1. Psycho (1960)

psycho
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $800,000
  • Box Office: $50 million

Plot:

A woman on the run from the police — played by Janet Leigh— stops for a night at the seedy Bates Motel, where she runs into a man who has a weird, slightly Oedipal relationship with his mother.

About the production:

In this shocker directed by the legendary "Master of Suspense," Alfred Hitchcock, most of the violence happens off-screen. (By the way, you can spot "Hitch" in a cameo — wearing a cowboy hat.)

There was plenty of tension behind the scenes, too: Paramount initially turned down Hitchcock’s budget proposal.

Psycho may have never made it to the silver screen if Hitchcock hadn’t opted to finance the feature almost entirely on his own. Instead of a director's fee, he took a 60% stake in the film.

He saw a return on that investment because the film was a smash success at the box office. It grossed $50 million and became one of the most profitable films of the director’s career.

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2. Get Out (2017)

get out
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $4.5 million
  • Box Office: $255 million

Plot:

Interracial couple Rose and Chris are doing the “meet the parents” thing for the first time. On their weekend getaway, Chris soon realizes that Rose’s family is hiding a very dark secret.

About the production:

Get Out was writer/director Jordan Peele’s first foray outside of comedy.

The film ended up grossing $255 million and earned Academy Award nominations for best picture, best director and best actor.

The film didn’t take home the big awards for the night, but Peele walked away with an Oscar for best original screenplay (and a much bigger budget for his follow-up film Us).

3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
IMDB

  • Budget: $140,000
  • Box Office: $30.9 million

Plot:

Siblings Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) head to rural Texas with their friends to visit their grandfather’s grave. Stopping at the family farmhouse along the way, the friends clash with the outlandish and murderous neighbors — including a man known as Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) who wears a mask of human skin.

About the production:

This brutally horrifying film’s low budget may have been a blessing in disguise. Where it lacks in modern day special effects, the natural tension and realism of what the filmmakers had to work with only adds to the terrifying tension.

The budget for the film was so low that cast members had to wear the same dirty costumes day after day, endure long takes and the stench of the set in the hot Texas sun.

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4. Annabelle (2014)

Annabelle
IMDB

  • Budget: $6.5 million
  • Box Office: $257.6 million

Plot:

When John Form (Ward Horton) gifts his pregnant wife (Annabelle Wallis) a vintage doll, neither of them anticipate the supernatural horror that ensues. Their home is invaded by satanic cult members, the doll becomes possessed and the supernatural force puts them through terrifying paranormal occurrences.

About the production:

Annabelle is a prequel to 2013’s The Conjuring and is the second installment in the film’s universe. Annabelle, the doll, is featured in The Conjuring, setting the (creepy) stage for her own film.

Despite its small budget, the film took off at the box office. The film is based on reportedly true stories and the doll featured in the film had a reputation of being so unnerving that cast and crew members would avoid it on set. With such a solidly scary reputation, horror fans were drawn to this film.

5. Paranormal Activity (2007)

paranormal activity
watchCulturetainment / YouTube

  • Budget: $15,000
  • Box Office: $193 million

Plot:

A young woman is haunted and terrorized by an evil presence. Her boyfriend tries to catch the demon on camera, but the force is much greater than either of them anticipated.

About the production:

Paranormal Activity was shot in seven days with only a handheld camera and a tripod by a director who had no previous movie experience.

The film was catapulted to astronomical success by a viral marketing campaign that gave moviegoers an opportunity to demand that screenings of Paranormal Activity come to their city.

Paranormal Activity was an unprecedented success, earning nearly 13,000 times what it cost to make the film.

The film franchise has earned an additional $890 million since the original. And now, 15 years after the original film’s release, the eighth and final installment of the franchise is expected to debut in 2023.

6. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

blair witch project
The Trailer Guy / YouTube

  • Budget: $60,000
  • Box Office: $248 million

Plot:

Three film students wander into the woods to gather information about an infamous murderer known as Blair Witch. The story takes a dark turn when the students lose their way in the woods and are never seen again.

About the production:

Nearly a decade before Paranormal Activity blew everyone’s expectations out of the water, The Blair Witch Project caused a bit of a stir in its own right and popularized the "found footage" style of film.

Owing to the film’s success was its viral online marketing campaign (without the help of Facebook and Twitter, mind you) that advertised the film as a "true story."

The two directors generated buzz for the movie by releasing fake police reports and fake “Missing” posters. The gag worked, and it took audiences a few years to figure out that the whole thing was a hoax.

