Why Low-Budget Horror Is Thriving This Summer

These dirt-cheap productions are making money, finding eager audiences, and garnering critical praise during a largely dead box-office season.

The gory thrills of Becky make the film solid drive-in theater viewing. (Quiver)

Only during a global pandemic would the biggest film in the U.S. be not a superhero blockbuster or a Fast and the Furious sequel, but a low-budget horror movie about a teenage boy in the suburbs doing battle with a witch living next door. Thanks to the coronavirus disrupting the usual summer release schedule, The Wretched now belongs to a tiny group of films that have topped the U.S. box office for five weekends in a row, including Titanic and Avatar. Yes, those massive movies made a little more money (The Wretched pulled in a healthy $1.7 million at drive-in theaters) and faced slightly tougher competition. But it’s still surreal to acknowledge that, for the entire month of May, cinemagoers were most drawn to a weird little film with a naked woman wearing a deer skull on its poster.

And yet, most of the other films that have conquered the box office this summer are also dirt-cheap horror efforts: Becky, which features the comedy star Kevin James as a murderous neo-Nazi; Followed, a haunted-house thriller that plays out entirely on a computer screen; and, most recently, Relic, an Australian horror drama that was well received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Under normal circumstances, these films would’ve followed a similar release pattern—a limited U.S. theatrical run combined with instant availability to rent online. Now they’re practically the only new films available for viewing at the country’s outdoor screens, with regular theaters shut down by the pandemic. It turns out that inexpensive horror flicks, which have been part of the Hollywood ecosystem as long as cinema has existed, are thriving as a result of a sparse film landscape and a largely quarantined moviegoing populace.

The other new movies that have been able to find a foothold at drive-in theaters are a handful of new kids’ films and some streaming exclusives like Hulu’s Palm Springs or Amazon’s The Vast of Night. These movies also lend themselves to home viewing. A Marvel film, or other delayed 2020 films like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, needs a huge screen and a packed audience for maximum effect; renting and watching them from the couch would blunt their power and be less profitable. But if you turn off all the lights and turn the sound on your TV up, these smaller horror movies lose very little of their creepy appeal—a win for viewers and indie studios alike.

For those who are interested in getting spooked at home, Relic is the standout work of the bunch, using its intimate scale to evoke more than just a few sharp jumps. Directed by the first-time filmmaker Natalie Erika James, it’s a haunted-house story in which its characters’ emotional interplay drives much of the horror. It’ll draw comparisons to the cult hit The Babadook because of its Australian setting and allegorical weight, but it also reminded me of ghost-story classics like The Changeling or The Others, films with a real sense of their environment that provoke scares with the slightest household shifts. In Relic, Kay (played by Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), move into a house in the woods with Kay’s mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), who is behaving oddly and suffering from dementia. It soon becomes clear that something is supernaturally wrong with Edna and the house she lives in, but the film is less interested in world-building than in charting the deteriorating dynamics among the three women. Though it’d be great to see it in a theater, Relic is a powerful film that doesn’t need bone-crunching sound effects and otherworldly visuals to be effective.

The summer’s other horror hits thus far are more of a mixed bag, though nonetheless popular with viewers. The box-office king, The Wretched, isn’t quite as nuanced as Relic—think The Goonies, but with lots of nasty creature effects—but it had me feeling similarly anxious on my couch all the same. Followed and Becky rely more on jumpy moments and shocking bits of gore, making them solid drive-in fare. But a couple of upcoming films are worth the anticipation.

Arriving next week is the delightfully weird Amulet, written and directed by Romola Garai, which gleefully mixes all sorts of genre influences together—there’s an emotional love story, frightening monsters, and an eerie house with something mysterious locked up in the attic. Another clever piece of horror filmmaking in the hopper is Saint Maud, a hit at least year’s Toronto International Film Festival that was originally due for release in April. The movie’s studio, A24, seems to be waiting for theaters to reopen before putting it out, but if the pandemic-related closures drag on for many more months, that strategy may have to change.

The horror genre has long been an essential, if small, part of the movie industry. In 2016, I noted the slew of horror hits that turned impressive profits on midsize budgets, and argued that these projects are in many ways a safer bet than the über-expensive comic-book movies that need to make hundreds of millions worldwide just to break even. Unfortunately, the financially savvy model used by some horror-friendly studios, in which lower-budget movies like Jordan Peele’s Us dominate cinemas for weeks and rack up giant grosses, doesn’t work when theaters are closed. Even viral phenomena like Paranormal Activity, which made more than $190 million worldwide on a $15,000 budget, only happened because of a vibrant theater industry.

But while Hollywood waits for things to return to semi-normalcy, smaller studios and projects can get a chance in the spotlight. Relic isn’t going to make Paranormal Activity numbers, but it does get to be No. 1 at the box office (for two weeks running now) while it builds word of mouth. The film world looks very different right now, but that doesn’t mean good movies have to vanish entirely.