Ah, horror — the richest and most varied genre in all of film. Horror has perhaps more sub-genres in itself than there are genres of film. However, with all of this, there is one element that can be found across all chillers. That one element? Fear. Whether it be fear of the unknown, fear of the known, a jump-scare, suspense or a particular phobia, fear is the driving force behind all horror.
The sub-fear that's the focus this time, however, is being trapped. It's a common fear among probably all people. While some may not confess it as being a particular phobia, nobody likes the idea of being trapped, of being claustrophobic or of not being able to see a way out.
Let's take a look at some great examples of how filmmakers have made us hold our breaths in claustrophobic panic.
Trapped In An Unfamiliar Location
The feeling of being trapped somewhere you don't know with no way out, fears closing in around you, unsure of what to do or where to go, is a mainstay of horror.
British chiller, #TheDescent, released in 2005 and directed by Neil Marshall, excels in recreating claustrophobia. The story centers on six friends who go on an adventure down an uncharted cave. The altercations between the friends all feel very natural, with each having an authentic personality reminiscent of real-life.
The unique cave setting also acts as very much it's own character — nature can be terrifying. The tension builds slowly as each scenario becomes more disturbing than the last and the jump scares aren't without purpose. The discovery that the cave and pitch black darkness is not all that it seems unravels and the desperate battle for survival ensues.
The Descent not only succeeds in it's nightmarish atmosphere, but also as a commentary on friendship, vengeance, betrayal and the lengths that one is willing to go for their survival.
The 2007 Spanish horror REC, directed by Jaume Balagueró, which is not only arguably the one of best modern zombie movies, but may also be the best found-footage film of recent years. Experienced through the eyes (or lens) of Pablo and his camera, we follow TV reporter Angela, documenting the goings-on of a fire-crew for a documentary. What begins as a fairly ordinary night becomes an apartment-rescue, which then spirals into something far more sinister.
The majority of the film takes place in an apartment building as the police lock it down and forbid anybody to leave. Things continue to worsen as the situation expands within the building, causing the already claustrophobic feeling to get tighter and tighter.
Pablo's camera acts as the viewers' eyes, startling us at the same time as the people we are following. By way of this, REC feels very real. There are times when the camera is set down or dropped, and we desperately wait for Pablo to pick us back up and continue to take us along on this insane ride. The horror unfolds at a steady pace, upping the ante throughout until there really is nowhere left to run. REC sets out to terrify and does so with flying colors — a true roller-coaster of a fright flick that will exhaust you.
Trapped In A Familiar Location
Being trapped somewhere strange and unfamiliar sucks, but what may be even worse is being tormented where you are supposed to feel most relaxed.
1967's Wait Until Dark by Terence Young and starring Audrey Hepburn would be the actress's last role for 9 years and is, in my opinion, her best. Audrey Hepburn is Suzy in this Academy Award nominated role: a blind woman who accidentally gets caught up in a drug smuggling scandal as a heroin-filled doll winds up in her apartment.
We spend the majority of the film in said apartment, as Suzy becomes the target of four criminals who are attempting to locate the doll, and attempting to take full advantage of her condition. What I like about #WaitUntilDark is that, unlike the other films that I've mentioned, this film traps somebody right in their own home — the place where we feel most comfortable.
Driven by a hugely believable and sympathetic performance by Audrey, Wait Until Dark is a must for any thriller fan, or any Hepburn fan.
Of course, we cannot talk about suspense without its master. Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film #RearWindow, similarly to Wait Until Dark, features a single location in the form of an apartment owned by L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart). Jefferies is confined to a wheelchair due to a broken leg and therefore spends much of his time looking out of the window at his neighbors, who are keeping theirs open during a heatwave. His only visitors are his insurance company's nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) and girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly).
During his observations, Jefferies believes that he has witnessed a murder from one of the apartments, and takes it upon himself to investigate with the initially reluctant help of Stella and Lisa, along with his friend from the NYPD. As their investigations slowly begin to unravel more and more secrets, tensions rise and stakes are at an all-time high.
Rear Window is a perfect testament to why Alfred Hitchcock is the icon that he is. Regarded alongside Psycho as far as his masterpieces go, Rear Window blends technical and artistic techniques to deliver something like only Hitchcock can.
A Way Out
What about when there is a way out? Whether it's found or given, things can become even more intense when an escape is presented, but more often that not, these fates aren't all that much better than the alternative.
In this instance, most people would twist their heads Exorcist-style towards the first (and strongest entry in the franchise) #Saw movie by James Wan. This is a great example of a single-location suspense-horror, featuring two men who find themselves trapped in a bathroom with a corpse in an unspecified location.
Neither is aware of how or why they are there. The unexplained nature of the situation slowly unfolds, revealing drastic lengths as the two men realize what they are up against, and what measures must be taken in Jigsaw's deranged social experiment in order to escape. It's a perfectly crafted puzzle that the aptly named Jigsaw has become synonymous with.
Saw changed the game for horror, and while the franchise has become hugely saturated and perhaps even overdone, the first entry was something new and different, and audiences ate it up.
Much like some of the traps of Mr. John Kramer, director Stuart Hazeldine's 2009 debut feature film, Exam, centers around eight people who have been selected to take an exam in the final stage of a job application process. The duration of the film takes place in a single, square room.
The 'exam' goes like this: the candidates are told that they have a piece of paper in front of them. There is a single question and a single answer is required. They are given only 3 rules: Do not attempt to communicate with the director or security guard, do not attempt to leave the room, and do not soil your paper- all of which will result in disqualification. They are given 80 minutes to complete it.
"What's the question?" I hear you ask. Well, plot twist — we have no idea what the question is. And that serves as a driving force for the film, as our candidates start scouring about the room, smashing lights and setting off sprinklers in attempts to magically reveal the question on their individual blank sheets of paper.
Much like a Jigsaw trap, it is somewhat unclear if the puzzle requires teamwork or bitter betrayal, especially as the restlessness and frustration begins to kick in. The result is a highly engrossing psychological thriller that'll keep your mind at work along with the candidates as you search for not only the answer to the question, but the question itself, and all against the clock.
We can feel trapped anywhere, but these films exploit that to the max. Horror continues to vary itself year after year, especially now with a resurgence of consistently good flicks, such as The Conjuring, Don't Breathe, The Wailing and Stephen King's IT. Horror will always continue to play with our fears — being trapped is just one of them.
What are some of your favorite claustrophobic horror movies? Let us know!