Money isn't everything, although in film making it counts for a lot. These eight films defy their minuscule budgets.
Money may not be everything, but it often makes Hollywood’s world go round. Films have become increasingly expensive to make. Unlike decades past where there was a broad spectrum of low, middle, and high expense productions, each bracket containing a multitude of film genres, today there seems to be a squeezing of the middle, with massive, nine-figure films on one side, and smaller, award bait on the other. Even more tragic is that large budget films are seemingly predictable in what they contain (action, excessive CGI, multiple hour running times) as are smaller films (performance driven, low key, drama heavy).
However, it wasn’t always so rote. Small and mid-sized films could become crossover successes, dazzling mass audiences with what they were able to coax from such humble financing. In a way, big movies with small budgets represented some of the best of film making. Being a collaborative enterprise, crafting a film is all about compromise, of making the best product despite one’s limitations, financial or otherwise.
When so many big films have the budgets to, literally, do anything, it is a shame so many end up feeling, and looking, quite the same. And since this summer offered up one of the most expensive films of all time (Avengers: Age of Ultron, clocking in, before promotional costs, at $280 million) here are eight films that have surprisingly small budgets, incongruous with their financial return, their cultural impact, or their shockingly high quality.
For almost 20 years, Australian director George Miller was credited as helming the most profitable film vs. budget ever. While that’s an achievement later usurped by the found footage horror film The Blair Witch Project, the gulf between genres is immense. This film, beyond being good action for action’s sake, did so much more. Mad Max, sparking a franchise, kicking off Mel Gibson’s career, and inspiring a hundred different imitators, is a riveting, fast paced action film about biker gangs and the police that chase them in a near post-apocalyptic Outback. Doing cheap horror is easy. Cheap action, not so much
What seems so absolutely crazy (mad, you might say) is how much on the cheap this film was made for once you factor in the level of material used and the caliber of the action. Considering this comes from 1979, no digital shortcuts were available, no free plug-ins or shareware existed for filmmakers to goose their production budget. All of this is practical, with real stunts, real explosions, a solid lead actor (before he, himself, went mad) and a real badass black Pursuit Special, you get all that for the low, low price of $400,000 (AUS), roughly $1.3 million in today’s US. That’s the budget for a single scene in most contemporary action films.
And, unlike other directors that lose their edge or vision the more money that’s thrown at them, Miller still knows how to deliver solid action, exemplified with this year’s critically lauded Mad Max: Fury Road, coming in at a very hefty budget of $150 million. To see where that vision, in all its low budget glory, came from, settle on that masterpiece that is Mad Max.
The role, and work, of the artist can often be overly sentimentalized. Yet, in film, talent and vision can overcome practically any budgetary limitation. For proof of this, look no further than James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi masterpiece The Terminator. Made for $6.4 million ($14.7 million today), Cameron, along with effects guru Stan Winston, and a talented cast including Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger, (along with a very brief cameo by schlock regular Dick Miller) defied B-grade expectations. Although this was a somewhat common trait of financier Orion Pictures, The Terminator embedded itself so deeply in the culture that it’s become more than just a film, it’s a brand.
We all know the plot of The Terminator. A robot is sent back in time to kill the mother of the yet unborn resistance head that will lead humanity to victory over their machine oppressors. The premise has been aped, riffed, and parodied to death. And it is a B-grade, exploitation premise, no doubt. Even during production, the low-budget roughness was undeniable. Certain scenes were filmed without permits, shot guerrilla style, one eye on the scene, another on the approaching cops asking for papers
But the creative team behind the film smoothed over any of those potential rough spots. It’s a bit ironic that Cameron, lately known for the massively expensive, and computer generated, Avatar relied so often on ancient cinema tricks: forced perspective, miniatures, rear screen projection, the tools of the trade with roots in the early 20th century. Still, the skill is there and considering seven years later, Cameron was allowed to make T2: Judgment Day for $94 million ($164 million today) it shows how low budget origins can reap massive dividends.
George Romero made his zombies slow to emphasize the real danger: other humans. Slow and lumbering, a Romero zombie could easily be outmaneuvered. Indeed, a single zombie didn’t pose much threat and, in the case of 1978’s Dawn of the Dead lent themselves more to comedy or social commentary. However, like death, their advance was relentless, unstoppable, and any escape merely prolonged the inevitable.
Nevertheless, after 28 Days Later, zombies would never be the same. Utilizing a miniscule budget of roughly $8 million, director Danny Boyle’s 2002 film delivered unforgettable imagery, deserted landscapes of London iconography: Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, bits and pieces of Westminster, all of the spots you’d find emblazoned on a postcard. Combined with a postmodern update of zombies, fast, fierce, more like fire ants than shambling mobs, this film is the stuff of nightmares.
While largely credited with resurrecting the dormant zombie genre (although, the infected in 28 Days Later are not the undead) this film also marks the mainstream emergence of digital cinema. Maligned during the '90s, the technology had advanced to the point that digital enabled small budget filmmakers to cut corners, simplifying the filming and editing process. Expensive film stock could be circumvented and the limitations of celluloid (lengthy set-ups, constrained filming windows) didn’t apply to something that recorded in 1s and 0s. Those lingering scenes of empty landmarks could never have been achieved with so little cash on hand, demonstrating that big small films often push the boundaries of what’s possible in the best ways.
Doing horror on the cheap has been almost a truism in cinema since the earliest days. Give a guy a knife, a scary mask, and spring for some fake blood (corn syrup with red food coloring usually does the trick) and you can churn out a product with plenty of cash to spare. What’s tricky, however, is doing cheap horror well, with care and attention that transcends the more exploitative elements.
The exemplar of cheap horror done well is John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, Halloween. Although the film is rife with slasher clichés and features a plot has been done to death (killer stalks teenagers through suburbia U.S.A.) it, in fact, is the originator of both, indeed, the Patient Zero of slasher films. After all, it isn’t every day a movie comes along and crafts an entirely new genre, especially one done for so little scratch.
Cooked up for a bit over $300,000, a paltry $1.1 million today, Carpenter was able to wring a great deal from his financiers’ threadbare pockets, picking up any gaps with his technically focused direction and ability to improvise. You’d hardly notice how the traditional Hollywood stomping grounds of Southern California are done up as an autumnal Illinois town. Genuinely eerie, well-paced, with exceptional cinematography from Dean Cundey, production was so low budget that ur-antagonist Michael Myer’s mask was a re-purposed Captain Kirk one, grabbed for a measly $1.98. Yet, for less than two bucks, one of the greatest movie monsters was given a face that haunts moviegoers to this day. Talk about a return on one’s investment.