Contemporary Low Budget Horror
by Kristin Battestella
Cheap thrills and by necessity cut corner fears don't have to be so bad, right? Here are two positive low budget horrors from the post Y2K era – and a few pay for what you get bad scares.
Absentia – This 2011 Kickstarter funded thriller from writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan (Oculus) starts with a missing husband, death declarations, and a pregnant wife seven years after said disappearance. Simple credits get right to the sadness – a cold start with an unknown cast providing natural performances despite the awkward situations and guilty paperwork. There are no stick built, plastic surgery laden, naked hot bodies so often found in today's scares here! No one wants to talk about past drug use or the unexplained pregnancy, but honest dialogue and sisterly conversations reveal a lot. Do we tell scary stories to explain what we cannot or do we think positive to delude and comfort? Quick flash montages speculate on the possibilities – amnesia, secret agents, alien abduction, drug trips, just running away from it all. How does one keep it together or move forward without knowing for sure? Creepy dreams, eerie tunnels, and bizarre homeless men negate the understated outdoor photography, realistic apartments, and simple setting while would be sunshine, religious recovery, mediation hopes, and police dynamics give way to the underlying sinister. The spooky seems innocuous initially, even misleading, however the intercutting between the lady leads builds as apparitions, objects moving back and forth, burglaries, and bugs intensify the real world traumas, anger, and off screen upsetting. The by necessity minimal visuals and unseen terrors are well done in tandem with genuine reactions, suggestive subtext, grief, sound effects, and lingering evidence. The simmer and supernatural twists do falter somewhat in the final half hour – the paranormal may feel unevenly tacked on after the mostly realistic tone but viewers expecting more full on horror will also be disappointed. Fortunately, the paired down personal amid the torment remains strong, and this quiet thriller does what it sets out to do with just the right amount of dread.
Housebound – This 2014 New Zealand import isn't as financially strapped as our other terrors, but this horror comedy does have plenty of old fashioned basement trappings, ominous neighbors, potential paranormal activity, unexplained voices, and one eerie abode with a bad history. Accents and place names might be tough for some and viewers have seen this type of isolated or laid up and monitored scary previously. Fortunately, the titular punishment leads to some new crazy versus supernatural spins along with lovely outdoor photography, old time radios, dated computers, dial up modems, tape recorders, Polaroids, and gasp corded phones. Shrewd exposition – calling into a paranormal radio show to tell an encounter – compliments the quick newspaper research, and a well designed lighting scheme with noir smoke, darkness, solitary lamps, and an aged, golden patina adds atmosphere. Is this merely clutter, leftover antiques, attic access, creaking doors, or something sinister? Clueless parents may seem annoying to start, but we come around to our bad girl with a 'tude emo lead as the activity escalates. Though there are a few jump scares, this is not akin to today's paranormal reality series or shock and awe shenanigans. The comedy is not gross out, laugh out loud either, but rather a generational quirky, kooky household objects, and battling bemusements – old toys are both creepy yet humorous. Disbelieving authorities, surprising movements, and other unexpected interference keep the eponymous limits from becoming stagnant as more pieces are added to the mystery. This puzzle is not in your face horror, but the majorly upticked final half hour puts everything perfectly on its ear and will have the audience holding its breath. And let me reiterate, there is no, repeat, no reason for a forthcoming stateside remake!
Two to Avoid
The Dead of Night – Slow, time wasting opening credits don't bode well for this overlong 84 minutes, nor do the too old looking 2004 teens, very poor acting, shit dialogue and too bright, low budget lighting. There's no attempt to create any kind of atmosphere – I hate today's digital, over saturated visual schemes, sure, but this home movie style and bad music has to go! Excessive herky-jerky camerawork, unnecessary zooms, up close strobe, and editing from Mom and Dad's studio in the basement aren't arty designs, just messy. The would be nice suspense of an asylum breakout looses steam when everything inexplicably restarts with fake high school bully drama. From crazies and zombie cemeteries to monsters and The Faculty takeovers, the random plots – yes plural, as in there are so many thrown at the screen – are certainly rip offs, but of course room is made for cheap nudity, supposed clique social statements, and pointless to and fro scenes while the purpose of the piece remains absent. The night time cemetery filming is okay, but the raw high school football game footage is the best thing here compared to some seriously pathetic monster make up, nonsensical running around, and ridiculous twists leaving nothing tied together. Are the geeks getting zombie revenge? It's convenient then that unexplained monsters arrive to kill the gang instead. What does either have to do with the hospital escape? Whatever the heck was happening, I stopped caring pretty fast. Yes, viewers can't expect much value from this kind of dollar bin horror. However, poor production value and pinching pennies film making doesn't mean you crap all over your story – I mean, in the end, it's the only thing you have.
The Greenskeeper – Well, cliché music and trying to be cool poolside golf resort credits introduce folks waving at the camera eighties style and tell us we're in for some 2002 hokey! Bikinis and brief, bad sex can't overcome the bitchy acting here, and all the comedic delivery falls flat thanks to ignorant gay jokes, redundant F bombs, and obnoxious drug use. The homophobic punchlines, overcompensation on manhood stereotypes, idiotic adults, and assy yuppies are not funny – nor is the embarrassingly cliché limp wristed cop. The sunscreen on the nose at night lifeguard and the jerky headband and ponytail pro...just no. But hey, despite playmate connections, at least the majority of the people here aren't uber thin hotties. The plot should have stayed with the traumatized lead and his fears over the eponymous urban legend instead of wasting time on forced camera strobes, inserted scary flashes, and too many do nothing montages – mowing the golf course montage, naughty at the pool montage, even a party line talking on the phone montage. Have a drinking game for every time someone walks passed the club sign! The deaths would be unique golf accessories and yard tool fun, but they are most often filmed as comedic with our killer zooming away in a golf cart. The murders are also too few and far between until the latter half when the straight horror finally kicks in – but not before the Scooby Doo ending. Horror and Comedy are already difficult to mesh right, and with no budget to spare, the odds are not in favor of the all over the place here. Instead of doing something straightforward, too many tropes, social statements, and self referential parody are being played at once – and the writing, direction, and performers are not up to the task. Maybe this goofy premise deserves a proper treatment. However, it looks like this movie was made 25 years too late, and it doesn't have any of that retro so bad its good.