How Connecticut became the capital for low-budget horror movies

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How Connecticut became the capital for low-budget horror movies

For horror movie aficionados, the late ’70s and early ’80s were the golden age of slasher movies. Now-iconic movies like “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Halloween” and “My Bloody Valentine” offered up plenty of frights and gore to appease horror fans while making an argument for horror being a profitable genre in Hollywood. 

At this time, Connecticut filmmaker Gorman Bechard was studying film at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Inspired by an “Art of Alfred Hitchcock” class, Bechard took on his first horror movie, “Disconnected,” in the fall of 1983. “I think the reason I looked into horror at that time was that in terms of breaking in and getting something sold, horror was the easiest genre to sell,” Bechard said. “The funny thing is, it still is.”

New Haven filmmaker Gorman Bechard at Miya’s Sushi restaurant where he was speaking in 2014.

Mara Lavitt / Hearst Connecticut Media file

Filmed in his Waterbury apartment as well as various locations throughout the city with a crew of roughly seven people, Bechard made the most out of his $40,000 budget, editing the film at his school.

Bechard’s next film would become his most notable horror movie: 1987’s “Psychos in Love,” which he describes as “the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python and Woody Allen all got together to do a slasher film.” The success of “Psychos in Love,” especially as a midnight film, led Bechard to a four-picture deal with Charles Band and Empire Pictures. The deal soured due to issues with post-production interference, forcing Bechard to disown two of his movies and eventually step away from filmmaking for some time. 

A marquee of the famous Bleecker Street Cinema in New York City. Gorman Bechard's "Psychos in Love" was shown there in 1987.

A marquee of the famous Bleecker Street Cinema in New York City. Gorman Bechard’s “Psychos in Love” was shown there in 1987.

Contributed by Gorman Bechard

Bechard’s story is just one of many in the history of low-budget horror and science-fiction movies shot in Connecticut. Though the state has not produced the same caliber of motion pictures that has come out of New York or Hollywood, Connecticut has established a storied history of “B-movies” (low-budget) that have become pivotal for the horror genre.

History of low-budget horror movies in Connecticut

The early ’60s can be pinpointed as the beginning this era of low-budget with the works of auteur Del Tenney. Tenney made three horror movies in the span of two years in Stamford: “Violent Midnight,” “The Curse of the Living Corpse” and “The Horror of Party Beach.” The latter of which has gone down in infamy as being one of the worst-reviewed, low-budget horror movies of all time.   

“The Horror of Party Beach” is part musical, part creature feature that borrows heavily from the 1954 classic, “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” However, the sea monsters in this flick are wearing cheap-looking masks that never change emotions, only offering a blank stare. When the monsters are swimming, viewers can even see the the un-costumed actors’ bodies below the surface.

The peak of these “B-movies” came in 1972 when fledgling director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham made their first movie, “The Last House on the Left.” The movie, which was scrutinized for its depictions of violence, was filmed around the Westport area on a budget of $90,000, according to IMDb. Despite the strong response to the contents of the film, “The Last House on the Left” was the launch pad for Craven and Cunningham’s lengthy careers in the horror genre. “The Last House on the Left” received a 2009 reboot, which was not filmed in Connecticut.

The ’70s continued to be a monumental era for low-budget movies in Connecticut with films like “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,” “The Stepford Wives” and “I Spit On Your Grave” all going on to receive cult status among film enthusiasts.  

American movie director Wes Craven, circa 1985. 

American movie director Wes Craven, circa 1985. 

Luciano Viti/Getty Images

By the ’80s, Connecticut had a reputation for being a horror movie capital. In 1981, the production of “Friday the 13th Part 2” was brought to Kent and New Preston, marking one of the first higher-budget horror movies to film in the state with a cost of $1.25 million. 

Low-budget horror movies at the time began to get more creative and ostentatious with their subject matter. Between the married serial killers of Bechard’s “Psychos in Love” to the killer dolls on a remote island (Stamford) in “Attack of the Beast Creatures,” Connecticut’s low budget movies from the ’80s served as a victory lap for the genre before lying dormant until the next century. 

By the time the 2000s rolled around, Connecticut’s low-budget horror movie scene had become a relic. Big budget movies like “The Stepford Wives” remake, Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” all shot in Connecticut over the past two decades, in large part thanks to the state’s tax incentives for larger movie productions.

A poster for Wes Craven's 1972 horror film 'The Last House on the Left' starring Sandra Peabody. 

A poster for Wes Craven’s 1972 horror film ‘The Last House on the Left’ starring Sandra Peabody. 

Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

However, “B-movies” have been quietly making a resurgence with direct-to-streaming or direct-to-DVD movies. Synthetic Cinema International, based in Rocky Hill, has been responsible for producing a number of Connecticut-shot, low-budget movies in recent years. Though the company is primarily known for its Christmas movies, which typically air on Hallmark, Synthetic Cinema International has also produced movies like “Alien Opponent,” “Banshee!!!,” “Dead Souls” and “Deep in the Darkness” — all of which were shot in Connecticut, according to IMDb. 

Before his ongoing success with the “X” trilogy, director Ti West filmed two, relatively low-budget horror movies in Connecticut that helped launch his career in horror: 2009’s “The House of the Devil” and 2011’s “The Innkeepers.”

“Violent Midnight” (1963): A war veteran from New England is the suspect in a string of murders. However, not all is as it seems in this small town. Filmed in Stamford. 

“The Curse of the Living Corpse” (1964): The reading of a will turns into an undead nightmare when the dead man comes back to life and goes on a killing spree. Filmed in Stamford.

