A high concept horror movie can have its basic premise explained in one simple sentence. The premise should be easy to grasp as well, with traditional “good vs. evil” at the root of the plot. In standard blockbuster fare, high concept films also usually feature big-name stars and massive budgets. In horror, however, the concept is the selling point.
Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe hits theaters this month and has the makings of a truly great high concept horror movie. The concept? Unlucky thieves break into the house of a blind serial killer. The title tells viewers that sound will play a major role in the film. This makes sense, of course, since the blind serial killer uses his ears to tell him where people are. Alvarez spoke with Fandom at San Diego Comic-Con and said that while there are influences of other horror projects in Don’t Breathe, he wanted to try to make something fresh and original.
The great high concept horror films require a bit of originality, otherwise, they end up like Sharknado. (You don’t even need a concept sentence for that one, just read the title.) There are a plethora of good vs. evil horror movies with basic premises, but a few really stand out. To get ready for the terror to come in Don’t Breathe, check out these incredible high concept horror films:
Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead is the granddaddy of the zombie genre. Zombie films prior to Romero’s masterwork featured living humans controlled by witch doctors (or aliens). Romero dropped the mind control bit and made his zombies mindless, dead, and hungry for human flesh. Anyone could turn into a zombie, even your sweet old granny. The zombies in most films and television programs since 1968 are direct descendants of Romero’s slow-moving hunger machines. Without Night of the Living Dead, there would be no The Walking Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Zombi 2, or Cemetery Man.
While Romero’s concept is definitely easy to grasp, he uses it to comment on sociopolitical issues in 1960’s America. Night of the Living Dead has been studied for its commentary on racism during the Civil Rights movement and the effects of the violence of the Vietnam war. The film has spawned a number of sequels and imitators. Romero’s direct sequel, Dawn of the Dead, features a similarly high-concept premise with deeper impact. Instead of racism and Vietnam, the 1978 film focused on consumerism devouring Americans.
While there were plenty of other high-concept horror films in the 1950s and 60s, mostly featuring monsters, giant insects, or aliens, none had the surprising depth of Night of the Living Dead. Anyone who saw the posters or trailers could expect terror, but they didn’t know how deep that fear could go. Romero really tapped into the American psyche with this film, which is impressive given that it’s essentially about terribly hungry dead people. (Wait, maybe we’re the zombies…)
Why it’s more than its concept: Romero managed to make a horror film that offers sociopolitical critique while still being ridiculously scary. It’s an all-time horror classic and changed the horror genre forever.
The Evil Dead Trilogy
The Evil Dead didn’t have much to say with regards to racism or anti-war efforts, but it’s one hell of a scary, funny ride. The plot is simple and easy to follow. A group of college students go to vacation in a cabin in the woods. Once there, they do some stupid things and awaken the Deadites, who are like demon-zombies on crack. The film features the right combination of genuine terror and campy shlock. Writer/director Sam Raimi was only twenty years old when filming on his little high concept horror film started. Star Bruce Campbell, who grew up with Raimi, clearly has no idea what he’s doing as an actor but he puts his all into it. There’s so much love behind the lens of this film, and that’s part of what makes it so damn fun.
Disgusting traditional special effects in The Evil Dead and its sequel, Evil Dead 2, inspired many of the gross-out horror films of later years. Peter Jackson made Dead Alive/Braindead inspired by Raimi’s work. Without Evil Dead, the Lord of the Rings extended motion picture trilogy wouldn’t exist. Wrap your brain around that one.
Evil Dead 2 is the strongest of the trilogy, combining horror and comedy to evoke screams and giggles from its viewers. Campbell is one hell of a physical comedian, and watching him fight the evil version of himself is fantastic. The third film, Army of Darkness, is almost entirely a comedy. Sure, it’s scary in some regards and features Campbell’s Ash fighting an entire horde of skeletal knights, but it’s more silly than spooky.
Why it’s more than its concept: Raimi and co. made The Evil Dead in the Tennessee wilderness on a tiny budget with a basic premise and it still managed to spawn two sequels, a (very good) remake, and a premium cable t.v. show. It’s the perfect mix of campy comedy and gross-out horror with a pinch of Lovecraft for flavor.
“Seven days…” The Japanese film Ringu and its American remake, The Ring, scared the hell out of audiences in the late 90s and early 00s. The films are very similar, featuring a journalist who discovers a tape that kills its viewer seven days after the person watches it. The Ring introduced American audiences to J-horror, a unique brand of spookiness from across the Pacific. The success of The Ring would inspire countless other remakes of Southeast Asian horror films. (Some were decent, like Dark Water, while others suffered in the translation.) Ringu was successful in Japan as well, spawning a number of sequels and imitations.
Fears about technology are nothing new, but The Ring modernized ghost stories by intertwining them with tech. Sure, videotapes are outdated now, but in 1998 plenty of people were still going to Blockbuster every Friday night. (Be kind, rewind!) The idea of accidentally watching a tape that would then kill you in seven days was pretty damn scary. The movie is just as good as its concept, too. Both Ringu and The Ring feature good performances, great production design, and some seriously spooky cinematography.
Why it’s more than its concept: The way the film builds tension after victims view the tape is what makes it work. This is a slow-burning horror flick with great payoffs, including an early jump scare in a closet that still gives me the shivers. Regardless of the many sequels, spin-offs, and imitators, The Ring and Ringu are both truly scary movies with a unique, if simple, premise.
Indie Canadian film Pontypool has a simple but brilliant premise: what if a zombie-type virus spread not through bodily fluids, but through words? The conceit is then turned up a notch by making the setting of the film the inside of a radio station during a snowstorm. Communication is everything, as the newly-hired radio DJ braves the storm and whatever else is out there. A virus begins to spread through words in English that the victim begins to repeat again and again. Once the virus has completely taken hold, they become horrifically violent monsters.
Pontypool takes themes of isolation and fear of other humans from films like The Thing and toys with them in regards to communication. Isn’t being unable to communicate isolation in and of itself? Though the heroes later figure out that the virus can only be transmitted in English, they have no way to warn other English speakers without fear of transmitting the virus. A simple concept becomes something complex and ultimately fascinating.
Pontypool is unnerving. It’s a slow-drag kind of scary. The ideas in the film stick around long after the scares do, but it crawls under the viewers’ skin in just the right way.
Why it’s more than its concept: A movie about a virus that travels through words could take so many easy outs, but Pontypool mostly avoids them. It’s genuinely scary, and though it goes a bit bonkers at the end, it’s a fantastic horror movie that is quite unique.
It Follows takes the horror trope where characters who have sex on-screen must die and makes it the main concept of the film. In It Follows, a mysterious entity follows around its victim until it kills the victim and can move on to the next one. The strange thing is, the entity chooses its victims through a trail of sexual partners, as the curse passes through sex. While a number of critics were quick to claim that the movie was about STDs, the film keeps things ambiguous. The entire movie feels dream-like, and there are no direct clues to the film’s time period or setting.
While clearly influenced by horror films of the 1980s, It Follows has a concept fresh enough to keep from feeling like just another homage. The possibility for metaphors are endless – the movie could be about young sexuality, unwanted pregnancies, rape survivors, and more. Everyone who watches It Follows gets something a little different out of it. The film maintains enough ambiguity to let people attach their own emotional hangups to the story. It’s psychological horror wrapped in a monster-movie premise.
Why it’s more than its concept: Other than a tepid ending, It Follows is a disturbing and occasionally frightening story about something that’s a part of most people’s lives. It plays with the taboos of sexuality without ever giving direct condemnation or approval. It’s also gorgeous, featuring some truly impressive cinematography.