Take some deep breaths, movie fans – we’re going in. This weekend’s new shocker, Devil, appears to feature a bunch of hapless folks trapped in a dark elevator with something quite nasty. Later this season, we will also be getting Buried, concerning a man negotiating for his life while buried in a box underground.
Claustrophobia may be the all-time favorite phobia of those who make film and television. It’s common, relatable, and whatever grip it has on an individual viewer, few have anything besides an aversion to imprisonment in the lonely dark. Sometimes the dungeons are physical, sometimes figments of a disturbed mind. Whether literal or psychological, people are constantly trying to find a way out of – or occasionally keep themselves safe inside – constructs of this kind. Check your personal effects at the door and squeeze in for a discussion of claustrophobic drama with William Bibbiani, Julia Rhodes, and me (Dan Fields).
Cube (dir. Vincenzo Natali, 1997)
It’s a classic science fiction nightmare – waking up in a strange place where the rules of the world you knew yesterday no longer apply. The Canadian cult smash Cube is a great example of filmmakers getting the most out of a shoestring budget and a simple but solid premise.
Several strangers awaken in a fortified cubical cell with no idea about how or why. They soon discover that there are numerous adjacent cells of a similar, but not identical, nature. Some, you see, contain deadly and gruesome traps that sever, shred, fry or dissolve those careless enough to trip them. Assuming that escape is possible, the inmates are forced to collaborate and find the clues and patterns necessary to pass from cube to cube in relative safely.
It soon becomes clear that some sort of fiendish experiment is at work here, and that each member of the group has a useful skill – mathematical prowess, survival know-how, and even inside knowledge of their prison – for decoding the sinister puzzle. Of course, mutual distrust abounds, and rightly so in some cases. None of them are altogether what they seem, and among them there is more than one emotional or mental problem that hinders progress as much as their individual talents enable it.
Add to this the maddening similarity of each room. The film was famously shot on a single “cube” set constructed to stand in for a vast number of interconnected rooms, using different colored lights to distinguish them. The tedious uniformity of the cubes is surely part of the experiment, raising doubts about whether or not the group’s efforts are yielding any progress at all. Every successful escape presents a new prison, as cramped and menacing as the last.
Solid B-plus production values and performances keep the pace up to the bitter end. The film spawned a disappointing sequel, Hypercube, that played around way too much with dimensions beyond the third to keep any semblance of the thoughtful logic of its parent. An enjoyable yet superfluous prequel, Cube Zero, also followed, but the original has a unique cleverness that can’t easily be matched.
Cube is a mystery that answers only the most essential questions. The audience must accept, as the characters must also, that the big picture questions – what the Cube is, and how they all came to be there – will have to wait until the immediate matter of survival here and now has been addressed. And right after survival comes the all-important goal of the claustrophobic – escape.
Repulsion (dir. Roman Polanski, 1965)
Polanski knows sexual frustration and psychological horror like the back of his… well, his personal life.
(“Boo! BOOOO!” they all cry, casting him from his opera box and high society forever)
Be all that as it may, the director is renowned into the present day for his ability to craft jarring suspense thrillers. In that respect, Repulsion is a career highlight. Catherine Deneuve, long-suffering beauty of European drama, puts in a bone-chilling performance of a young woman on (and over) the edge.
Outwardly a normal young woman, Carol (Deneuve) privately harbors a mysterious, deep-seated… well, repulsion to notions of sex, intimacy, and the faintest familiarity with males of the species. At the same time, the opportunity to overcome her inhibitions presents itself in the form of a young suitor, whose polite advances come tragically close to building a bridge of trust between her and world. About this time, her carefree sister Helen takes a vacation from the flat, presumably for some casual Continental adultery, leaving Carol alone without an emotional anchor on which she has evidently come to depend.
