Five Fantastic Low-Budget Creature Features from the Modern CGI Era

Skyline is being released on DVD this week, at the same time as Battle: Los Angeles occupies space at your local multiplexes. The detail that connects these films is that both depict alien invaders kicking the crap out of Los Angeles; at one point, Sony even considered filing a lawsuit against the makers of Skyline for possible creative infringement. What sets the films apart, though, is their price: Battle: Los Angeles cost $100 million to make while Skyline only cost $11 million, equaling a cost difference of $89 million. Skyline isn't the best alien invasion movie ever made; I found it to be an average movie at best and it sort of reminded me of Target Earth, an alien invasion cheapie from 1954. Yet in spite of its middling script, Skyline's creature effects are as amazing as they are cost-effective. Besides, what's not to love about a race of alien invaders who insatiably crave human brains? Mmmm, brains....

In the modern era of CGI special effects and mega-budget creature-heavy films such as Avatar and the Clash of the Titans remake, it's easy to forget that monster movies wouldn't be where they are today without innovative filmmakers who had to make the most out of very small production budgets. Here's a list of five impressive creature feature films from the last few years that were made for under $10 million with little or no CGI effects. Sure, these movies may be somewhat derivative and cheesy and probably didn't get much distribution outside of DVDs and a Saturday night showing on the SyFy Channel, but they nevertheless deliver exciting stories with inspired scripts, limited sets, lesser known actors, and practical effects. Read on ...

Abominable (2006)

Basic Premise: Rear Window meets Bigfoot.

Budget: I couldn't find the exact number, but I'm guessing that this was made for around $5 million.

Details: Considering that kind of budget this film had, the end product is top-notch. It has a great cast that includes horror genre vets Jeffrey Combs, Lance Henriksen and Dee Wallace Stone, a memorable orchestral soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin (who is the father of Abominable's director, Ryan Schifrin), and outstanding creature effects and kill scenes. Matt McCoy does a great job as the wheelchair-bound Preston Rogers, who is forced to use his wits against a murderous monster that's much bigger than Raymond Burr.

Trivia: Abominable was the last film that involved the late cinematographer Neal Fredericks, whose previous low-budget horror credentials include The Blair Witch Project, and it has the distinction of featuring the ugliest depiction of Bigfoot ever seen anywhere. If you're a Lance Henriksen fan, Abominable is one of his three Bigfoot films (the others being Sasquatch and Sasquatch Mountain), and the second horror film in which he appears that's modeled after Rear Window (the other film is Mimic 3: Sentinel). Another interesting bit of trivia is that cast member Rex Linn (CSI: Miami) is such a monster movie fan that he agreed to participate in Abominable on the condition that he could play the monster for at least one scene (see the production documentary on the DVD for more details).

Alien Raiders (2008)

Basic Premise: Small town police vs. armed vigilantes vs. extraterrestrial parasites in a supermarket during the Christmas season.

Budget: $2 million, with a shooting schedule of fifteen days.

Details: Alien Raiders successfully combines a tense hostage drama with a paranoid alien invasion story. You'll recognize similarities to other films about alien parasites, particularly Alien, The Thing and The Hidden, as well as thematic parallels to short-lived TV shows about alien invaders such as War of the Worlds and Threshold. (In fact, there's just enough information provided about the aliens and the vigilantes--not to mention the stuff that's revealed in the bonus videos on the DVD--that Alien Raiders would merit either a prequel movie or a prequel TV miniseries on HBO or Showtime.) The film's cast includes horror and sci-fi vets such as Courtney Ford (Dexter, True Blood) and Bonita Friedericy (Chuck, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Trivia: In a clever nod to the classic TV show The Invaders, the vigilantes have a way to test for parasite infections that involves the pinky finger; unlike The Invaders, the test isn't for the faint of heart.

The Descent (2005)

Basic Premise: The Hills Have Eyes goes subterranian when a group of female hikers go cave exploring while on vacation.

Budget: $5,500,000

Details: The monsters in this film are feral, cave-dwelling humanoid creatures called "Crawlers". These creatures are so scary in their appearance and behavior that it's easy to forget that they are in fact just extremely nimble actors wearing relatively simple monster makeup. Add to the mix claustrophobic cave sets and a cast of interesting characters and you're got a real nail-biter of a survival horror film. Then again, Descent's director Neil Marshall was no stranger to low-budget horror: His previous film, the excellent 2002 werewolf thriller Dog Soldiers, was produced on an equally modest budget.

Trivia: Of the films on this list, The Descent is the only one that garnered nation-wide distribution on the big screen. It's also the only film on this list to have a sequel, The Descent 2, but that went straight to DVD.

Infestation (2009)

Basic Premise: A Shaun of the Dead-style horror/comedy for big bug movies, where a group of survivors band together after their city is suddenly overrun by giant insects.

Budget: I couldn't find the exact number, but it was made for less than $5 million and was shot in Bulgaria for budgetary reasons.

Details: As low-budget big bug movies go, Infestation has a lot of offer. It balances some intense shocks and kill scenes (including an initial bug attack involving a pickup truck) with a wry sense of humor (including a goofy sight gag involving a barking dog). It also has convincing giant insect effects and a satisfying selection of big bug types: the bug monsters include the beetle-like worker insects, the wasp-like warrior insects, and the freaky hybrid insects.

Trivia: I couldn't find anything trivia-worthy for Infestation to mention in this post. Nevertheless, this feat of low-budget filmmaking looks especially impressive when you compare it to the budget of its closest bug-bug-humor-themed counterpart, 2002's Eight Legged Freaks, which cost $30 million to produce.

Splinter (2008)

Basic Premise: A pair of campers and their carjackers are trapped inside of a convenience store by an ever-changing monstrosity lurking outside in the dark.

Budget: Not available, but probably under $5 million.

Details: Of the monsters featured on this list, the one in Splinter is the most bizarre. The monster is actually a parasitic fungus that feeds on blood and infects hosts by piercing their skin with splinter-like quills (hence the title of the movie). The fungus slowly spreads through the host's body, eventually taking it over to find and infect more hosts. The fugus can even survive in and move around with a host's severed limb, and it can assemble together parts from various hosts for greater mobility. While this sounds like a tall order for any special effects team to pull off, Splinter does it very well. Splinter's small but compelling cast includes Jill Wagner (from the woefully short-lived Blade: The Series) and Paulo Costanzo (Royal Pains).

Trivia: As a nifty bonus feature, the DVD includes an instructional video on how to make a "Splinter pumpkin" for Halloween. You'd be surprised at how cool these decorations look.


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