The Blair Witch Project earned a box office gross of $140 million in the U.S. and Canada, and an additional $108 million worldwide, for a combined total $248 million — more than 4,000 times its production budget.

7. Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead
IMDB

  • Budget: $10,000
  • Box Office: $7 million

Plot:

Living alone in a bleak, industrial environment, Henry (John Nance) discovers a prior fling with a woman named Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) left her pregnant with his child. The two get married and move in together only to discover that their newborn child is born a mutant, lizard-like creature that won’t stop crying.

About the production:

Relative to its measly budget, Eraserhead raked it in at the box office and became a hit for the ‘70s midnight movie crowd.

Though at the time director David Lynch couldn’t pay his crew up front, he held up his promise that they’d get their share of the profits should the film actually make any money — and it certainly did.

8. Friday the 13th (1980)

friday the 13th
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $550,000
  • Box Office: $59.8 million

Plot:

In this gory slasher flick, a group of teenage camp counselors visit the haunted Crystal Lake, looking to score some spooky, cheap thrills. Instead, they find themselves stalked by a ruthless, maniacal masked killer.

About the production:

Friday the 13th is the quintessential slasher flick. And while the violence is pretty tame by today’s standards, it still spawned a whole generation of teenage horror, “Don’t go in there!” film franchises (as well as several parodies).

Directed by newbie director Sean S. Cunningham and featuring a handful of then-unknown actors (including Kevin Bacon), the film went on to gross nearly $60 million at the box office.

9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

night of the living dead
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $114,000
  • Box Office: $30 million

Plot:

In rural Pennsylvania, a zombie outbreak has occurred. The undead roam the land, looking to feast on the flesh of the living.

About the production:

Prior to the release of George Romero’s classic low-budget horror movie, the concept of zombies hadn’t really made its way into film lore, which is surprising considering how much of a staple they are in modern horror cinema.

The budget epitomized "shoestring" from the start. Initially, Romero was able to raise only $12,000 for his production — which meant all the props were homemade, and the “blood” was chocolate syrup or red ink.

Still, it was enough to shock audiences, and for many years "NOTLD" was considered one of the most brutal and terrifying films ever made.

10. Halloween (1978)

Halloween
BestClips / YouTube

  • Budget: $325,000
  • Box Office: $70 million

Plot:

Michael Myers, a psychopath who has escaped from a mental asylum, returns to the scene of his first grisly crime on Halloween night, with the intention to kill again. Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of the original scream queen, Janet Leigh) plays the object of Myers’ pursuit.

About the production:

John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween, co-written by Debra Hill, is a seminal piece of horror cinema.

The film is notable for relying on terror and suspense instead of gratuitous violence. That was a big budget saver, and the effect is much more palpable than outright gore.

Michael Myers lurking in the background — there one second, gone the next — is enough to make you afraid of your own shadow. The film earned $70 million at the box office and spawned several sequels and remakes over the last 40-plus years.

11. The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man
IMDB

  • Budget: $7 million
  • Box Office: $145 million

Plot:

When Cecilia’s (Elisabeth Moss) abusive ex-boyfriend takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she begins to suspect he’s not really gone as a man no one can see continues to terrorize her. She goes to the police who refuse to believe her and is left taking matters into her own hands.

About the production:

The Invisible Man is an adaptation of the film of the same name from 1933, both based on the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells. Released in theaters in February 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up and government lockdowns began, the film initially did well at the box office but its time there was cut short due to the circumstances. When it started playing at drive-in theaters that same summer, it rose back to the top, helping its revenue far surpass the smaller-than-most $7 million budget.

12. Saw (2004)

saw 2004
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $1.2 million
  • Box Office: $103 million

Plot:

Two men wake up in chains in a dilapidated room. They soon realize they’ve been trapped by a sadistic psychopath named Jigsaw and must carry out his series of “puzzles” in order to survive.

About the production:

Given that the Saw franchise has grossed over $1 billion since 2007, it’s hard to believe that the original movie almost never made it to the big screen. James Wan was a newbie director at the time, and he struggled to find financing for the film.

Saw was originally meant to be a direct-to-video feature, but Lionsgate opted to run it in theaters after positive critical response at the Sundance Film Festival.

That decision paid off handsomely — the first film in the series made a worldwide box office gross of more than $100 million.