Carol is a deeply disturbed person. The roots of her problem are never explored in depth, only hinted and speculated upon, but its symptoms are undeniable. Consumed by paranoia toward the outside world and its filthy designs on her, she imposes confinement on herself, first with the physical boundaries of her apartment, then by lethal territorial behavior once unexpected guests come calling. As Carol’s faculties crumble toward absolute zero, horrid hallucinations of sex and violence assail her without mercy. Her anxiety and fear cave the walls of reality in on her, and as her emotional state rots away, so does the condition of her physical environment. It is no surprise that visitors to the apartment, benign or otherwise, meet with gruesome hostility.
Catherine Deneuve is horrifically convincing in her eye-rolling onscreen breakdown, by turns pathetic and monstrous, and ultimately oh so very sad. You can practically see her mind smothering under its own weight. It hurts a little to watch, but it’s hard to turn away. Hers is truly a towering performance in a very creepy film.
Das Boot (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1981)
Wolfgang Petersen’s famed sea epic offers yet another sobering perspective on the Second World War. The German U-Boat gets plenty of mention in any WWII film remotely dealing with the navy, but the timelessness of this story lies partly in its detachment from one specific engagement. Suffering along with them it is easy to forget that these men represent the wolfpack menace, sinking Allied vessels on behalf of the Third Reich. The first point the film makes is that they are so detached from the surface and from the world, they are beginning to lose any sense of identity at all. Real conquest scarcely applies to this crew’s agenda anymore. Their top priority is plain old survival, and it’s no certainty in this war.
A submarine is a dark, lonely, dangerous place in the best of times. When you are bombarded from above, crushed by the sea below, running out of supplies, and perilously short on air, it’s a perfectly serviceable substitute for hell. All these things and more happen to the crew of Das Boot, all on the watch of a desperate but faithful captain (the excellent Jürgen Prochnow) who will bring the ship and as much of the crew as possible back to safety, whatever the cost to himself.
The film is not short on action, in which the clamor of war rattles the boat and the men tightly packed into its limited bulk. Every time the crew come within shouting distance of relief or help, orders from the Reich dictate that they keep press on, never mind that the ship is literally falling apart.
Though the boat’s increasingly suicidal mission indicates that they are still recognized on paper, it also suggests the end of their existence as human beings in the minds of anyone – not the enemy, not their German superiors, not the statisticians or historians. Facing almost complete isolation from the rest of the world, all these men have are one another. All the same they can do little, if anything, to save each other. It’s a particularly brutal example of war as hell. The combat scenes are thrilling, but the slower parts are absolutely heart-rending.
The sequence in which sailors are reduced to wretched shadows of men, huddled in their cots to save enough air for breathing, is among the most likely in film history to provoke a spontaneous burst of tears. The journalist in me must confess that I am choked up just writing about it. And I’m a pretty hard case.
So I might as well tell you this movie gets me every time… twice. I wouldn’t give away the ending of this film any sooner than I would spoil Chinatown or Seven or any of my favorite killer endings. I will only say that this film is going to keep kicking you no matter how down you get. But you will be as glad you made it through as anybody on the boat.
Ils (dir. David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)
At just over seventy minutes, Ils (Them) is a neat little exercise in dread. Briefly, a young French couple living in Romania find themselves besieged one night by silent and mysterious strangers. Even in a nice big country house, schoolteacher Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and writer Lucas (Michael Cohen) have created a fairly isolated life for themselves. They have no friends or neighbors to speak of, and consequently are everything to each other. They will soon find that when you have no one to call on for help, the walls of your private world start closing in quickly.
The two are unaware that the night before, some local folks were attacked by persons unknown in the woods nearby. Now, as night falls again, strange and scary things begin happening around the house. Phone calls, pounding on the door, car trouble, all of it without an easily identifiable source. There appears to be someone prowling around the yard and in the house, but robbery is clearly not the name of the game.
As with Repulsion, the idea of confinement is a little abstract here, but the idea of not being safe in your own home is one of the most powerful fears a person can face. It soon becomes clear that the hunter or hunters are as interested in merely proving this point as they are in actually harming the occupants of the house. The real brilliance of this film is its almost complete reliance on action, rather than conversation, to communicate the very real fear of home invasion.
