living genre with this incredibly tense horror flick. Shot on B&W with an amateur cast in and around Pittsburgh for $114,000, it nevertheless found wide independent release thanks to word of mouth and took $12m at the box-office and another $18m internationally.


David Lynch’s debut feature remains a stark surrealist nightmare that defies explanation. What we can agree on, though, is that with its high contrast black-and-white industrial hellscapes, affectless hero, oozing chickens, splattering sperm-like creatures and radiator ingénues, it’s quite terrifying. The movie beguiled audiences on release, too, clocking up $7m in ticket sales — many from midnight screenings — which was pretty good for a $100,000 budget eked out of Lynch’s own pocket.


John Carpenter’s movie about a knife-wielding psycho stalking Haddonfield on October 31 was an immediate fright-flick sensation due to its emphasis on suspense over gore. It was produced for a mere $325,000 but took $47m — and inspired literally hundreds of sillier and gorier imitators, including 1980’s Friday The 13th, which, made for $700,000, earned an also-impressive $37m in ticket sales.

Sam Raimi’s debut feature — an expansion of a short he’d made called Within the Woods — benefited enormously from his kinetic camera style, truly freaky demons and a champion in Stephen King, who called it “the most ferociously original horror film” of the year. Made for just $375,000, the movie went on to gross nearly $30m in various releases and re-releases. Look for it to add to that figure when it’s re-released to American cinemas early next year. Of course, Sam Raimi would go on to make far bigger bank with his Spider-Man franchise.


This grainy video movie of “found footage” chronicling a loser trio’s trip into the woods to find the Blair Witch was made for a pittance. Like Paranormal Activity, it benefited from some production tweaks and a robust ad budget. So while the initial Blair Witch cost about $25,000, there was up to $750,000 worth of sound work and reshoots. Then came a $15m ad campaign that posited the film as “real” and which took advantage of the emerging “Internet”. Still, it all worked and the movie grossed $140.5m in the US and another $104m worldwide.


The most obvious imitator of Blair Witch was this effort, which traded the forest for the trackless ocean. Loosely based on the real-life case of the Lonergans, an American tourist couple whose dive boat left them behind on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, this flick primarily consisted of two people in the open ocean growing increasingly freaked out as sharks come circling. Shot on video it cost just $130,000, but gobbled up $30.5m.


Shamefully, when Aussies James Wan and Leigh Whannel were pitching their horror about two strangers chained in a room by a maniac, no local producers were interested. So the boys took it to the US, got it made for $1.2m, and saw it gross $52m. Saw then made three times that on DVD, inspired five sequels, and is a franchise that’s to date generated over a billion dollars worldwide. Saw VII is scheduled for released next Halloween — and in 3-D.


While Paranormal Activity is making the big bucks, if you ever see this lo-fi British zombie flick then you’ve probably helped cover a significant percentage of the budget. See, Colin was made for $70 — yep, you heard right — by writer-director Marc Price, who utilised friends and strangers as actors, did special effects on the fly, and filmed a “battle scene” on the streets of London without permission. His point of difference? The film shows life — or death — from the zombie’s point of view. This twist on the formula was enough to get the film to Cannes, into UK cinemas and a wide DVD release. All for $70.


Michael Adams’ comic memoir Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic’s Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made (It Books/HarperCollins) is out next month. Read a chapter of it for free here.


Paranormal Activity is in cinemas now.

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