10 Heart-Racing Low Budget Thrillers (& Where To Stream Them)
- With recent instant classic thrillers like Decision to Leave pushing the boundaries of the enduring genre without breaking the bank, it’s the perfect time to delve into more of the best low-budget thriller movies that highlight the creativity, resourcefulness and raw talent that go into these remarkable films.
Thrillers are a popular pick for fans who want a heart-racing viewing experience. A thrilling film offers viewers a heightened feeling of suspense, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. Ultimately, it provides what humans secretly desire the most without having to leave their seats.
Another interesting thing about thrillers is that they don’t require a massive budget to produce a spectacular movie. This genre uses other tools to captivate the viewer. Perhaps the most effective tool used in films of this kind is the ongoing tension between what the audience knows (or thinks they know) and what the characters know (or what they don’t know). This constant exchange keeps viewers glued to the screen, and if executed authentically and cleverly, it makes the budget irrelevant.
Updated on January 29th, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
With recent instant classic thrillers like Decision to Leave pushing the boundaries of the enduring genre without breaking the bank, it’s the perfect time to delve into more of the best low-budget thriller movies that highlight the creativity, resourcefulness and raw talent that go into these remarkable films.
1 ‘Get Out’ (2017)
Directed by the comedic actor Jordan Peele from the sketch comedy series Key & Peele, Get Out left moviegoers and critics in awe. Who thought a guy best known for his comedy could direct such a hard-hitting film? No one. This film transcends genres. It invites the audience to embark on a thrilling ride with unpredictable twists and turns while maintaining a simmering uneasiness.
More specifically, Get Out is sharply written, and it feels like it’s one of a kind. But the most startling element of this film is that it only required a budget of $5 million to produce it. It’s a minuscule budget when comparing it to major box office hits. In fact, it went on to make $252 million worldwide, making it one of the highest-grossing movies in proportion to its budget. With a simple concept about a Black man (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) parents for the weekend, Peele was able to juggle humor, horror and racial commentary with ease.
2 ‘Nightcrawler’ (2014)
Considered to be one of Jake Gyllenhaal‘s most memorable performances, Dan Gilroy‘s Nightcrawler is a perfectly executed criminal thriller. It’s a perfect blend between Taxi Driver and Drive. The film follows Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a con man living on the fringes. He’s desperate for work and eventually muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, and like any good thriller, there’s a twist.
At first glance, Bloom might strike you as a reasonable, personable man, but then he reveals himself as a far more sinister person. As the film progresses, the protagonist begins blurring the line between observer and participant to become the star of his show by any means. With a budget of only $8.5 million, shot in four weeks, this low-budget movie grossed $50 million. It was an unexpected triumph, and Gyllenhaal was even nominated for an Oscar.
3 ‘Ex Machina’ (2014)
One of the first of its kind, Alex Garland‘s Ex Machina is a sci-fi thriller that treats artificial intelligence as the story’s centerpiece. This movie is a rare exception to this genre. The combination of a brilliantly written screenplay and extraordinary acting were only a few elements that helped this film reach its heights.
With a budget of only $13 million (not much for a film of this genre), the visual effects are spectacular. It even won an Oscar for it, beating competitors with budgets that were way above that. Ex-Machina is an intelligent thriller that explores the divide between technology and humanity. It reveals the chaos that happens when humans try to play God. It approaches the sci-fi aspect of the story as a close reality rather than a distant future. This is a character-driven movie, full of surprises, and it has hints of a psychological thriller as well.
4 ‘It Follows’ (2014)
Perhaps a little more indie than the other films previously mentioned, It Follows deserves all the recognition it got. Considered a horror film, David Robert Mitchell‘s It Follows is also arguably a thriller. The plot is about a young woman (Maika Monroe) followed by an unknown supernatural force after a sexual encounter.
Establishing an unsettling tone from the beginning, the film ingeniously makes the audience feel uneasy throughout. The title says it all, and the most thrilling aspect is precisely that. The sense that there’s something not quite right, the creepy undertone that there’s always someone or something watching the character’s every step. The film is also full of cliffhangers. With a shocking $2 million budget and a relatively unknown cast, this movie caused movie critics and audiences worldwide to rave about it. This horror/thriller is intelligent and original and went on to be nominated for a Cannes Golden Palm Award for best directing.