Alfred Hitchcock himself could appreciate the film’s economy of form. Most of its running time is spent winding the suspense up to nearly unbearable levels. The rest is devoted to relentless fleeing and chasing. There is very little dialogue, almost none of it important, serving only the purpose of naturalism. There are no flashbacks, no voiceover, no significant breaks in the action for anything but more creeping anxiety. It’s a much better film than The Strangers, which despite the lack of open acknowledgement, this film must have influenced in a major way. For those who refuse to believe that the gross, awful and monumentally overhyped High Tension is the most stylish horror film that France can produce… well, you’re right. Ils has got style coming out all over, but doesn’t subject you to internal organs or story-crippling plot twists.
The big payoff – that is, what the hell is really going on – may or may not send you reeling. It did the first time I saw the movie, but even if it doesn’t, it won’t negate or make less scary the events which preceded it. It is not the central idea upon which the film is based. This is not as much a movie about who or what as it is about being targeted by forces you don’t understand. With all the world to run around in you can still be made a prisoner, both by your fear and by limited knowledge of your surroundings.
Sphere (dir. Barry Levinson, 1998)
Sphere is based on the (much better) book by Michael Crichton. Psychologist Dr. Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman) wrote a (bullsh*#) treatise on the assembly of a team in the event of discovery of extraterrestrial life. When the Navy finds an enormous spaceship on the bottom of the ocean under 300 years of coral growth, the military brings in Norman’s hand-picked team of scientists are to investigate. Unfortunately, Marine biologist Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone) is Norman’s old student and former lover who suffers from mental illness; astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber) is a competitive, egghead former colleague; Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson) is a brilliant but slightly screwy mathematician. Enter Peter Coyote (who will always be the kindly doctor in E.T. to me) as Captain Barnes, the man who assembles and trains the crack team, and Queen Latifah as a cook.
Now, take this wacky cast of characters (A-listers, one and all) and transport them thousands of feet under the sea in a submersible, pressurized habitat. There are few places more claustrophobic and utterly foreign than the depths of the sea. In the opening scene, an O.S.S.A. officer reminds the scientists that if they fail to undergo decompression upon arriving back on land, their bodies will “literally burst.” Consider that: a thousand feet under the ocean’s surface, unable to escape without submitting to days of observation and decompression. Then imagine being trapped in the depths while a storm rages above, imprisoned with your least favorite people. Of course, here begins the truly trapped feeling: the mise-en-scene is cramped, dark, each surface plasticized and sterile. It’s certainly an exercise in cabin fever.
Now add the supernatural element: inside the spacecraft, the crew discovers a massive, floating sphere. Try as they might, they can’t figure out how to open it….until they start disappearing into it secretly one by one. When they come out, their worst personal fears come to life around them. Of course, Crichton’s book is heavily interested in the science behind such an expedition as well as the personalities of the characters, but Levinson’s best movies are heavy on the dialogue, big on the personal strife, and low on visual stimuli. Levinson’s version of Sphere is less about the terror of such a fantastic voyage and more about the complexities of human interaction—but hey, when you trap a bunch of us together in a confined space, we do get pretty nutty.
A movie like Sphere really needed someone at the helm who could create suspense without throwing it in our faces via dialogue, and unfortunately Levinson is not the man for the job (and neither is writer Kurt Wimmer). However, he managed to interject enough chuckles early on so that the remainder of the movie is actually pretty spooky. Jackson gets to crank out one-liners like, “So that’s what the little green men are saying these days, ‘take me to your therapist?’” One of my favorite scenes takes place during compression, at which point the scientists inhale helium to help replace their oxygen supply (O2 is explosive-not good underwater). Hoffman, Stone, Schreiber, and Jackson seem to really enjoy giggling together at the same parlor trick we all did as kids with birthday balloons: stars, they’re just like us!
