In 1963 director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman left the dwindling market of softcore-sex-comedies to pursue something different. A series of profitable films that could be made on the cheap. Stuff that no major studio would attempt to recreate. Their tools? Butchered animal organs, gelatin and fake blood.
What followed was Blood Feast, the story of a psychopathic food caterer who sacrifices women to his “Egyptian Goddess” Ishtar. Deemed the first American “splatter” film, this technicolor smorgasbord of bloody body parts grossed four million dollars against its miniscule budget of $24,500. It may have been the first low- budget horror film to attract an outsized audience with its promise of gore-soaked set pieces, visceral effects and nubile young victims. It was not the last.
Halloween, Evil Dead, Texas Chainsaw, Night of the Living Dead. We all know these classic rags-to-riches bloodbaths. But for every successful foray into Hollywood there’s 100 cash-strapped nightmares making use of ingenuity and offal. The rogue visionaries with a passion for film so strong that no empty pocket could ever prevent them from sharing their goopy artistry. The Mark Borchardts, Don Dohlers, Leif Jonkers and Polonia Brothers of the world whose regional self-financed schlockers left audiences feeling gross, confused, but entertained.
“It’s all about the passion and the heart behind it,” says Lucky Cerruti of Dead Vision Productions.
“The worst part about self-financing is the limitation on the effects. The movies that we make consist of 50 cents and a roll of duct tape. So there’s always the dream of what kind of gags and effects and tricks we could pull off if we had all the money in the world. But with that said, I think that people can really make some great stuff with the resources they have at their disposal.”
Founded in 2018 by Cerruti, Sam Williamson and Eddie McCole, Dead Vision Productions prides itself on “showcasing high concepts, stellar acting and large scope despite extremely low budgets.” Kindness of Strangers is a 2018 short about a couple’s search for the perfect wedding venue descending into cannibalistic madness.
With an easily digestible 52-minute run time, their follow up, Freak, won Best Kill and Best Gore at the 2020 Independent Horror Movie Awards. Employing some of the most creative puppetry for the short film’s titular Freak, the end result looks like something between the slimy sex demon famously made by Carlo Rambaldi for 1981’s Possession and a dollar-store, unmasked Jason Voorhees Muppet with severe dermatitis.
Freak’s excessive close ups on torn flesh and dripping creature drool has a childlike fascination to seeing messy practical FX up close. “It’s a total giddy feeling seeing someone get absolutely covered in fake blood and goo,” says Cerruti, “there’s a pretty elaborate kill sequence in a tent. I was laying on the ground, working the prop head and pumping blood rig so the blood absolutely drenched me. I had to throw all of my clothes away. And that tent.”
One doesn’t need to look much further than everyday household materials for creative inspo. Cerruti says the coolest FX can come from everyday objects. Perhaps no one knows this better than award-winning indie horror filmmaker Joe Sherlock, veteran of over 30 feature and anthology films, most of which he wrote, directed, shot, edited and scored himself.
“Never underestimate the power of the kitchen,” Sherlock says. “I still use pudding for various forms of slime or goop in my flicks and torn-up lunch meat looks pretty good for slabs of flesh a zombie might be chewing on.” Travelling to the depths of Tubi one might stumble upon another Joe Sherlock gem: Odd Noggins (2000), a dizzying horror sci-fi experience involving aliens harvesting human heads by sending women who work for a party hotline.
Toronto filmmaker and volunteer at the Eyesore Cinema, Adam “Riot” Thorn is no stranger to this kind of frugal artistry. ‘The Dollar Store’ gets a title card credit in his 2013 feature Personal Space Invader, following an ape from space who terrorizes a small town’s campgrounds during Spring Break. “Around Halloween I raid the place for stuff I really don’t need but at least can afford,” says Thorn. “On my last two films I had access to lots of fake blood but I’ll always buy a handful of fake blood spray and capsules from the dollar store at Halloween cause you never know when you need more.”
Even seasoned industry pros like Taiwanese-American filmmaker and creature effects legend Steve Wang is no stranger to the ever-lingering pressure of budgetary constraints. “A lack of time and budget always seems to be the case for most every project I’ve been involved with,” says Wang. “Not having the proper budget means you can’t always build something as cool and complex as your vision, but what is also true with budget and time constraints is that you are forced to become more inventive and resourceful in your journey to achieve your vision.”
A self taught artist and sculptor, Wang’s unique approach to creature design stems from a childhood love for Tokusatsu (Japanese superhero shows), kaiju and rubber monster masks. At barely 20 years old, he got his first big break working with legendary FX artist Stan Winston on Predator and The Monster Squad, the same year he won the annual Halloween costume contest run by Japanese “surrealist vision effects” artist and punk musician Screaming Mad George. It was “to support all the young industry FX artists so they can get an opportunity to show off their skills in front of the masters like Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Tom Burman,” Wang recalls.
1991’s The Guyver, a Japanese-American production based on a manga he co-directed with Screaming Mad George, remains a cult-favourite for its bewildering blend of sci-fi, comedy and body-horror. “All my films were made for a lot less than the scripts demanded,” Wang says. “ Guyver 2 was made for less than a million dollars and it had big sets, tons of creatures, wire action and visual effects. I was only able to do what I did with a lot of personal sacrifices. And while I’m very proud of what my team and I were able to achieve, it was not remotely close to my original vision of the film.”
Horror fans continue to lament the rise of digital FX in place of traditional approaches like animatronics, squibs and splatter, but there are futureproof aspects to practical FX that may never be replaced. Big budget blockbusters may continue to pump out millions of dollars worth of sensory underwhelming CGI, but rest assured that the mad mavericks of micro-budget genre-cinema will continue the good fight. Toiling through sticky layers of corn syrup and latex, borrowing their parents’ car to pick up highly patient actors/co-workers/friends who can only help out on weekends.
Brandon Lim is a Toronto-based-bassist (Scooter Jay), film programmer (Black Belt Cinema at the Revue), designer (Fatal Stasis Apparel) plus waiter (Mengrai Thai). You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @blackbeltcinema.