Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Trapped with strangers

It used to be quite rare to see movies that focussed solely on a group of strangers trapped in a small space with one another. There was a time when Henry Fonda trying to deliberate with a bunch of knee-jerk, jury members in 12 Angry Men (1957) was one of the only choices a viewer had.

But recent years have seen the release of a growing number of these group isolation, bottle show films. Many of which are set in far more extreme scenarios than the backroom of a courthouse on a hot day. In fact there are so many of these movies – usually falling into the horror genre, but often including sci-fi elements – that they've pretty much formed a little sub-category all of their own.

At the risk of blowing all the plots, for some reason a fair few seem to end in mass murder. But the best films dealing with the subject make their extreme resolutions almost completely believable, and even inevitable. So think twice next time you get in a lift with people you don't know.

Here are ten movies where the stakes are high, 
the doors are locked, the claustrophobia is palpable and the clock is ticking.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
I've included George A. Romero's classic horror film mainly for its historical significance. Not only is it commonly hailed as having invented the zombie movie (although the film refers to them as ghouls, and they are able to use rudimentary hand weapons), but I think it may also be the first of the movement discussed here. A group of strangers trapped in a small location, trying to keep their sphincters closed at squeaky bum time, while all around them something utterly horrific is threatening to take their lives in a really nasty and imaginative way. The film starts a little slow, but once it gets going all the hallmarks of both zombie and group isolation movies are there to be enjoyed and/or abhorred. It's also well worth watching the arguably superior, yet slightly less isolated, second instalment in Romero's sequence, Dawn of the Dead (1978).

Cube (1997)
A group of strangers wake up in a cube shaped room that appears to be part of a labyrinth. But the labyrinth is full of deadly traps and ingenious clues. It's another low budget movie from the previous century, but the intriguing predicament and ambitious visual effects will keep you engrossed from start to finish.

Identity (2003)
I nearly didn't include this film because the characters are trapped in a motel – a much larger space than I felt was appropriate. Where do you draw the line? We're all caught on this little blue-green planet, right? But this murder mystery movie still manages to make you feel the confinement, while at the same time its whodunit plot unfolds in a unique and unexpected direction. It also gets bonus points for being packed to the motel's rafters with recognisable faces.

Saw (2004)
When I say Saw, what I really mean is the Saw franchise. There are so many of these films now that it's hard to keep track. And although I probably haven't seen them all, I've seen enough to know that they're well made, engaging and engrossing. (Or if torture porn isn't your thing then perhaps just plain gross.) The original had a slightly different flavour to the sequels, but it's hard to say which is the best of the lot. Purists will obviously go for the first*, but for me the sheer inventiveness of the traps from the later films, not to mention the franchise's developing aesthetic, further muddies this question's already blood-soaked waters**.

House of 9 (2005)
This was one of the first Saw-a-like movies to be released***, and probably one of the best. Nine people wake up in a locked mansion and are told that only one can survive. Clearly inspired by Saw, it's still easily fresh enough to deserve its place here. And besides, its strangers-trapped-in-a-house-and-forced-to-kill-each-other plot bears a lot more resemblance to Saw II than the original. And if my timelines are right, House of 9 was released before Saw II hit the theatres, so who's copying who?

Fermat's Room (2007)
This Spanish film is another one set in a giant trap. But it's the clever incorporation of mind games and mathematical puzzles which elevates it to a position on this list. It means it gets inside your head in a less literal way than, say, cutting out your own eyeball to remove a surgically implanted key (Saw II again). Although that's not to say Fermat's Room is a picnic – lives are definitely at risk here.

Exam (2009)
This is what might happen if, during a job interview, you were put up against the other candidates in a more exaggerated manner. If all the applicants were stuck in a single room and encouraged to really let loose on one another. Say, for example, someone offered to pay the legal fees for anyone who punched another candidate in the face. Kind of like what could happen if Donald Trump was in charge of The Apprentice. Oh, wait...

Devil (2010)
Everyone thought that M. Night Shyamalan only made a couple of good films, and that he only had one trick. And if it weren't for Devil, perhaps they'd be right. But this low-key movie, written by him, set almost entirely in an elevator car, was exciting, claustrophobic and suspenseful, and makes for a very worthy entry on this list.