The Descent (dir. Neil Marshall, 2005)
The Descent is about a group of young women who undertake a spelunking expedition and discover a race of cannibalistic, albino monsters living deep beneath the Appalachians. That first phrase sums up why it’s one of my favorite movies. When the term “group of young women” is used to describe horror movies it nearly always means sororities, boobs, gore, and penetration of one variety or another. In The Descent, the young women in question are intelligent, strong, victims, villains, and everything in between.
Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her daughter and husband in a really startling auto crash near the beginning of the film, and a year later, Juno (Natalie Mendoza) arranges an all-ladies trip to the Appalachians in America. The women descend into a pit in the earth; this alone is enough to start the heart pumping. The movie doesn’t quit there, though. The lighting and cinematography are top-notch, and watching it, your heart will pound if you have even the slightest claustrophobic tendencies. The characters are compact, strong, and able…and despite all that, they find themselves trapped irreparably in confined spaces, which are filmed impeccably to generate anxiety. On top of this, brutal, vicious monsters stalk our protagonists. Then when Sarah realizes that Juno betrayed her in the most officious way, the two are pitted against one another.
Some argue that the movie punishes its characters for their independence. That’s a pretty common theme among horror critics, notably Robin Wood, who maintains horror films are exhibitions of repressed sexuality and that women represent the Other, the monster. Women in horror film are, by and large, voluptuous victims that men enjoy seeing butchered, i.e. Laura Mulvey’s theory on the male gaze. So, yes, you can (and some do) argue that The Descent punishes Juno for being “the bitch” or “the slut,” and penalizes its protagonists for their gall—how dare they go on a dangerous expedition all by their weak, female selves?
I’m going to stand over here, raise my hand, and wave it around. I’m a feminist, a horror lover, and a critic. The Descent’s protagonists are physically and emotionally resilient; they’re complex and flawed; they’re smart and capable; they wear feasible and practical clothing, concerned only with safety and comfort. They fight together against a mutual enemy—and sure, they fight each other over past betrayals in the process, but that’s not the most important aspect. There is no true evil here, just animals—and that’s the most interesting facet of the film. After one of the women takes out a male “crawler,” the female mate brutally attacks her (an event mirrored with our human leads). As much as the crawlers are just creatures that need to eat and defend their own, the humans are exactly the same.
Anyway, this article is about claustrophobia in film, so back to it. After an hour and a half of being trapped with our leads under hundreds of feet of sharp, forbidding rock lit only with the eerie red glow of flares, surrounded by monsters whose motivations hit a little too close to home, by the end of the film you’ll be longing for daylight, too.
The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
I was originally going to write about Event Horizon, Paul W.S. Anderson’s (Resident Evil: Afterlife) last really entertaining directorial effort. Then I realized Event Horizon and Sphere have a whole lot in common, what with the black holes and spooky supernatural space-things and crazy-making.
Film is an incredible medium because of the way visual cues make us feel. Movies like Brokeback Mountain emphasize wide open spaces and therein, the American dream of success, happiness, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and conquering the terrain. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining plays with the constricting nature of that same American dream—the family, the success, the ability to make the best of what you have. Based on a novel by Stephen King about an alcoholic writer who slowly goes insane trapped in a hotel over a long winter, Kubrick’s version of The Shining stresses the supernatural aspects of cabin fever and the way the brain plays tricks on you.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in one of his seminal roles) takes a job caretaking at the Overlook Hotel in the gorgeous Rockies. He brings his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to stay in the Overlook over the winter. Jack’s prior alcoholism led him to break Danny’s arm and lose his job, so all three think of the Overlook as a new beginning—a new start to their life as a functional family unit.
