Penny Pinchers: The Kings of No-Budget Horror (Documentary Review)

There are some things money cannot buy and entertainment value seems to be one of them. Studios can throw as many millions of dollars, pounds, yen or shillings at a production, and they may even get a return on their investment – yet it does not necessarily please the crowds. 2009’s Avatar is, as of this writing, the highest-earning film ever, earning nearly $3 billion in worldwide sales. Of course, that did not stop criticism over its ho-hum story and themes. Then there are the cheap, cult classics: take, for example, the original Paranormal Activity film from 2007, which ended up earning $190 million worldwide on a $150,000 budget. Therefore, humble funding is not necessarily a barrier against success. Which all leads to the central thesis behind Sinister Studios’ latest offering, the Documentary Penny Pinchers: The Kings of No-Budget Horror.

Penny Pinchers: The Kings of No-Budget Horror still.

Originally released through limited-edition Blu-Ray and VHS runs on July 20, 2017, Penny Pinchers will be receiving a wider release, via DVD and VOD, on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, via SRSCinema. Director Dustin Ferguson (Die Sister Die 2013, The Amityville Legacy 2016) joins fellow filmmakers Donald Farmer (Demolition Highway 1996, Bollywood and Vine 2004), Christopher Seaver (Destruction Kings 2006, Ski Wolf 2008), Lloyd Kaufman (The Toxic Avenger 1984, Sgt Kabukiman NYPD 1990) and more to talk about just what it takes to make Horror films on a few dimes – maybe even literal dimes in some cases.

The production quality is fair for the most part; this is not exactly going to be troubling Sir David Attenborough and his nature documentaries. The directors are interviewed in their offices or at home, rather than at a studio, except for Todd Jason Cook (Frightmares 1997, Zombiefied 2012), who seems to be shot from the neck up in a dark room. The overlays are simple too, with the title cards being white Arial text on black backgrounds. Getting too glitzy would be going against the documentary’s theme, but the camera and sound quality are clear enough. If anything, it looks less guerrilla than 2017’s Metal Missionaries or Ferguson’s own Terror at Black Forest from 2010.

Penny Pinchers follows a straightforward structure: the directors describe how they got into the Horror genre, how they made their first feature film, how they distributed their work, and so on. It almost follows an order too, starting with either Kaufman or Ferguson, then going through Farmer, Tim Ritter (Creep 1995, Hi-Death 2018), Seaver, Todd Sheets (Bimbos BC 1990, Zombie Bloodbath 1993), etc., before reaching the next step.

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There are plenty of anecdotes on offer, like Farmer explaining how 1986’s Demon Queen got ahead (“It’s got to have gory scenes, and it’s got to have a little bit of nudity. If it has those two things, it will be commercial enough that [the audience] will overlook the super-cheap budget”). But there is also insight into the production process, like Johnny Dickie (Slaughter Tales 2012, Trashtastic 2013) talking about the troubles of distribution or when Sheets relates the trouble he had funding his first feature film.

Not that it is all doom and gloom. There is an advantage for each disadvantage, like having the creative freedom to write whatever script one likes. Fortunately, that creative vision can lead to a presence on the festival circuit, positive reviews, and ultimately lead to bigger things. One could become the next Sheets or Kaufman, or even Trey Parker (Cannibal! The Musical 1993, South Park series) or James Gunn (Slither 2006, Guardians of the Galaxy 2014). That is, of course, provided one has the right amount of talent and some good luck at hand. It does not get too starry-eyed or cynical about filmmaking, but simply states that film is what it is – a business as much as an artform.

Penny Pinchers: The Kings of No-Budget Horror still.

However, the documentary does get into technical talk, like what type of cameras were used, distribution channels, traditional methods versus digital technology, etc. Yet it does not come off as dry or, at least, too dry. It is low on the techno-babble, with clips from 1993’s Evil Night or 2017’s Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High AKA Vol.2 placed here or there to spice things up. Not to mention Kaufman makes for a good interview, mixing his take on things with his Troma-tic style of humour (unless the international conglomerates are full of devil worshippers). He and the others offer some good advice for budding filmmakers too, like reading anything and everything on producing movies to preparing for the highs and lows.

Ultimately, budding filmmakers are likely the ones who will get the most out of this documentary; though it still makes intriguing viewing for the casual movie fan, where it offers a view into the proverbial sausage factory. There is enough of the nitty-gritty on display without it soaking up the fun, and Penny Pinchers keeps a sober head about the subject while showing warmth for the Horror genre. Interesting throughout, CrypticRock give Penny Pinchers: The Kings of No-Budget Horror 4 out of 5 stars.


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