Fright Club: Claustrophobic Horror

Claustrophobia is a common terror, which makes it a common theme in horror films. Whether the entire film generates a sense of entrapment (The Thing, Rec, Pontypool, Misery) or the filmmaker inserts moments of claustrophobic terror (Shadow in the Cloud, The Pit and the Pendulum), these movies hit a nerve. Today we spend some time in tight quarters counting down the most claustrophobic horror movies.


5. The Hole (2001)

Nick Hamm’s 2001 thriller finds a handful of spoiled boarding school teens sneaking away while the school’s on holiday. They want to see what kind of trouble they can get into with a couple of undetected days in the underground bomb shelter they discovered well behind the school.

It’s all fun and games until they can’t get out.

Thora Birch delivers a brilliant turn as the lead — vulnerable and yet entirely conniving and psychotic, her Liz is mesmerizing. Kiera Knightly shines as well, as does Embeth Davidtz as a detective who won’t be fooled by Liz’s psychosis.

Or will she?

4. Cube (1997)

Making his feature directing debut in 1997, Vincenzo Natali, working from a screenplay he co-wrote, shadows 7 involuntary inmates of a seemingly inescapable, booby-trapped mazelike structure. Those crazy Canucks!

Cube is the film Saw wanted to be. These people were chosen, and they must own up to their own weaknesses and work together as a team to survive and escape. It is a visually awe-inspiring, perversely fascinating tale of claustrophobic menace. It owes Kafka a nod, but honestly, stealing from the likes of Kafka is a crime we can get behind.

There is a level of nerdiness to the trap that makes it scary, in that you know you wouldn’t make it. You would die. We would certainly die. In fact, the minute they started talking about Prime Numbers, we knew we were screwed.

3. Buried (2010)

Almost did not make it past the trailer for this one. A tour de force meant to unveil Ryan Reynolds’s skill as an actor, Buried spends a breathless 95 minutes inside a coffin with the lanky Canadian, who’s left his quips on the surface.

A truck driver working in Iraq who wakes up after being hit on the head, Paul Conroy finds himself inside a coffin. He has a cell phone and a lighter, but not the skill of Uma Thurman, so he is pretty screwed.

The simple story and Reynolds’s raw delivery make this a gut-wrenching experience.

2. The Descent (2005)

A bunch of buddies get together for a spelunking adventure. One is still grieving a loss – actually, maybe more than one – but everybody’s ready for one of their outdoorsy group trip.
Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.

And then we find out there are monsters.

Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well-conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.

1. The Vanishing (Spoorloos) (1988)

Back in ’88, filmmaker George Sluizer and novelist Tim Krabbe adapted his novel about curiosity killing a cat. The result is a spare, grim mystery that works the nerves.

An unnervingly convincing Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu takes us through the steps, the embarrassing trial and error, of executing his plan. His Raymond is a simple person, really, and one fully aware of who he is: a psychopath and a claustrophobe.

Three years ago, Raymond abducted Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) and her boyfriend Rex (Gene Bervoets) has gone a bit mad with the mystery of what happened to her. So mad, in fact, that when Raymond offers to clue him in as long as he’s willing to suffer the same fate, Rex bites. Do not make the mistake of watching Sluizer’s neutered 1993 American remake.

Fright Club: 1, 2, or 3 Person Casts

Fuzzy math takes over as we count cast members and celebrate minimalist films that can seep into your nightmares with the help of very few performers. There are some great options, but here are our six favorites films with 1, 2, or 3 people in the cast.

Thanks Fright Clubber Michael for the topic!

6. Hard Candy (2005)

It would be two years before Elliot Paige burst into public consciousness as the hilarious and pregnant teen in Juno–still a kid getting herself into trouble, I guess. But the trouble in Hard Candy is tougher to manage.

Paige is a force of nature, playing off Patrick Wilson in a cat-and-mouse game where roles are flexible. Director David Slade keeps tensions ratcheted up to an unbearable level while Brian Nelson (who collaborated with Spade on the underappreciated vampire flick 30 Days of Night) twists the knife in a script as sharp and shady as these actors are wily and hard edged. It’s a breathless exploration of all that’s bad in the world.

5. Buried (2010)

If you’re claustrophobic, you might want to sit this one out. A tour de force meant to unveil Ryan Reynolds’s skill as an actor, Buried spends a breathless 95 minutes inside a coffin with the lanky Canadian, who’s left his quips on the surface.

Writer Chris Spalding stretches credibility as he tries to keep the crises lively, which is unfortunate because the simple story and Reynolds’s raw delivery makes this a gut-wrenching experience.

4. Creep (2014)

This true two-man show boasts dark and twisted humor, a great jump scare, and a truly exceptional mask.

Writer/director Patrick Brice plays Aaron, hapless videographer seeking work, thrills, maybe even love. He answers an ad to record Josef (Mark Duplass) at home, and then on the road. The film toys with that inner warning you hear and then choose to ignore.

Duplass has an incredible aptitude for pushing boundaries just enough to prick that inner voice but not quite enough to guarantee that you’ll head for the exit. As red flag after red flag go unheeded, Brice unveils more and more chilling detail.

3. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

This one is a threesome. Well, not if Howard (a glorious John Goodman) has anything to say about it.

The feature debut from director Dan Trachtenberg toys with the idea of an alien invasion (or some kind of chemical warfare), but it keeps you snugly indoors with Howard and his guests Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Guess which one Howard doesn’t really want around?

The trio of performances compel your attention, even in the few down moments. This is a tight, taut thrill ride—even if it is confined to one guy’s basement.

2. Antichrist (2009)

Boy, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe are a one/two punch in this one. A married couple overcoming the guilt and desperate grief of their son’s death, the two make some increasingly dreadful decisions.

Alone in their apartment, the two bodies take up much of the screen. Once we move to the cabin in the woods, the colors become deeper and darker, the atmosphere denser, and the actors appear almost tiny and insignificant inside all this throbbing, living nature. Both performances are jarring and fantastic in a movie quite unlike any other.

1. The Lighthouse (2019)

The one thing you just don’t do as you descend into madness is spill your beans.

Dafoe again, this time with Robert Pattinson as his wickie mate in one of the most fascinating examinations of power shifts in horror history. Gorgeously photographed in black and white and boasting 2019’s best sound design, The Lighthouse offers these two actors plenty to work with.

But in the end, it’s the performances that kill you. Madness!