Indie Horror Month – 25 Milestones in Independent Horror Filmmaking: Part 3

Welcome back, fiends! Over the last two days we’ve looked at the first 10 milestones in independent horror filmmaking, starting in 1921 and ending up in 1977 with David Lynch’s Eraserhead .
Today we begin in the year 1978 and take you through the next five milestones of indie horror up until the year 1981.

1978- Joe Dante Directs Piranha:
Before he was terrifying this writer as a small child with his gritty werewolf tale The Howling (the animated werewolf sex scene remains to this day an all-time favorite of mine) or capturing the imaginations of children and adults alike with Gremlins, director Joe Dante started off working for the iconic B-Movie master Roger Corman.

Indie Horror Month - 25 Milestones in Independent Horror Filmmaking: Part 3

Dante paid his dues in the industry by coming up under the tutelage of Corman for several years, working as an editor on several projects as well as co-directing Hollywood Boulevard . It was in 1978 that Dante would get his big break. Corman, seeing how Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was storming theaters countrywide, set off to produce his own spin on the killer fish subgenre in horror with Piranha , a comedy horror film about a swarm of killer piranhas that pack more than the average bite. Corman knew Dante had the ability to capture that unique blend of comedy and horror that has become a trademark in the director’s filmmaking style.

Since its release in 1978, Piranha’s legacy has continued on, including one sequel as well as two remakes (with one remake sequel coming later this year), and acted as the catalyst for not only Dante’s career (whose other genre contributions include Twilight Zone: The Movie, Amazon Women on the Moon, and The Burbs ) but for critically-acclaimed writer John Sayles as well, who used the money he earned writing Piranha (as well as other horror classics including Dante’s The Howling) to fund his award-winning future projects.

Piranha also remains one of the most successful releases out of the independently run New World Pictures (which was owned by Corman until 1983), further cementing its place in horror history.

1978- John Carpenter Gives Us a New Face of Evil with Halloween :
It’s hard to imagine audiences had any idea what they were in for when they first experienced John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick Halloween that fateful autumn in 1978 when it opened in the Midwest. But it’s safe to say that the audiences and the horror genre all felt the power and horror from what many deem the first modern slasher film.

The Halloween story begins with a screening of Carpenter’s cult classic Assault on Precinct 13 at the Milan Film Festival, where the director met Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad, who were anxious to work with the up-and-coming Carpenter on a low-budget horror movie. Originally titled The Babysitter Murders, Yablans suggested moving this chilling tale of babysitters being slain to the holiday Halloween, and from there Carpenter began working on the script with co-producer Debra Hill.

Halloween was shot for $320,000 funded solely by Akkad, and Carpenter and his cast and crew were all pushed to the brink during their vigorous 21-day shoot during the springtime in order to deliver the film on time for the upcoming October release. But their tireless efforts to deliver a quintessential spine-tingler paid off – during Halloween’s initial theatrical run, it earned $47 million in the U.S. alone, making it the most profitable American independent film of its time.

Halloween ended up being a huge milestone, not only creating one of the biggest franchises in our genre but also serving as an inspiration for the modern slasher films for decades of filmmakers who followed. It also launched Master of Horror Carpenter into a new stratosphere in the industry, giving him the clout to go on to create such masterpieces like The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine and In the Mouth of Madness and created one of the biggest icons of our beloved genre: serial killer Michael Myers.

1979- Aussie Filmmakers Take a Bold Leap with Mad Max:
Until 1979 Australian filmmakers weren’t all that widely known around the world, but that all changed when a couple of industry newcomers took a chance in making their gritty dystopic vision of the future, Mad Max.

Before he helmed Mad Max, director George Miller was a medical professional working in Australia, but the everyday drama of the emergency room couldn’t keep his full attention so Miller set his sights on becoming a filmmaker. While at a summer film school in 1971, Miller met Byron Kennedy, and an instant bond was forged. Before they took on the pressures of making a feature film, they produced the award-winning short film “Violence in Cinema, Part 1” but struggled for several years until getting Mad Max off the ground. It was in 1973 that Kennedy-Miller Films was born and the duo set off to make an action film unlike anything Australian audiences had ever seen the likes of before.

