Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween 2013: Claustrobic Horror ~ Anxiety In Tight Quarters

Happy Halloween, all!  For our final post of the holiday month, Marie and I have chosen to spotlight films that are claustrophobic.  Movies that give us that horrible tense feeling of dread - of closed in places, of being locked in a building, of being stuck somewhere you can't get out of, or in a situation that gives you that extreme feeling of panic until you think you could just possibly lose what is left of your sanity.

Not a definitive list, mind you. Perhaps there is even room for a part two?

Can't you just feel the anxiety rising?  Aren't your palms starting to sweat just thinking about it? Let's dig in....

CUJO (1983)
I'm not sure anything could be more claustrophobic (or terrifying for that matter) than being stuck in a crappy Ford Pinto with a screaming child and a rabid St Bernard beating down your door. Dee Wallace should have had an Academy Award for her portrayal of Donna Trenton, a woman who, when dropping her faltering car off at a backyard mechanic's, comes in contact with a rabid house pet who just happens to be a two-hundred pound purebred with a raging case of rabies. Worse yet, she has her young son with her, making it all the more imperative to get the hell out of there. But the broken-down car, blazing hot sun, and a devastating case of rabies has something else in mind. Utterly harrowing! / CH

A home is where you are supposed to feel safe. At the end of the day a roof, four walls, and a locked door are what you inevitably rely on for protection. Certainly, we assign responsibility to houses; you find yourself thinking, “Nothing could ever happen to me in my home!” In George A. Romero’s black and white classic, a group of people have all sought refuge from an increasing horde of zombies in a large house. However, feelings of sanctuary quickly diminish, as all attempts to barricade the doors and windows prove futile at the hands of the hungry horde. On top of that, tension is building between the refugees, making the air thicken with each knock and slap on the door. To make matters even worse, they weren’t ever safe in the house in the first place, for something is in there with them! / MR

BURIED (2010)
The ultimate in claustrophobia, Buried gives us the tale of Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), an American working in Iraq who is captured and wakes up buried alive in a coffin, with only a lighter and a cell phone. Even though he does reach the US State Dept, he is told there is a firm policy of not negotiating with terrorists, who have asked for a 5 million dollar ransom for Conroy's release.  In the course of the grueling 94 minute running time, we as an audience feel as helpless and terrified as Paul does, in particular when bombs explode nearby and his coffin begins to fill with sand. Right up to the shocking ending, Buried takes its audience on a suffocating thrill ride from which there is no conceivably good result. /CH

Let me get this through to you: I hate caves. The very notion of them gets my skin creeping. I think a lot of people share this fear, or can at least very easily understand it, and that is what really made The Descent a truly terrifying film. A multi-cultural group of thrill-seeking female friends gather to explore an uncharted American cave. What kind of idea of fun is this?! They delve deeper and deeper, scrabbling through the smallest of openings before they are trapped by falling rocks. It is then revealed that the leader of the group has tossed away the map in the spirit of true adventure. I think all audience members experienced the same two emotions on first viewing: piss yourself then wring her neck! What’s worse is lurking in the dripping darkness are grotesque cannibalistic humanoid monsters! The tight spaces aren’t the only thing that inspires claustrophobia in The Descent; it’s also the notion that there quite possibly is no way out. /MR

CUBE (1997)
Five people trapped in a cube-type room struggle to understand both why they were taken and how they know each other. Rather reminiscent of an early Saw, the cube itself has multiple confusing colored rooms and deadly traps in store for the guests, but the film differs in that it requires some serious thought and even some mathematical skills to try to escape. While not the gritty (and gory) film that Saw is, it still has a very claustrophobic, helpless feel to it. /CH

DEVIL (2010)
I'm sure we've all been in an elevator at one time or another when we've felt a little bump, a sudden jolt perhaps. But there are probably very few of us who have actually been stuck in an elevator for any length of time. In this film, a group of five strangers become trapped between floors together - but that's not even the worst of it.  The lights go out, and when they come on, one of the five is dead.  And it doesn't stop there. The title is relevant because there is an old notion that the devil watches sinners and after taking human form he proceeds to entrap them in closed spaces and have them off one another. An interesting theory, no? /CH

