We tend to make fun of horror movies for being a little too simple or not containing much in the way of plot. But the fact is that some of the best horror movies of all time are among the most simplistic. After all, how many people love the early slashers, most of which recycled a very basic formula? Or even the classic monster movies. The original Thing From Another World was just about a bunch of people trapped in an Arctic outpost with an alien monster.
Some films make excellent use of a simple premise. Stephen King and many other authors are masters at this. A simple story makes the best use of character. It gives them room to grow and even to change throughout the narrative.
That will be the case for the seven films on this list. They’re movies that took an extremely simple concept and ran with it. Saying things about the characters or, in some cases, about society that they might not have otherwise had room to say.
It’s harder to get more simple than Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Not only did it have one very basic plot point—there’s a body hidden inside an old wooden chest during a party—but it was also designed to look as though the entire film is a single continuous shot. It’s not, of course, there are some very clever cuts hidden throughout. But the premise and the seemingly simplistic camerawork make it a superb film with a very basic premise.
A group of people who don’t know each other are trapped inside a farm house while a bunch of dead people try to claw their way inside. That’s it. That’s the plot of Night of the Living Dead. Yet it is one of the most effective and most subversive horror films ever made. It plants the seeds for Romero’s more obviously socially-conscious zombie efforts to follow. This one’s about classism, racism, and just the political environment in America in general. If you put a group of people together and force them to solve a problem, they will always find a way to divide themselves from one another.
The simplicity of The Hitcher is one of the most terrifying things about it. We don’t know who John Ryder really is and we don’t know why he does the things he does. Poor Jim Halsey picks the Hitcher up right at the beginning of the film. He gets away and thinks he’s safe, but this man is relentless. Things only get worse and worse for Jim until the movie comes to its fitting conclusion.
John Carpenter’s Halloween set the standard for every slasher film to follow. It’s one of the most beautifully simple horror movies ever made and yet there is so much to it. The filmmaking talent here is incredible. But the plot is barebones, it’s like an amalgamation of classic urban legends. Local madman breaks out of the asylum and proceeds to stalk a group of small town babysitters. That simplicity allowed Michael Myers, devoid of all humanity, to become one of the most classic boogeymen in cinema history.
It could so easily have been a short story, but Stephen King got a novel out of it. And that led Rob Reiner to adapt it into an Academy Award winning film. A writer is rescued from a near-fatal car crash by an obsessive fan who won’t let him leave. That’s terrifying. It’s almost like a play—which it has actually become since—in that the bulk of the film is centered on two people. One of whom gradually uncovers just how insane the other is. Moreover, the majority of it takes place in a single room. And that’s part of what is so great about it. We uncover more and more of Annie and who she really is through every scene.
Another one from the King, and it’s twice as simple as Misery. Mother and child are trapped in a car by a rabid dog. It will kill them if they try to escape, but they can’t stay in the car forever or they will die. There is so much tension there, so much horror on so many different levels, and yet the whole movie is comprised of a woman, a kid and a dog. There are others, yes, but that’s the basic cast. Those are the people we’re focused on for most of the movie, yet it works so well.
Steven Spielberg isn’t as fondly remembered for the movie that put him on the map as he should be. Duel is excellent. It’s man vs. truck. That’s it. There’s nothing simpler than that. One man is pursued relentlessly by a massive truck. We never see the driver. We never know why they’re trying so hard to kill this one person. But we don’t have to know. It’s scarier that way.