“The Horror of Party Beach” (1964): Musical numbers, biker gangs and radioactive sea monsters collide to terrorize a seaside town. Filmed in Stamford.

“Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” (1971): A woman who was recently hospitalized moves into a “haunted” farmhouse, where her sanity is tested. Filmed in Chester, East Haddam, Essex and Old Saybrook.

“The Last House on the Left” (1972): Two girls heading into New York City are kidnapped and tortured by a gang of convicted felons. However, after the criminals take refuge in the home of one of the girl’s parents, they become victims of the vengeful parents. Filmed in Westport.

“The Bride” (1973): After learning about her husband’s affair, a newlywed bride seeks her revenge. Filmed in Wilton.

“The Stepford Wives” (1975): Set in the fictional town of Stepford, Connecticut, a woman finds out the unnatural truth behind the women in the town. Filmed in Darien, Fairfield, Norwalk, Redding, Weston and Westport. 

“I Spit on Your Grave” (1978): After being tortured by a group of men, a woman hunts each of her tormentors down. Filmed in Kent. 

“The Children” (1980): A nuclear explosion turns a bus-load of school kids into zombies. Filmed in Canaan.

“Disconnected” (1984): A video store employee starts receiving ominous calls at work that have her questioning whether things are real or just her imagination. Filmed in Waterbury.

“Attack of the Beast Creatures” (1985): A cruise ship sinks somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, forcing survivors to find shelter on a deserted island. However, the survivors find that the island is overrun with killer ooze and a cult of demonic dolls. Filmed in Stamford.

“Deadtime Stories” (1986): A babysitting uncle tells a series of scary tales. Filmed in Greenwich.

“Psychos in Love” (1987): A pair of serial killers fall in love, but the murderous couple meets its match when the two go toe-to-toe with a cannibalistic plumber. Filmed in Goshen, Hartford, Naugatuck, Waterbury and Watertown.

“Cannibal Campout” (1988): A group of campers is attacked by a wild pack of mutant cannibals. Filmed throughout Connecticut.  

“Woodchipper Massacre” (1988): Siblings use their father’s woodchipper to kill people. Filmed throughout Connecticut. 

“Death Collector” (1988):  In a futuristic tale akin to “Mad Max,” a man seeks revenge on a gang that killed his brother. Filmed in New Haven. 

“The House of the Devil” (2009): A financially strapped college student takes on a babysitting job for a family with a number of supernatural secrets. Filmed in Lakeville, New Britain, Salisbury, Torrington and Winsted.

“The Innkeepers” (2011): Based on the Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, employees working at the inn during its last days experience unexplained happenings. Filmed in Torrington.

“The Battery” (2012): Two ex-baseball players travel the backroads of New England during the Zombie Apocalypse. Filmed in Bridgeport, Norwalk and Kent.

“Beneath” (2013): Man-eating fish wreak havoc on a group of boaters. Filmed in Oxford.

“#Horror” (2015): A group of teenage girls gets involved with a sinister social media game. Filmed in Greenwich.

“Thorp” (2020): An alien who left the Earth in the ’80s returns in search of his best friend. The longer the alien remains on Earth, the more his mysterious past is revealed. Filmed in Danbury.

Why is Connecticut popular for shooting horror movies?

Vinegar Syndrome, a film preservation company and boutique film label based in Bridgeport, has been restoring cult and low-budget movies for more than a decade. The company has released movies from all over the globe, but some of their most notable work has been the restoration of Connecticut movies.

Brandon Upson, Operations Coordinator and Lead Restoration Artist at Vinegar Syndrome, is a big fan of the Connecticut movies that his company has restored. Among those are “The Children” and Bechard’s aforementioned movies. For Upson, the popularity of filming low-budget movies in Connecticut is the state’s “old-world look” and the “rare” variety in its landscape. 

A still from 1987's "Psychos in Love" by Gorman Bechard.

A still from 1987’s “Psychos in Love” by Gorman Bechard.

Kathy Milani / Contributed by Gorman Bechard

“You kind of have everything you’re looking for in a movie, I would argue,” Upson said. “All within a two hour range, you can get to big cities, but you can also get to a haunted, abandoned-looking forest.”

Upson added that back in the heyday of low-budget horror movies, private investors had a higher chance to make their money back by investing in cheap horror movies. According to Vulture, major studios in the ’80s mass-produced slasher movies because the movies were easy to film and generally profitable.

Bechard also said that the state is “ripe with horror locations,” and that “we’re close enough to New York where you get a lot of people who studied film and still live in Connecticut, but haven’t made the trek to go to Hollywood.”

The female cast in a publicity still for 'The Stepford Wives', directed by Bryan Forbes, 1975. Left to right: Toni Reid, Carole Mallory, Tina Louise, Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Barbara Rucker, Nanette Newman and Judith Baldwin. 

The female cast in a publicity still for ‘The Stepford Wives’, directed by Bryan Forbes, 1975. Left to right: Toni Reid, Carole Mallory, Tina Louise, Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Barbara Rucker, Nanette Newman and Judith Baldwin. 

Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Though he’s focused on documentaries since his return to filmmaking in the early 2000s, Bechard said that if he were to film another narrative movie, it would be a horror movie. Bechard believes the horror community is what has preserved these films’ legacies — whether it’s a big budget production or something filmed in someone’s backyard.

“The horror fanatics are a legion. They are so dedicated and they don’t care if you have Tom Cruise in your film. None of that matters. Come up with something original, and that’s all they care about,” Bechard said. “In this day and age, the horror fans are the real film geeks.”

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