The horror genre reached a new level of innovation when it comes to creative stories, diverse voices, urgent commentary, and, most importantly, legitimate scares. Nowadays, a horror story, whether it is a feature-length film or a binge-worthy series, would be talked about for how it raised the bar for horror storytelling.
However, the genre is perhaps most impressive when innovative filmmakers turn small-budget B-movies into huge success stories. For this list, horror films with a $20 million or below budget and more than a $100 million gross will count. It just shows that, regardless of budget, filmmakers can be inventive.
10 Scream (1996)
Scream is a rare slasher film that is aware of the tropes of slasher films and others in the horror genre. That is noble, coming from one of the maestros of the genre, Wes Craven. The film follows high school student Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) as she becomes the target of the masked killer, Ghostface.
Characters in this movie are bluntly familiar with horror movie clichés, allowing Craven to subvert his own formulas and still craft ingenious kills. With an estimated $15 million budget, Scream became a huge franchise starter.
9 The Others (2001)
From the director of Abre Los Ojos, the inspiration behind Tom Cruise’s Vanilla Sky, comes The Others, starring Nicole Kidman as Grace Stewart, about a woman living in an ancestral house in post-WWII Jersey with her two photosensitive children. During their stay, she discovers a haunting presence lurking in the house.
The film boasts a Gothic atmosphere and features a character study that results in a creepy atmosphere. Director Alejandro Amenábar took advantage of his $17 million to put emphasis on Kidman’s performance and slow-boil scares. It paid off both critically and commercially.
8 The Conjuring (2013)
Inspired by its real-life paranormal investigators, The Conjuring shows Insidious architect James Wan carving another franchise. Set in 1971, it features Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren as they delve into the phenomena occurring in the farmhouse of the Perron family.
Though formulaic, Wan utilized clever setups and creepy auras to deliver legitimate scares, assisted by a $20 million budget. The Warrens’ real-life cases are frightening enough, and they’re the perfect basis for a horror franchise. Thanks to its success, it kicked off The Conjuring Universe.
7 Split (2017)
Speaking of horror movie universes, M. Night Shyamalan had the chance after The Visit to—excuse the pun—revisit Unbreakable with its successor, Split. This psychological thriller chronicles Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man with 24 personalities, kidnapping three girls to be sacrificed to the twenty-fourth personality, The Beast.
The film is a showcase for McAvoy to seamlessly play several personalities. With a paltry budget of $9 million, Shyamalan finds himself back on his grounded horror roots. Confident in Split’s success, he followed it up with Glass… to diminishing returns.
6 Get Out (2017)
With the aforementioned Split and Happy Death Day, Universal had a great slate of horror films last 2017. But, their crowning achievement has to be Get Out. From the clever mind of Jordan Peele, Get Out is a modern-day sendup of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with a subversive horror twist.
Audiences are astounded by how Peele illustrated the horrors faced by a man of color, exemplified by the metaphorical “Sunken Place.” With that, alongside an ensemble cast, it is amazing how Peele pulled all this off with a relatively meager budget.
5 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Speaking of award-winning horror films, The Silence of the Lambs briefly turned the horror genre from B-grade shlock factory to Oscar-worthy stuff. Based on the Thomas Harris novel, the film features Jodie Foster as newcomer FBI agent Clarice Starling, who acquires help from convicted cannibalistic criminal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to hunt down serial killer Buffalo Bill.
Jonathan Demme took faith in the psychological studies of both Sterling and Lecter to manifest its gradual scares. While its $19 million budget may seem fairly large, it’s successes were even moreso.
4 A Quiet Place (2018)
Initially, people were skeptical of John Krasinski’s monster horror feature A Quiet Place. But, upon release, critics and audiences applaud it for its ingenious setup, engaging performances, and spine-chilling sequences. At its heart, it is a delicate family drama about a couple, played by Krasinski and wife Emily Blunt, struggling to raise their family in that normality.
Being almost nonverbal, Krasinski took advantage of minimalist aspects from his $17-21 million budget, like environmental sound, tiny gestures, and facial expressions to amplify the film’s fear-ridden weight. It all succeeded, garnering near-universal acclaim.
3 The Exorcist (1973)
One of the scariest films of all time, The Exorcist continues to shock audiences nearly fifty years after its release. Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the screenplay, the film revolves around the possession of the 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) and her exorcism, led by Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow).
Production for this film had been infamous, with the sets being burnt down and Blair and Burstyn receiving long-term injuries. Despite that, director William Friedkin utilized the $12 million budget to deliver some of cinema’s scariest scenes.
2 The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Now, here is a different breed. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a film adaptation of a Broadway musical that pokes fun of horror B-movies. It follows young couple Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) whose car breaks down under a heavy downpour, making them take shelter inside a castle filled with eccentric figures.
The musical boasts a self-aware campiness and over-the-top musical sequences on a cheap $1.4 million budget. Perhaps, the most notable proof of this is Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry). Because of this, it became a certified cult hit.
1 Jaws (1975)
Finally, here is the film that started the summer blockbuster. Based on the bestselling novel Jaws, it follows a series of great white shark attacks over summer town Amity Island. After the shark poses a threat to the town’s tourism, the mayor enlists police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and a shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt it down.
Like The Exorcist, Jaws is infamous for its behind-the-scenes troubles. But, with a $9 million budget, Steven Spielberg used his minimalist resources to capture the threat of a shark. And it showed on its legacy.
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