The Divide (2011)
Don't be fooled by any of the promotional images for this film. It is not set in a crumbling post-apocalyptic New York landscape, filled with characters in teched-up Hazmat suits. Or, rather it is, but that's not the focus, and we hardly see any of it. Instead this chilling film details the collapse of a microcosmic society as a handful of survivors are trapped in a basement for what may well be the rest of their lives. Relentlessly captivating, yet bleak and disturbing, don't expect too many laughs.

Circle (2015)
By including Cube, back near the top of the list, it would be remiss of me not to mention Circle. You can certainly draw a very straight line between the two movies. But that's a tangent. What I'm saying is both films share similar names and storylines. A whole bunch of people wake up in an unknown sci-fi-esque location and have to work out how to stay alive. Except, in Circle if they move they die. And they're gonna keep dying, every two minutes, unless they are able to collectively work out a plan.

When thinking about the above films it became apparent that, like many genres, collections and categories, the exact parameters are hard to define. A whole tonne of movies follow groups of stranded strangers trying to deal with unexpected situations. It's not just a convenient way of keeping production costs under control, but a rich vein for drama. Films such as Alien (1979), The Evil Dead (1981), The Thing (1982), Event Horizon (1997), Battle Royale (2000), Cabin Fever (2002), The Descent (2005), Sunshine (2007), [Rec] (2007), The Mist (2007), and no doubt many hundreds of others, all have a close affinity with this movement, but narrowly miss out on fully-fledged membership. In most of these movies either the locations are still a little too large, offering the chance for too much unrestricted movement, and negating the claustrophobia, or the characters already know each other, and as such miss out on the shifting group dynamics and plays for power, or they simply don't spend enough of the film trapped. In my mind, for films to classify, the isolated characters should show development as a direct result of their incarceration, which in turn should lead the story into its eventual resolution.

Do you disagree? Have I missed your favourite film? Is there something else you'd like to add? As usual, any comment or complaint can be aired below.****

*Is there really such a thing as a Saw purist?
**I’ve just realised that out of the first four films on the list, I’ve kinda suggested that two of them have sequels that might be better than the original. That’s both rare and controversial, so would probably make a good subject for a later blog post...
***See also Aquarium (2004), Are You Scared? (2006), Unknown (2006), Captivity (2007), Breathing Room (2008), Nine Dead (2010), Death Tube (2010), Vile (2011) and probably quite a few more.
****Although when I say any, I mean related to this post. This probably isn't the place to discuss that embarrassing rash, your late-night-guitar-playing neighbours or the fact that it's raining.


  1. Nice work as usual Mr Tenebris. Makes me want to rewatch "Cube" and even "Cube 2". Definitley want to check out "House of 9" and "Circle". Thanks for the nods.

    Gotta pick you up on George Romero inventing the zombie movie though; "White Zombie" was a Bela Lugosi black and white creepy from 1939. Beat Mr Romero by a few I reckon. Ok, I'm being pedantic as you only said it is "commonly hailed as having invented the zombie movie", but without critique we never learn. Or do we?

  2. Also, my (admittedly unchecked) understanding of the 1939 film was that the zombies are not undead flesh eaters, but human slaves (more like the original voodoo meaning). I'll check and come back.

  3. Yup, it seems that way. It's set in Haiti, and the bad guy, Bela Lugosi, is a voodoo priest. According to Wikipedia the main zombie in White Zombie returns to life after the witch doctor dies. So they're not really the same thing as the flesh-eating ghouls of the modern zombie movie. Will you buy that? Also (and how's this for pedantic?) Wiki says 1932.

  4. Yeah, that's fair. My interest was peaked because they are actually referred to as Zombies as opposed to Ghouls. I did see this film a long, long time ago when I was a lad (Not the thirties though!). The 1939 was a typo on my part - damn these re-animated hands I brought back from the dead!

  5. Haha, yeah it seems that the meaning of zombie (at least as far as non-voodoo types are concerned) changed some time around the release of Night of the Living Dead. But as you say, the film itself doesn't use that term (a theme that still crops up in zombie shows today - Walking Dead goes out of its way never to say zombie). It would be interesting (at least to my tiny mind) to discover when the switch between meanings actually occurred.

  6. There you go Double T: Another subject for you to put a comic book/sci-fi/brain scratching twist on. Cheers!