Fox Home Entertainment is bringing several horror classics to hi-def Blu-ray as part of their Feed Your Fear campaign, with most of them already at a store near you. We’ve joined forces with them to bring you four top 10 lists related to one or more of the titles. In lieu of the classic Stephen King adaptation Misery now available on Blu-ray, we present to you “The Top 10 Claustrophobic Horror Movies”. Watch for another three features in the coming weeks leading up to Halloween.
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According to Forbes magazine, a fear of enclosed spaces — or claustrophobia — is the sixth most common of all phobias. This falls underneath fear of critters (bugs, mice, snakes, bats); fear of heights (acrophobia); fear of water (hydrophobia); fear of public transportation (thanks, Al Qaeda); and fear of storms (here’s looking at you, global warming). For my money though, none of these fears has been exploited to greater cinematic effect than claustrophobia. Sure, at least one good film has come out of all of the above, but I defy you to come up with a list of the “Top Ten Scary Snake Movies” without doing some serious head-scratching and frantic keyword searches on IMDB. Now, not all of the films listed below are specifically concerned with claustrophobia, but all utilize, to a great degree, this all-too-common fear in order to increase the audience’s sense of dread and unease. In other words, let’s just say you’ll have the sudden urge to get outside and breathe some nice, un-recycled air after finishing these babies.
Rec is better, you say? Well guess what — I haven’t seen it yet, so this American remake will have to do. Ok, so while Quarantine falls far short of “horror classic” status, it was a lot scarier than I expected, and utilized the admittedly over-used “shaky-cam” aesthetic pretty effectively. Not only was the setting itself claustrophobic, but the limited first-person point of view made the whole thing feel that much more stifling. Too bad the marketing executives behind the ad campaign decided it was a good idea to give away the final shot in the trailer.
Sure he’s a child rapist (suck it, Woody Allen), not to mention a certifiable head case, but you’d have to be in major denial not to admit that Roman Polanski, in his prime, knew his way around tight spaces (insert your own joke here) better than any other director. Repulsion was the first in what some might call his “claustrophobia trilogy” (followed by Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant), and the black-and-white cinematography only serves to heighten the suffocating isolation of Catherine Deneuve’s slow descent into madness. A classic in any genre.
Forget the lame sequels; Cube remains one of the most ingenious low-budget horror films ever made. The concept is simple: six complete strangers wake up in a maze of interlocking cubes, many of which possess deadly traps. To escape, the six must band together and use their unique skills (one is a math whiz, one is a building designer, etc.) to figure a way out. The spareness and repetition of the setting alone – cubes measuring 14x14x14 feet, differing only by color – is enough to send any claustrophobic running for their psychiatrist’s office.
So the world is ending, your friends and family have all turned into brain-munching crazy people, and you find yourself trapped in probably the least enjoyable place to wait out Armageddon – a dilapidated farm house. Sigh. Ok, so the shopping mall setting featured in Dawn of the Dead was a lot more fun, but there’s something about the isolated, middle-of-nowhere location in this first of Romero’s never-ending Living Dead series that makes it all the more creepy. At least in a mall, you can stake out your own territory at, say, Hot Topic or Sbarro Pizza. In the house featured here, you’re either stuck upstairs with the crazy blonde chick, or down in the basement with the survivalist nutcase and his glassy-eyed little daughter that keeps eyeing your forearm like it’s a plate of spare ribs.
If global warming-alarmists are to be believed, in 30 years or so not only might your tract home in Fresno become prime beach-front real estate, but movies taking place in the Arctic Circle could potentially feature bitchin’ surfing montages and tanned extras sipping umbrella drinks. Luckily, if this ever comes to pass, those of us who prefer our Arctic cold and isolated need only revisit The Thing, one of John Carpenter’s true masterpieces. In it, the celebrated director utilizes the frigid, remote Arctic setting to brilliant effect. While it’s technically a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing From Another World, this one features a lot of sweet Rob Bottin creature effects. In other words, give me Carpenter’s version any day.
I once compared the experience of viewing The Descent, director Neil Marshall’s brilliant exercise in audience manipulation, to being trapped inside an angry lesbian’s vagina during menstruation. I know it’s crude, but I honestly couldn’t think of a more apt description at the time (and sorry, still can’t). The film is all sweaty, cramped spaces that, more than any other movie on this list, utilizes claustrophobia in its most literal sense. Sure, the vicious, cannibalistic human-esque creatures that hunt the featured all-female group of spelunkers are way scary, but the super-confined setting is what’ll really haunt your dreams.
I recently re-watched Misery, and I was struck once again not only by what a fine movie it is (this is before Rob Reiner went on to direct such delightful gems as EDTV and The Bucket List), but how well it keeps the audience engaged despite the fact that it’s almost exclusively limited to a single location. Of course, I guess that’s the whole point – the film very effectively taps into our fears not only of isolation and confinement, but of being totally dependent upon another human being for our very survival. It doesn’t help when that person is Annie Wilkes, psychotic super-fan, in the performance that netted Kathy Bates a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar.
Again: Roman Polanski is a child rapist, as in he raped a 13-year-old girl after drugging her with Quaaludes (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Scorcese). That being said, I can’t in good conscience leave Rosemary’s Baby, his elegant horror opus and the second part of his “claustrophobia trilogy”, off this list. It’s not the setting here that evokes cabin fever so much as the slowly-enveloping sense of dread and doom that permeates every frame (not to mention the ultimate Nosy Neighbors From Hell, played to queasy perfection by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). Every time you think your neighbors are annoying, just remember – at least they didn’t try to impregnate you with the Antichrist.
We’ve all heard Alien described as a “haunted house movie on a space ship” before, and really I can’t think of a better description for Ridley Scott’s terrifying sci-fi nightmare, which features the most deliciously phallic monster ever put to celluloid. There are so many reasons why this film works, but at the end of the day it’s all about the setting. This spacecraft isn’t of the gleaming, clean-lined Star Trek variety; rather, it’s a dank, utilitarian labyrinth filled with dark recesses and cramped, anxiety-inducing tunnels and crawl-spaces. In other words, the perfect place for freaky shit to go down.
Yeah, Stanley Kubrick made some kick-ass movies in basically every genre, but for horror-hounds it doesn’t get any better than The Shining. The book by Stephen King was good, if typically uneven for an early King effort, but Kubrick really cut to the marrow of what made the story scary. In other words – it’s the location, stupid. The Overlook Hotel is the ultimate “haunted house” – with hallways like constricted arteries, the creepiest hedge maze ever, and doorways that stand like sentinels against secrets that would drive the average person to insanity. Now take Jack Nicholson in a throat-ripping, Grand Guignol-inspired performance, creepy ghost girls that put all the long-haired “J-horror” phantoms to shame, and Shelley Duvall in a performance that makes you wonder how she survived through principal photography without having a complete mental breakdown, and you’ve got yourself the ultimate in cabin-fever horror. – Chris Eggertsen