When the first snows fall Danny, Jack, and Wendy play in the fluffy white stuff, enjoying the solitude and each other. But after the Overlook is cut off from civilization by dozens of feet of snow, things get messy. Jack isn’t the only one with cabin fever: the movie’s best scenes are of Danny riding his tricycle around the hallways of the Overlook, thumping from carpet to hardwood, carpet to hardwood, creating a pounding sound almost like a heartbeat. Jack bounces a handball off the lobby’s wall, running to catch it and heave it again. Boredom starts to sink in, and with it the crazies. Frigid temperatures and impassible roads mean the family is trapped in a haunted hotel, already starting to get a little bonkers. Throw in Jack’s alcoholism and Danny’s precognitive abilities, and you’ve got a witch’s brew of insanity.
In front of the Overlook is a hedge maze, an extraordinary physical representation of the mind replicated in the lobby in miniature. In the depths of hedge maze, Danny runs for his life from Jack. Even though the scene isn’t within the Overlook’s walls, snowdrifts and high walls form the edges of the shots. Inside the mind is a terrible place to be, eh?
And just for the hell of it: The Shining repurposed as a family-friendly film. Heartwarming hilarity ensues!
The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
In one of his last British films before he flitted across the pond, Alfred Hitchcock made this witty claustrophobic thriller about an old woman who disappears from a moving train. That would be plot enough for most movies, but oh no. In The Lady Vanishes our heroine Iris Henderson (the lovely and talented Margaret Lockwood) can’t even convince anybody else that the victim even existed in the first place. Her only ally is an eccentric musician named Gilbert (a hilarious and perfect Michael Redgrave), and he only wants to help because he’s got an unrequited crush on the heroine.
With its wry tone it could be easy to mistake The Lady Vanishes for one of Hitchcock’s “lesser” films, but really this is the master at his best. The cast of characters is iconic and memorable, right down to comic relief stuffed shirts Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), a comic pairing so popular that they would appear in several spin-offs together. Each of these characters has their own reasons to deny that the lady vanished, some better than others, but it’s this isolationism (in a claustrophobic environment no less) that embodies the film’s theme. It’s only when the characters become aware of the troubles surrounding them, and personally involved, that any good can come of the situation. Even the comic reliefs reveal themselves to be crack shots in a pulse-pounding final siege on the imperiled locomotive. No one is too insignificant to make a difference… an unexpected message in a most unusual film.
But between the clever set-up and the rich pay-off we’re treated to two of the most lovable protagonists any thriller ever had: funny but capable of gravitas, flirtatious but unavailable, stuck on a speeding locomotive with a series of clues that don’t quite add up, with an investigation going nowhere even as they speed across the continent. The train always feels compact, too small for comfort (or for anyone to conceivably vanish upon it), but Hitchcock always finds little nooks and crannies where entertainment can flourish. The drastically inferior quasi-remake Flightplan sucks, just sucks, in comparison or otherwise.
Pandorum (dir. Christian Alvart, 2009)
An overlooked gem from last year, Christian Alvart’s Pandorum straddled the line between big budget sci-fi thrillers (fantastical sets, big name stars) and low budget indie gems (claustrophobic storyline, small in scope). As a result it was probably difficult to market, and the film is only just now finding its audience on home video. That’s a good thing, because Pandorum is a slick and memorable movie, with at least one twist you won’t ever see coming. If you liked the gritty thrills of Pitch Black, you should be a big fan of Pandorum.
Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster star as astronauts who awake from suspended animation on a broken down spaceship, and no memory of how they got there. All they know is that something has gone, very, very wrong. Despite a passenger manifest with over 16,000 souls, they seem to be the only living people on board. As they struggle to fix the ship before it kills them both, they encounter terrifying new threats. They are not alone on this craft, and what’s worse, it becomes increasingly clear that recovering their memories would not be in both of their best interests.