13. The Babadook (2014)

the babadook
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $1.2 million
  • Box Office: $10.2 million

Plot:

This debut horror film by Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent follows a single mother who finds herself haunted by an evil presence lurking in her son’s pop-up book.

About the production:

The film was shot on a $2 million budget and received a rather lukewarm response from critics in its native Australia.

It was a total box office flop, earning only $258,000 (Australian) during its initial run Down Under.

It eventually picked up momentum on American streaming services and went on to gross $10.2 million. Also, critics named The Babadook one of the best horror films of 2014.

14. Carrie (1976)

carrie
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $1.8 million
  • Box Office: $33 million

Plot:

Carrie is a 16-year-old girl who lives with a fanatically religious mother and gets bullied at school for her bizarre, withdrawn behavior. After a humiliating incident at the prom, Carrie uses her supernatural powers to exact revenge.

About the production:

Directed by Brian De Palma, Carrie is based on the novel of the same name by the grand master of horror Stephen King. Few people predicted the movie's runaway success.

It was King’s first novel, and he was paid only $2,500 for the movie rights. De Palma didn’t fare much better: United Artists underfunded the film adaptation, since the director didn't have much of a track record at the time.

Not only did Carrie end up earning a whopping $33 million, but the film also picked up Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.

15. The Purge (2013)

the purge
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $3 million
  • Box Office: $89 million

Plot:

This film is set in the not-too-distant future, when the government keeps society in check by allowing all crimes to be legal for a 12-hour period, once a year. A suburban couple find themselves the target of a gang of murderers.

About the production:

James DeMonaco’s The Purge was shot for a pretty scant budget of $3 million, and the movie made that money back nearly 10 times over.

The film has spawned a five-film franchise. The 2021 release of The Forever Purge carried the franchise over the $500 million mark in earnings.

16. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead
IMDB

  • Budget: $375,000
  • Box Office:$2.7 million

Plot:

A group of friends visit a remote cabin in the woods for a night away. There they discover an old book with the ability to awaken the dead if it’s read aloud. Evil is released, and the friends are left to fight for their souls and their lives.

About the production:

Writer and director Sam Raimi practically begged for the little funding he got for this movie — which was completely independently made. Shot in the Tennessee wilderness, actors and crew members alike endured grueling conditions in the cabin where they shot the film — one that was decades old and had no running water or sewage.

In the end, the film exceeded expectations and went on to become a part of an entire film franchise featuring sequels and a 2013 remake.

17. The Amityville Horror (1979)

amityville horror
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $4.7 million
  • Box Office: $86.4 million

Plot:

In this 1979 supernatural thriller directed by Stuart Rosenberg, a family — led by stars James Brolin and Margot Kidder — moves into a haunted house.

About the production:

The Amityville Horror was an independent feature not backed by any major studio, which meant that the budget and time were limited.

Despite the constraints (and the mostly negative reviews from critics), the film was a smash success at the box office, earning $86.4 million — making it the second-highest-grossing film of 1979.

The Amityville Horror was the most successful indie film until 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and it still maintains its legacy as a perennial Halloween favorite.

18. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Nightmare on Elm Street
IMDB

  • Budget: $1.8 million
  • Box Office: $57 million

Plot:

A group of teenagers in the midwest are haunted by Freddy Krueger, a disfigured man with a bladed glove, who haunts them when they fall asleep. The teens take desperate measures to stay awake because if they die in their dreams, they die for good.

About the production:

Directed by iconic horror filmmaker Wes Craven, A Nightmare On Elm Street was inspired by newspaper articles Craven had read about young men in Southeast Asia having odd dreams about death, several of whom died during their night terrors.

Despite its low budget, the film ended up bringing in a whopping $57 million at the box office and became a classic and beloved horror film. It grew into its own franchise featuring nine films, including sequels and a 2010 remake, as well as a TV series.

19. Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein
IMDB

  • Budget: $291,000
  • Box Office: $12 million

Plot:

An obsessive scientist, Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), tries to create life using body parts of the deceased. The doctor succeeds in creating his monster only for him to escape and begin violently wreaking havoc. The townspeople then attempt to capture the monster before it causes any more harm.

About the production:

With a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel published in 1818 far surpassed its budget in box office earnings.

While it may lack some of the glitz and gore that present day special effects offer, Frankenstein both wowed and spooked audiences and set a precedent for the future of science-fiction horror films.