5 ‘Take Shelter’ (2011)
With a powerhouse performance, Michael Shannon went on to win multiple awards for his participation in Take Shelter. This gripping film was done masterfully, and it toys with the viewer’s psyche. In this movie, Shannon plays a young husband and father plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions. Consequently, he questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm or only himself.
With phenomenal acting, writing, cinematography and even digital effects, one would never know that this film was an independent film. It was produced under a $5 million budget, but the A-grade quality of this film was recognized globally. The director, Jeff Nicholas, won an award at The Cannes Film Festival. More than the awards and praise it got, this film sets the tension between what the audience “supposedly” knows and what the characters “supposedly” knows flawlessly. Besides being an intense and frightening watch, it is highly recommended.
6 ‘The Invitation’ (2015)
The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama, is a psychological thriller about a disastrous dinner party. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), his new girlfriend, along with a group of old friends, are invited to the house of Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). As the evening progresses, Will has doubts about Eden and David’s honesty and starts to worry that they are secretly members of some kind of cult.
In spite of its modest budget (just $1 million), The Invitation succeeds in creating a suspenseful atmosphere thanks to the outstanding work of its cast (especially Marshall-Green and Blanchard). The film also has a clever and nuanced narrative that can keep viewers guessing right up to the last frame.
7 ‘The Witch’ (2016)
Robert Eggers directed the supernatural horror film (and a somewhat slow-burn thriller) The Witch, which stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie. The story centers on a Puritan family that, in the 1600s, is banished from their colony and forced to make a new home on the edge of a dark forest. Not long after their newborn child vanished, they noticed a decline in their harvest. When one member of the family begins to suspect witchcraft, the others soon follow.
Fans and critics alike lauded The Witch for its impressive cast, notably Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson, and the film’s historical authenticity. It made $40 million worldwide with just a $3.5 million budget. The clever commentary on the dangers of religious fanaticism and the social and psychological impacts of isolation is wonderfully complemented by the film’s spooky atmosphere and the way in which suspense is slowly built throughout the story.
8 ‘Creep’ (2014)
In Creep, Patrick Brice (who also directed the film) plays a cameraman who answers a post on Craigslist and spends the day filming with a supposedly terminally-ill man named Josef (Mark Duplass). The day progresses, and the filmmaker becomes more suspicious and unnerved by Josef’s odd behavior and bizarre demands.
Creep received high marks from reviewers and audiences for its engaging tale and excellent acting (especially from Duplass). According to an interview with Duplass, “Creep cost no money” to film since they “used a found-footage premise and three-person crew.” Thanks to its innovative use of found footage and its ability to generate tension and suspense on a shoestring budget, the film has become a favorite among fans of the horror and thriller genres.
9 ‘Oldboy’ (2003)
Oldboy is a South Korean psychological thriller film directed by Park Chan-wook. The film follows Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a man who is abducted and kept hostage for fifteen years without any kind of explanation. Upon his release, he plans to track down his kidnapper and exact his vengeance, but Oh Dae-su learns of a terrible web of corruption and treachery along the way.
Fans of Oldboy‘s dark plot may be surprised to learn that the film was made with a budget of just $3 million. Choi Min-sik’s performance as Oh Dae-su elevates the film because of the depth with which he portrays the character’s emotional arc and spiral into madness. It’s also worth mentioning the film’s direction and cinematography, which are both fantastic. Of course, the film’s startling ending is what made it so well-known, with many viewers finding it both upsetting and satisfying. Oldboy is now widely recognized as a landmark in Korean filmmaking and is a must-see for any fan of psychological thrillers.
10 ‘Decision to Leave’ (2022)
Decision to Leave is the latest addition to renowned filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s already-impressive filmography. In this gripping murder mystery, Hae il Park plays a dedicated detective who travels to the mountains to learn the truth about a man’s mysterious death. Investigating the matter further, he learns that the victim’s intriguing wife (Tang Wei) is involved in a complex web of deceit and secrecy. The investigator gets attached to the case and the man’s strange wife, and he must decide between his professional responsibilities and his love for her as they become closer.
Will he be able to clear her reputation by finding out what really happened to the victim, or will he end up in the same deadly trap that took the life of her husband? Fans can expect surprising twists and turns and a riveting plot in Decision to Leave, which will keep viewers guessing until the very end. With the caliber of its innovative cinematography, spectacular performances and mind-bending sequences, it’s hard to believe it cost only $8.5 million to make.
NEXT: The Best Thriller Movies Of All Time, According To IMDb