SAW (2004)
An unimaginable scenario: you wake up in an unfamiliar room with a stranger and a dead body. Your shackled there and an ominous voice tells you that they only means of escape is to kill the other person or saw through your own leg. Like I said, it’s a completely unrealistic situation, and one that you will (hopefully) never find yourself in. All the same, it is incredibly easy to conjure feelings of dread, panic, and hopelessness. This isn’t the only scene that inspires that gnawing feeling of being trapped in Saw; nearly every scenario the sinister serial killer Jigsaw places his victims in can give anyone that “closed-in” sensation, for all have them quite literally trapped until they can complete the macabre task within a time limit. James Wan’s Saw is an essential and intense example of claustrophobia and body horror. /MR

THE MIST (2007)
Hey, at least they are trapped in a grocery store, right?  When members of a small town in Maine are besieged by unknown predators, the tight quarters of a local business tests the resolve - and the morals - of everyone inside.  Something, no- lots of somethings, hover outside the walls of the market and will do anything to get inside, leaving the group nearly helpless against the wrath of said interlopers. They start fighting amongst themselves, and it becomes more of a battle against each other instead of the menacing creatures preying on them from the outside. With as bleak an ending in horror as I've ever seen, this is one film that boils your nerves from the inside out. /CH

Very much like The Thing in theory and freezing locale, a group of environmentalists in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are working at a drilling base, far from civilization. When one of the team is found dead out in the snow, the team blames sour gas, but in fact it may be something much more sinister. The extreme Arctic tundra seems like it would be a wide open canvas and difficult to be smothered in, but the feeling of hopelessness and pure fear put the entire team on edge, and that claustrophobic feeling of dread eases its way into the camp. Snow is almost always stifling, and in this case even more so with the alienation of the extreme location. /CH

A group of filmmakers are shooting a paranormal reality TV show called “Grave Encounters”, in which they explore allegedly haunted buildings. This found-footage style film puts us in the perspective of those filmmakers as they are filming an episode in an abandoned Canadian mental hospital. For dramatic effect they lock themselves inside the spooky old building after nightfall and begin to explore. They are surprised to find that not only is the place actually haunted, it seems to have its own form of intelligence. The building begins playing tricks on them, changing its layout, creating dead ends and making doors disappear. The pitch-black asylum, which once seemed almost labyrinthine, has suddenly become very small and close. Panic rises in the steadily depleting survivors as they come to term with the idea that they may be trapped there… forever./MR

MISERY (1990)
Number One fans aside, Misery is one claustrophobic bitch of a film. We all know the story: Paul Sheldon wrecks his car and is miraculously saved by one Annie Wilkes, a beastly woman that takes him back to her humble abode in the middle of nowhere and nurses him back to health. Only thing is, she has designs on keeping him there forever.  Trapped by his injuries in a small upstairs bedroom, Annie forces him to write a novel bringing back the heroine he killed off in his last book. She locks him in with a typewriter and little else and her moods change as quickly as the chapters fly by.  A godawful predicament to be in, and a seriously panic-inducing dread hovers over the entire film. /CH

Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart play a mother and daughter whose new home is invaded by burglars, causing them to hide inside the panic room of the brownstone. The previous owner had installed it and hid a fortune in a safe - inside the panic room. An action-packed thriller from the word go, it has a terribly claustrophobic feel to it because of them being stuck in that godforsaken room for so long. Add to that the feeling of intrusion and invasion and you've got a tense, taut film that rivals anything of its kind./CH

Surely you are all familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s classic tale of harrowing isolation. The Torrance family, headed by Jack (Jack Nicholson) are employed to stay at the sprawling Overlook Hotel during it’s closing of the winter season. The reason it closes is because it is set high up in the mountains and it is nearly impossible to access after a heavy snow. Unfortunately for the Torrances’ it is a deadly place to be stuck, as evil supernatural forces make themselves known in various forms. The already tightly wound Jack develops cabin fever, and is manipulated by the spirits to chase his family around the seemingly empty hotel with an axe. With no way of contacting the outside world, and fewer and fewer places to hide, the tension and terror is as suffocating as the piling snow. /MR

Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a naturally nervous person. She lives in a London apartment with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), who spends most of her free time banging her married boyfriend. Carol’s fear and revulsion of men grows with each interaction, and even materialized into disturbing nightmares where a man breaks into her home and molests her. Rather than leave the damned apartment or seek help, Carol locks herself inside of it and descends further and further into madness. What makes this film all the more harrowing is that Carol almost compels her own torment, trapping herself in the apartment while one monster after another attempts to claw its way in. / MR

ALIEN (1979)
Yes it's true: in space, no one can hear you scream.  One of my all-time favorite films is a sure pick here. Alien is just as suffocating example of horror as I can possibly think of.  Many sci-fi films depict a group of adventurers/astronauts/etc. having some kind of horrible accident or space monster making their lives miserable, but no film before and certainly no film after is able to capture the unbelievable dread of being helpless in space like Alien. While it would seem like space is a vast frontier and it would be impossible to feel closed in, when you are on a spaceship that has been invaded by an alien creature and there's no where left to run, you can only feel a choking sensation of horror and panic.  This, my friends, is the essence of Alien.  Be afraid. /CH

[.REC] (2007)
Television reporter Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman (Pablo Rosso) are following the local fire department on their night shift. They film them answering a call about an old woman trapped in her apartment. However, when they breakdown the door they find her in a deranged state, and she lunges forward and bites one of the fireman. A violent infection spreads quickly through the building, and everyone inside is forced to be quarantined. Angela demands that they keep rolling throughout the entire ordeal, not knowing the hell they are about to endure. What in essence is more horrifying than the zombies in REC is the notion of being locked up in a building of strangers, and basically being told that you must wait there until everyone dies! / MR

THE THING (1982)
The Thing is one of my favorite movies, and can be used as a great example for a number of things, and claustrophobic is certainly one of them. A group of researchers stationed in Antarctica are in for a night of survival when an alien life form begins to wreak havoc. A very tense and creepy film, it isn’t hard to feel what the characters are feeling—trapped by the small area they are given, surrounded by impenetrable tundra. Survival is little more than a game of hide and seek until someone can step up and destroy that which wants to consume them. /MR

A film of profoundly good standards, The Vanishing stands as one of my favorite thrillers of all time, but it is just one part of the film that lands it on this list.  I would never give the most important plot points away, so I don't have much to say here except: SEE THIS FILM.  It will stick in your head forever, I'm warning you.
Oh, and forget the American remake, not worth a bit of your time. /CH

DAS BOOT (1981)
I'm well aware that Das Boot is not a horror movie. But this German war film is not only one of the most impressive films ever made, but one of the most frightening examples of claustrophobia, ever.  The crew of a German submarine during WWII endures some of the most brutal conditions known to man - horrific storms, enemy attacks, food rationing, cramped quarters, no light for weeks on end... it is a never ending case of cabin fever and a terrifying look at how many soldiers - from both sides - dealt with war-time conditions and a slowly deteriorating outlook on war and life itself.  Altogether depressing and yet oh-so brilliant.
Note: The horror film Below (2002) also explores claustrophobic horror on a WWII-era submarine, but throws in a ghostly angle that makes it a must-see. It's not well known but is truly creepy and worth a look!/CH

*So that's all we have for you at the moment, but there are a bunch of films running through my head that fit this bill as well - so be prepared, part two is imminent.


Michella Sarah said...

Nightmare On Elm Street? I'm sure it's Night Of The Living Dead you ment :) just thought i warn you before you get attacked by type-o nazi's in Halloween costumes :D

Anyways, awesome article. As a claustrophobian, these types of films really make me uncomfortable. Personally, i would also suggest Penny Dreadful (i know a lot of people don't care for it, but i really liked it). Being stuck inside one of your worst fears (in Penny's case, a car) while a psychotic nutjob slowly sneaks up on you.... Scary.

Happy halloweeen! :)

Christine Hadden said...

Thanks for pointing out the error, Michella - all fixed! I was practically delirious by the time I got to today's post, so it's no wonder!

Thanks also for stopping by, and Happy Halloween to you, too!!

Doug Brunell said...

I'm glad to see "Panic Room" on here. Despite its ending, it is an underrated film.

Kev D. said...

Good call on The Descent, that movie ALWAYS makes me feel crazy uneasy.