You may not realize it, but the new horror film Insidious opening this weekend marks the biggest horror movie merger of talent since Freddy met Jason. Insidious is a collaboration between the screenwriting-directing team of Saw and the producers of Paranormal Activity, two of the biggest franchises to emerge from the swamplands of low budget indie horror. Such an event prompts thinking on what are the most important landmarks of independently produced American horror, which has long been a breeding ground for innovative, resourceful and shamelessly exploitative filmmaking. Here they are. Not all of them are masterpieces; some may get your blood boiling for the wrong reasons. But there’s no doubt that each of them in their own way changed the game for one of cinema’s most enduring, underrated and scarily satisfying genres:
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Schlockmeister Roger Corman remains probably the most important American independent filmmakers as he was the first businessman to prove the reproducibility of low-budget grindhouse cinema. Of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he produced with Vincent Price, The Pit and the Pendulum is his most enduring title, largely because of the film’s elaborate set piece in the dungeon with the eponymous pit. Movie brat filmmakers, including Tim Burton and John Landis, grew up with Corman’s brooding costume dramas. Thanks to Price’s typically campy performance, and its brooding, creaky grand guignol plot, The Pit and the Pendulum perfectly reflects the first wave of filmmkaer to try to capture the violent but nominally moral-minded atmosphere of ‘50s horror comics like Tales from the Crypt.
Blood Feast (1963)
Herschell Gordon Lewis held no illusions about the quality of his films–he’s famous for saying “I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an artform and spends money based on that immature philosophy.” As such, Blood Feast is a knowingly crass film that emphasizes cheap-looking guts and gore (Lewis was the first to call horror films “gore films”) for the sake of titillation. As lousy as the film is, it also happens to be the first acknowledged film of its kind and a tawdry milestone in the horror genre.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Starting with its independently financed roadshow release, George Romero’s seminal zombie film was the first to take the image of the living dead man from Haitian voodoo and use it to create the flesh-eating menaces we know today. It’s one of the first horror movies to make its politics as important as its atmosphere. Apart from being one of the first American genre filmmakers to prominently feature a black actor in a leading role, Romero also created one of the first strong female leads in the horror genre after Val Lewton’s studio-produced chillers of the ‘40s. The film remains a spare microcosm of middle American fears of invasion and necessarily arbitrary factionalism.
Last House on the Left (1972)
Wes Craven‘s directorial debut remains his most excoriating chiller about the relativity of evil. Upon its initial release, the film’s depiction of a pair of parents that torture the men that raped their daughter inspired polemic responses. In Germany, Columbia Pictures originally decided not to release the film as they thought it was a snuff film. Last House on the Left was banned in a number of countries, including Australia for 32 years and in England on more than one occasion, making it the most controversial film on this list.