There aren’t many promising young actors in Hollywood, but Ben Foster is clearly among them. After standout roles in 3:10 To Yuma and The Messenger, it’s easy to get excited about watching him headline a spectacle like this, especially teamed with Dennis Quaid, a actor with an exceptional track record in science fiction. But this is Christian Alvart’s movie, and his direction keeps the film moving at a snappy pace, and only the occasional attempt to make the mysterious villains and unexpected allies “cool” sabotage this otherwise distinctive, low budget sci-fi thriller. (“Cool” in this case being synonymous with “Something We’ve Seen A Million Times Before.”) With striking production design, some great stars and some pretty novel concepts, Pandorum made quite an impression on me. It’s a “Grade A” B-Movie, and well worth a look.
“The Twilight Zone” (Multiple Episodes, 1959-1964)
Rod Serling’s timeless series “The Twilight Zone” was a breeding ground for claustrophobic tales of suspense, and for obvious reasons. With tiny budgets and short shooting schedules, stories set in single or limited locations were a natural fit for an anthology series which by its nature couldn’t reuse the same sets over and over again. You can set every episode of “Cheers” in a bar, but “The Twilight Zone” didn’t work that way. As a result, there were a number of classic episodes that were forced to use isolation and confinement to their advantage. Here’s just a small sampling of my favorites:
“Eye of the Beholder” – Rod Serling wrote this episode, which stands alongside “To Serve Man” and “Time Enough At Last” as one of the best – and best remembered – stories in the series’ history. The bulk of the tale takes place from the first person perspective of a woman whose face is covered in bandages: Not only are we confined to her point of view, but even that is constricted. The faces of her doctors, who are desperately struggling to fix her mangled face, are black shrouds whose appearances ominously contradict their sympathetic words. And only when the bandages come off will the audience realize just how isolated this poor creature really is.
“The Invaders” – Horror master Richard Matheson penned this tale of an old woman living by herself in a small cottage who is beset on all sides by, shall we say “unexpected” alien invaders. Even if she could leave her house – and there’s no indication that she’s inclined to – there would be nowhere to run for help. Agnes Moorehead, one of the greatest actresses of the 20th Century, stars in a largely silent role. Her fear, and then her strength, could carry this simple tale all by themselves, but they don’t have to. The suspense is palpable.
“Five Characters In Search Of An Exit” – Rod Serling wrote this teleplay, based on a short story by Marvin Petal, about an army major who wakes up in an enormous cylinder, with only a ballerina, a clown, a hobo and a bagpiper for company. There’s no entrance aside from the opening way up at the top of the cylinder, and a booming noise periodically shakes the entire room. Some think they’re on a space ship, others think they’re in hell. The real answer is most surprising indeed.
“Nothing In The Dark” – Lamont Johnston directed a lot of “Twilight Zone” episodes, including “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit,” but his best-remembered is easily “Nothing In The Dark,” which stars Gladys Cooper as an elderly woman who is afraid to leave her tiny apartment. One day she hears gunshots outside, and a wounded policeman – played by an impossibly young Robert Redford – lies dying by her door, begging her to come inside for help. Will her fears cause the death of an innocent man, or are they completely justified? A wonderful episode.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” – Also written by Richard Matheson, and starring a young William Shatner, this tale of a normal man with an abnormal fear of flying still terrifies today. Shatner plays Bob Wilson, who keeps seeing a man on the wing of a passenger plane. No one else sees this man, nor do they see that he’s trying to kill everyone on board. Is Bob going mad, or is he the only one knows they’re all trapped in a flying coffin? George Miller’s whirling dervish remake in Twilight Zone: The Movie is the superior version of the tale, but the original can still easily freak you out.
“The Jeopardy Room” – Richard Donner directed this Rod Serling script about a KGB spy who attempts to defect and is given a most unusual brand of punishment: Confined to a hotel room, he is given three hours to find a hidden bomb. If he leaves, he will be shot by snipers watching from across the street. Martin Landau plays the extremely screwed protagonist with wide-eyed fear and resolve as he slowly tests every object in the room, never knowing which one could be his undoing. Only an overly cute ending keeps “The Jeopardy Room” from being a classic episode, but it’s still a solid, thrilling effort.