20. The Last Exorcism (2010)

The Last Exorcism
IMDB

  • Budget: $1.8 million
  • Box Office: $67.7 million

Plot:

After years of conducting fake exorcisms since losing his faith, evangelical minister Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) decides to make a documentary about the last exorcism he plans on performing in attempts to expose what he believes is fraudulent. But when he meets the daughter of a farmer said to be possessed, he realizes he is getting much more than he bargained for.

About the production:

This documentary-style film was a smash hit at the box office, earning $67.7 million. While a lower budget may hold some filmmakers back, producer Eli Roth explained to Independent that it actually gave them the freedom to lean into the ambiguous ending they landed on. He said, “That's the fun of making a movie at this budget level, that we don’t need anyone’s approval. We can make a bold choice and go with it.”

21. Happy Death Day (2017)

Happy Death Day
IMDB

  • Budget: $4.8 million
  • Box Office: $125.5 million

Plot:

On her way to a party, college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is murdered by someone adorning a creepy, baby-faced mask. In the coming days, Tree relives the day of her death on a loop — a loop that only ends when she discovers who her killer is.

About the production:

This darkly comedic slasher flick produced by Blumhouse Productions is yet another in the production company’s repertoire of micro-budget successes.

Earning $125.5 million at the box office, this movie attracted a young audience and earned itself a respectable rating of 71% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s sequel Happy Death Day 2U was released in 2019, and Blumhouse has hinted about a third film in the works as well.

22. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

the rocky horror picture show
Movieclips / YouTube

  • Budget: $1.2 million
  • Box Office: $140.2 million

Plot:

This campy cult classic follows two newlyweds, Brad and Janet, who find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire. Seeking shelter from the rain, they wind up at an eerie mansion owned by evil genius Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

About the production:

Are you shuddering with antici….pation?

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is such an indelible part of camp-horror that it’s hard to believe it was shoestrung together on a tiny budget, with homemade costumes and cardboard props.

The film was a massive box office success, earning $140.2 million during its initial run. It has also sold an additional $479 million worth of tickets for its participation shows and Halloween midnight screenings.

Audiences just want “more, more, more!”

23. The Visit (2015)

The Visit
IMDB

  • Budget: $5 million
  • Box Office: $98.5 million

Plot:

Sibling pair Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) embark on a trip to meet their estranged maternal grandparents for the first time, with a camcorder in hand to document their adventure. It doesn’t take long before the kids start to notice their grandparents’ strange behavior, discover a petrifying secret and devise an escape plan.

About the production:

This film was quite a triumph for director M. Night Shyamalan after he faced consecutive film failures in the few years prior to the release of The Visit. Believed to be a filmmaking prodigy at one point, Shyamalan experienced a fall from grace and The Visit helped him begin to rise again.

Shyamalan told Rolling Stone that he keeps a list of all the Hollywood executives who said no to distributing The Visit, sharing that most of them have since lost their jobs.

24. Open Water (2003)

open water
Movieclips Classic Trailers / YouTube

  • Budget: $120,000
  • Box Office: $55 million

Plot:

A husband and wife decide to go on a scuba diving retreat to try to revitalize their marriage. While underwater, they are accidentally left behind by their crew and are stranded in the middle of the ocean.

About the production:

It’s pretty hard to go up against the king of all shark films, Jaws, but the terrifying premise for 2003’s Open Water was enough to get people into seats. Big time.

The film was a runaway success during that year’s Halloween movie release schedule, earning a box office gross of $55 million.

An impressive feat, considering that much of the film was captured on handheld cameras and required very little in terms of production.

25. Unfriended (2014)

Unfriended
IMDB

  • Budget: $1 million
  • Box Office: $62.9 million

Plot:

A group of teenage friends having a video chat session start getting messages from the account of their deceased peer. At first, they think it’s a cruel prank, but as the evening goes on, this supernatural being tortures the teens, urging them to reveal their darkest secrets.

About the production:

Upon its 2014 release, Unfriended was the biggest debut of an original horror since 2013’s The Conjuring. Taking place entirely on a laptop screen, the film’s accompanying marketing campaigns certainly drew a viewership to the theaters.

Universal Studios created a Facebook account to replicate that of the film’s terrorizer — selfies and cast photos included — and spooked people with creepy messages.

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About the Author

Em Norton

Em Norton

Staff Writer

Em Norton is a Staff Writer for MoneyWise. Em holds a B.A. in Professional Writing from York University and has been writing professionally since 2019. Em's work has previously been published by Room Magazine, IN Magazine, Our Canada and more.

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