These movies are a grab-bag of horrors. Some are goofily creepy, others will bend your brain in all sorts of fun ways, and yet others will take you for a wild, action-filled ride. They vary wildly in tone as well, with some grim and angsty and others optimistic despite the darkness of their subject matters. What they all have in common, though, is that their action is primarily (or even entirely) restricted to a single setting. It’s a fun conceit, a challenge to write, and, when pulled off well, brings a note of claustrophobia into the story that makes it all the more disturbing. I guess unless you are an agoraphobic, in which case these movies may prove oddly comforting?
This restrictive technique has probably seen its most successful recent use in the first Saw movie, most of which takes place in a grungy public bathroom, but I figure most people have already heard of that one, so I’ve left it off. If you haven’t seen that first one, give it a chance. It’s far less gory and torture-y than its sequels became. At any rate, in this list, hotel rooms, suburban neighborhoods, apartment buildings, ocean cruisers, and even the turret of a World War II bomber all become little worlds of their own.
Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Caro and Jeunet were a dynamic directorial duo in the 90’s and early 2000’s, primarily known for their romantic comedy Amélie and the wild sci-fi fantasy The City of Lost Children. This, however, was the movie where they got their start and established their technique, a zany, visually inventive style often laced with dark comedy and nightmarish setups. Delicatessen is set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic French city, wherein people are desperate for food.
Set almost entirely in, on, and under an old, moldering apartment building, the movie is primarily about a former circus clown, Louison, who has just moved into the building. He finds it filled with an odd assortment of characters, none so odd as the butcher and landlord Clapet. Clapet has a secret, one known to most everyone in the building but which Louison will only learn about painfully: the landlord has found a new source of meat that he then doles out to his tenants. This apartment building is a creaky, ancient, and labyrinthine place, and becomes the site of all sorts of bizarre interactions and chases.
Five strangers wake up in a strangely-lit cubical room in the Canadian sci-fi/horror movie. Well, there is a sixth, but he meets a dicey fate in the first scene of the film. These cubes lead to other cubes, with entrances on the ceiling, the floor, and all four walls. Our protagonists seem to have nothing in common with one another, nor can they remember how they ended up here. What they quickly discover is that some of the rooms surrounding them are booby-trapped with vicious, inventive methods of death. As they begin looking for a way out, they find clues that may lead them to safety… or may just be another trap. Soon, the group starts to splinter as they get hungry and panic and rage against their unseen captors sets in. For such a simple set-up, this movie can really burn itself into your mind, with a seemingly endless vista of brightly colored rooms waiting for exploration.
Based on a Stephen King short story, 1408 concerns Mike Enslin, an author of books about purportedly haunted houses around America who very much doesn’t believe in the paranormal pseudo-history he sells his readers. Then one day, Mike gets an anonymous postcard challenging him to look into the history of room 1408 in The Dolphin, a posh New York hotel. It turns out that in the last 95 years no one has lasted more than an hour staying in this room.
!408 sports a far higher body-count over the last century than the similarly creepy room 217 (237 in the movie) in The Shining. Enslin is, of course, such a cynic that he figures spending the night here will be a breeze, as well as a fine subject for his next book. Unfortunately, he soon discovers there’s far worse in this luxury hotel room than some ginned-up ghost legend. The room itself is a great location, as the movie employs more than the standard haunted house spooks to illustrate its twisted and possibly unknowable nature. Eight. This is eight. We have killed your friends. Every friend is now dead.
The Ruins (2008)
Before you watch this movie, I’d strongly recommend you read the novel by Scott Smith on which it was based. I’ll also warn sensitive viewers that there’s some intense pain and mutilation in this movie, though a good amount of it is implied. Two American couples are vacationing in Mexico when they meet a German man looking for his missing brother, last seen at an archeological dig in the jungle. When they all head towards these ruins of a Mayan temple, they find themselves trapped on a hill by villagers determined not to let them leave for some mysterious reason. That’s when things get ugly.
This is one of those movies best gone into without knowing much about what happens, so I’m going to leave it there, except to point out how well the movie makes this sunny outdoors space feel so claustrophobic and haunting.
I cannot emphasize how much I love this movie. Its complex narrative and plot twists are matched perfectly by excellent acting, particularly that of its lead, Melissa George. Also, please don’t watch any trailers, as they give away one twist that you’ll want to be surprised by. George plays Jess, a rattled and harried young woman with a small autistic son. Given a chance to get away from her responsibilities for an afternoon, Jess joins some friends for a relaxing boat trip. When a storm capsizes the boat, this group thinks they may be doomed, but then a massive cruise liner seems to appear out of nowhere. When they get on board, they discover it’s derelict, but is there someone else there with them? This ship, the Aeolus, is such a great setting for a film that proves a lot smarter than you might think at first. Just watch the damn thing already and thank me later.
