It’s one thing to frighten an audience; it’s a completely different feat however, to frighten an audience while utilizing remarkably limited sets and locations. Your typical horror fare will see characters bouncing around a wide variety of terrain, be it multiple stores located in abandoned shopping malls, dense forests cluttered with creeks and creepy decrepit bridges, college campuses, deceptively quiet suburban neighborhoods… you catch my drift. The genre thrives on creating gloomy atmosphere, and most filmmakers prefer a wide playing field versus one or two confined spaces. However, that’s not to say that a film employing remarkably minimal settings can’t be truly unsettling, in fact, sometimes a whole lot less proves to be a whole lot more. If you doubt this assessment, I don’t blame you. I do however offer a list of flicks that make the absolute most of bare bones set pieces and locales.
The Strangers/Ils (Them): Essentially the same picture, this story centers on a couple randomly targeted by complete strangers. Both features showcase a lone area of conflict: a house in the middle of no man’s land. And both are deeply unsettling pictures. The idea of being essentially imprisoned in one’s home is haunting enough, toss in a handful of ominous antagonists with no motive other than sadistic entertainment and you’re talking about a truly terrifying concept.
Pontypool: This extremely bold and honestly original take on the run-of-the-mill zombie story is not only remarkably engaging it’s one of the most disturbing and well assembled pictures in years. The terror takes place in a small Canadian town, but the focus falls on a radio station, where a small handful of individuals are holed up, fighting to keep hold of their sanity and their pulse. It’s rare to uncover scriptwriting of this nature, as this film isn’t just powerful, it’s plain genius. A genuine mindfuck is Pontypool; this one is an absolute must see for any horror fan!
Splinter: I won’t tell you to disregard David Brooks’ upcoming convenience store shocker, ATM. I will however tell you that if you want to see one diabolically creepy “stuck-in-a-store” horror flick, you cannot lose with Splinter. Not only do the film’s limited locations conjure an extremely claustrophobic sensation, the special effects work is some of the best you’ll find on film today; studios and filmmakers alike stand to gain ground with fans by emulating this terrific formula.
Frozen: If you dig skiing, or snowboarding, I recommend steering clear of this one, as the sense of realism Adam Green brings to this picture is stomach turning. No one wants to find themselves stuck on a ski lift, especially not for a week. The gamut of emotions explored in this film is just amazing. Fear, sheer panic, claustrophobia, hopelessness, and desperation can make for a jarring viewing experience. The hungry wolves lingering in the snow certainly don’t help to ease the mind.
Devil: Suffering from both motion ckness and a severe fear of heights, I can tell you firsthand that elevators can be a sweat inducing nightmare. John Erick Dowdle taps into two of my greatest fears with a touch of elegance here, tosng some extreme paranoia into the fray to boot. It all makes for a 80 minute jolt of unease that any fan of psychological terror should cherish.
Panic Button: Chris Crow’s tale of terror at 30,000 feet works extremely well. First off the idea of being trapped in a plane for an extended period of time already makes my blood boil. When you toss in a game of intimate manipulation and cold blooded murder, things become very disturbing. What helps make this unheralded gem so memorable is the incorporation of modern technology and the means with which it can be used to wreak havoc on the naïve and untruthful.
Saw: There’s a very broad scope to Saw, and the complexities of the picture certainly aren’t confined to the ngle room in which two strangers awaken in shackles. However, the bulk of the picture functions in this minimal setting, and a few of the film’s most harrowing moments unfold in said “lair”. The story is foreign to virtually no one, so I won’t leap into the plot of this one, I’ll mply say that the original Saw is undeniably frightening, and one of the most influential horror films to hit the market in decades.
Buried: While I’m not a huge fan of Rodrigo Cortés’ tale of mass-claustrophobia, I can certainly respect it for what it is and what it has accomplished; reminding moviegoers of how terrifying the idea of being buried alive can truly be. There’s a very real sense of dread that builds within the pictures 95 minute runtime, and the imminent doom that Paul Conroy faces reverberates far beyond the trapped confines of the coffin in which he’s been buried.
The Cube: This one stands near the front of the pack in regards to minimalistic settings, second only to Pontypool. If you’re looking for high caliber performances and a truly twisted narrative, this tale of strangers trapped in a booby trapped maze taps a nerve both visually and mentally. The story is well crafted and remarkably dark, the death dealing contraptions are quite satisfying and the lingering effect the picture leaves on the psyche is borderline unbelievable. Now recognized as a legitimate cult clasc, Cube should not be missed!
Night of the Living Dead: While films like The Last Man on Earth obviously predate this seminal beauty, none have played a more important role in the impact and gnificance of the horror genre as a whole. George Romero’s tale of a zombie-ridden post-apocalyptic world in which few lucky survivors are forced to take shelter in a rundown farmhouse is not only terrifying, it’s actually important. Romero has built himself a lasting legacy, and a big part of his notoriety stems from the fact that he’s constantly garnishing his work with powerful social commentary. This one set the trend in motion, and while it’s been mimicked by many, no one has mirrored the cultural relevance of this timeless tale.
The Thing: The only picture included in this list to rival the longevity of Night of the Living Dead, The Thing is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Nothing can summon the sensation of cabin fever like being stuck in a scientific base camp deep in the heart of the Antarctic with a shape shifting alien life form that fancies the appearance of the human being. From the tangible tenon to the terrifying paranoia to the inherent threat of the alien itself, this one chills to the bone (see what I did there?). Still regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, The Thing encapsulates everything that is so moving about the horror genre. I'd recommend you check it out, but I'm not certain there's a living horror fan who hasn't seen this treasure at least a dozen times.
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