The pair met up with first-time screenwriter James McCausland, and in late 1978 production began on Mad Max for an estimated $400,000 (AUS) raised independently by Kennedy-Miller Films. The movie shot for twelve weeks around Melbourne, and since there were budget constraints to deal with, the only actor that wore real leather in the film was lead Mel Gibson (who was still an unknown talent here in the US). Many of the cars had to be repainted and reused for multiple set-ups, and often the paint on the cars would still be wet as the film was rolling. Corners even had to be cut during post-production: Kennedy and Miller did all the editing and sound on a homemade editing machine created by Kennedy’s father, who was an engineer.

Mad Max was an instantaneous hit in Australia, and once it was released worldwide, it put not only the continent on the proverbial map but newcomer director Miller (who would later win an Academy Award for Happy Feet) as well. The film went on to gross $100 million globally, spawned two sequels, and has influenced filmmakers for generations since its debut.

1980- Friday the 13th Becomes a New Date to Fear:
Until 1980 Sean S. Cunningham was only known in the horror genre for his producing skills. Credited with being the visionary who stood behind an unknown Wes Craven’s disturbing tale of revenge, The Last House on the Left, Cunningham was finally ready to get into the director’s chair after being inspired to do so after seeing John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978.

Cunningham hired writer Victor Miller to pen the script (the duo had just collaborated on the drama Manny’s Orphans), and Miller decided to turn the slasher genre on its head a bit: He made the killer not only a woman, but also a mother, which is something that hadn’t been done in this new modern era of horror.

Cunningham made Friday the 13th for $550,000, and in an unprecedented deal (at the time), Paramount Pictures nabbed up the project for $1.5 million after one screening, making the major studio one of the first of its time to distribute an independently produced horror film.

There isn’t much left to say about Friday the 13th and Cunningham’s influence on modern horror that hasn’t been said a million times over, but perhaps if Cunningham wouldn’t have felt inspired to create his own horrific tale about a group of doomed camp counselors and a deranged mother hellbent on revenge, then we may have never been introduced to one of the biggest icons in pop culture ever: Jason Voorhees. And as fans we would never have enjoyed the countless movies for years to come that clearly took their cues from Cunningham’s work on Friday the 13th.

1981- The Evil Dead Raises the Bar for B-Movies:
The Evil Dead story really begins back in 1978. A then up-and-coming director named Sam Raimi partnered with his childhood friend, then-unknown actor Bruce Campbell (as well as future Scream Queen Ellen Sandweiss), to create the short film “Within the Woods” as a calling card to help raise funds for their next project – The Evil Dead. Their plan for “Within the Woods” proved successful as Raimi was able to pull together $375,000 from investors based on his work on the short and set off to make The Evil Dead with Campbell, Sandwiess and a whole slew of others on board.

In order to work within his budgetary constraints, Raimi proved his knack for perseverance and shot The Evil Dead over the course of 1-1/2 years, even using stand-ins (or “Fake Shemps”) when necessary. Once the film was finished, Raimi tried shopping his over-the-top gore-fest around Hollywood but was initially turned down by almost every single distributor in the US at the time due to The Evil Dead’s graphic violence and terror.

But then he showed the movie at the Cannes Film Festival marketplace, where it was picked up by the European distributor who handled The Evil Dead’s initial limited theatrical run when it premiered in October 1981. Eventually New Line Cinema stepped in and gave the film a wide release in 1983 after realizing its cult classic potential, and since then The Evil Dead has grossed $29.4 million in theaters. That’s not taking into consideration the money brought in by the various DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the film that have been released since 1999.

Despite the initial negative reviews, The Evil Dead has gone on to be somewhat of a critical darling these days, being heralded as one of the premiere B-movies ever made. Since making The Evil Dead, Raimi has gone on to become a genre hero with films including Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness, Darkman and Drag Me to Hell as well as becoming one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood after his success with helming the original Spider-Man trilogy (which has accumulated over $2.6 billion in box office receipts worldwide).

We’ll see you fiends Thursday for our next five milestones!

Heather Wixson

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  • doubleh55

    I question the inclusion of Mad Max as a horror movie but I thought Piranha was a choice I never would have thought about and I agree with.

  • will graham

    Yeah I would have replaced Mad Max with Grizzly as that was the film that showed independants you could make lots of money from ripping off Jaws, which continues to this day.

    Otherwise pretty good so far.