One of two airplane-centered movies on this list, Altitude is a creepy ride. Don’t mix it up with a 2017 thriller of the same name. In this movie, we have yet another group of friends on a pleasure jaunt, this time on their way to a concert. One of them, Sara, just got her pilot license and is all set on flying them to their destination. Once they’re in the air, though, disaster strikes and they are in a plane that’s gaining altitude faster and faster regardless of what they do. And that’s when they see something in the clouds… This is a roller-coaster of a movie, so don’t expect a lot and you’ll be entertained by it. I will say it has some tricks up its sleeve and is another one where you should skip the trailer and just jump on board.
Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead
What a puzzle of a movie. That it manages to say so much about addiction, friendship, and storytelling while still keeping its central mysteries close to its vest is a testament to the directors’ vision and talents. Briefly, the movie centers on Michael, a successful city-dweller, and his former best friend, Chris, who has developed a bad drug habit. When Michael gets an emailed video from Chris as well as a map to the shack in which he has holed up, Michael decides to take one last stab at saving his old friend.
Most of the movie takes place either in Chris’s crummy cabin or its immediate environs, as Michael tries forcing his friend to detox. But there’s somebody or something in the surrounding woods intent on a darker destiny for both of them, and they soon find themselves faced with an incomprehensible set of threats. This movie can be pretty intense (though not gory), but it’s also enlivened by both a complex friendship between the two men and a healthy, if disturbing, sense of humor. Also, if it intrigues you, watch the movie The Endless directed by this same duo.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
In this excellent horror mystery movie, a woman’s naked body is found at the site of strange massacre. The woman cannot be identified, nor is there any obvious cause of death, so the investigating sheriff brings the corpse to the town’s father-and-son coroner, an operation they run out of the basement of their home. Over the course of a single night, these men will try prying secrets out of the mysterious body. They will uncover old sins and present dangers.
Aside from the wonderful acting by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, this movie also features sharp direction and pacing. Most of the movie takes place in this basement, and this setting takes on an ominous feel soon into the film. We are trapped there with Tommy and Austin Tilden as they try with increasing desperation to understand what sort of story they’ve been thrust into, and the basement’s hallways and dark corners soon seem infested with invisible malevolence.
Vivarium is a fascinating piece of horrific filmmaking. It moves easily between an absurdist situation like something out of a play by Sartre and a subtly told bit of science fiction. The main actors (almost the only ones in the film) bring a sense of humanity and even humor to a plot that could easily have sunk into grim nihilism otherwise. And when the horror breaks out, as it does unexpectedly throughout the film, it provides some truly disturbing moments. The plot is fairly simple, at least at first.
A young couple looking for a new home follow a rather peculiar real estate agent to a massive, yet-to-be-inhabited suburban development. These two, Gemma and Tom, soon find themselves stuck in this endless vista of eerie banality. Then, suddenly they are given one of the weirder tasks I’ve seen forced on horror movie characters. I’m being vague because much of the fun here grows from the strange turns the plot takes (the trailer gives away far too many of them), but I will say that at the end of it all when you see what’s really been happening, the situation looks even more bizarre in retrospect. And that suburban neighborhood… Never has a cabin in the woods looked so much better a place to be.
Shadow in the Cloud (2021)
This movie is kind of nuts. There are scenes that had me simultaneously laughing at its excesses and cheering it on, as well as one roughly ten-minute sequence that jumps the shark. Just forget the laws of physics and go with it, okay? We are in the midst of World War II, and Chloë Grace Moretz plays a female flight officer with a secret. She hitches a ride on a bomber filled with oafs, misogynists, and one or two decent guys. When the flight begins, she’s told there’s just nowhere in the main body of the plane for her to sit and is unceremoniously stuffed into the turret dangling below.
Almost the entire film takes place in the plane, and most of the time in the plane Maude Garrett is trapped in that turret. The amount of drama and action director Liang squeezes into that cramped space is amazing, and when the horrific part of the plot kicks in, anybody with a fear of heights (like me) will probably find themselves peering at the screen through their fingers. Like I said, there are definitely moments in this movie that strain credibility, but watch it like you are reading a comic book and you ought to be able to enjoy it for what it is. Really wild action sequences I immediately wanted to re-watch too.