We dig into even more horror films that kept things simple by keeping their horror contained to a sole location!
Sometimes there’s nothing better than when horror films keep it simple. I’m a huge fan of boiled down, structurally interesting stuff, like when horror restricts their movie to a sole location. In a weird way it’s almost like watching theater, which seems like a ridiculous thing for the genre of horror to achieve. But by doing this it forces the films to use different storytelling tools, which can sometimes pay off in huge ways. Films like this also tend to be about the characters, giving you deep, fully realized personalities, rather than the clichéd throwaway types which horror can have a tendency to thrive on. It’s always nice to appreciate the sort of ambition going on in something like this, so here are some more examples of when horror took a chance with a single location and stumbled onto something great.
Directed by Frank Khalfoun
Coming from the same creative team behind 2012’s Maniac (which includes Alexandre Aja as a co-writer), it’s easy to see that Khalfoun is someone that has a lot of love for mixing things up with style and structure. P2 is set entirely in an underground parking garage on Christmas Eve. Angela tries to leave work one night when she is kidnapped by the deranged security guard who has secretly been obsessing over her for months on end. P2 isn’t perfect, and it feels like this team’s version of an independent film, but it hits a lot of the right marks and does a lot with its confined structure contributing to the fear. Rachel Nichols and Wes Bentley also deliver some encouraging performances with characters that we get to learn a lot about which certainly helps the film out, too. It’s also nice that they actually shot the film within a parking garage, so that authenticity is definitely felt throughout the film. Since we’ve all certainly no doubt been in a parking garage at night before, that extra layer of realism to the picture also cuts through to you.
A L’Interieur (Inside) (2007)
Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
Inside is one of my favorite horror films of all time and it’s absolutely strengthened by the fact that the story takes place in such a concentrated area. A very pregnant Sarah is home one night, when her quiet evening is quickly turned into a horrendous home invasion film. There’s something inherently terrifying about watching a pregnant woman run for her life, but Beatrice Dalle’s performance is one for the ages as she turns out a characterization that’s on the Anton Chigurh level of intimidating (also, don’t let your cats watch this film). Granted, a few scenes at the start of the film are outside of Sarah’s house, but once the attack begins it never leaves. And boy is it a bloody, relentless affair. A real meal is made out of the geography, as Sarah gets locked to various rooms in the house at different times. It’s just fun to think about as this as some sort of twisted stage play, with two strong female performances driving it forward.
Directed by William Friedkin
And speaking of “bottle episode” horror that feels like it could be a piece of theater, Bug especially fits the mold since it was a play beforehand. William Friedkin (who directed a little film called The Exorcist, maybe ya heard of it?) turns Bug into the very best kind of psychological horror that feels reminiscent of things like Repulsion. The film sees Agnes and Peter getting holed up in a simple Oklaholma motel room, as Peter’s obsessive conspiracy theories about insects and the government begin to take over them both. One of the great joys of this film is watching how this hotel room transforms into such an unnerving, unstable environment (it’s eventually completed covered in tinfoil). It also doesn’t hurt that it’s Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon that are the ones trading psychotic barbs here. Having legitimate actors in horror films always helps and this is a great example of the case. This one really washes over you and seeing yourself get trapped in this space of paranoia with these people, not sure what is real or not, with no escape to act as a release valve makes for some very effective horror. Friedkin and Letts would also work together on the tonally similar, Killer Joe, which is also more than worth your time.
Terror Train (1980)
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
It’s a travesty that not enough people know about Terror Train, not only because a horror film set on a train is just a good idea, but that this vehicle is starring Jamie Lee Curtis, no less! The film is your classical bully revenge story, with a large body count that’s able to accumulate in the cramped space. This is also that beautiful classic sort of ‘80s horror with red, red blood and the killers have garish costumes. This takes that stereotype to new extreme with the killer adopting each of his victims’ attire (a New Years Eve costume party’s going on—interestingly a lot of these films are set on holidays) to the point where he’s wearing 10 costumes by the end of things—a different one in each scene he’s in, at that. Terror Train is actually shot on a real Canadian Pacific Railway locomotive, which is pretty wonderful. It also involved all sorts of creative ways of lighting the cramped space, like completely rewiring the train, and using penlights and other handheld methods to make things work.
Directed by David Brooks
So ATM might not be the best film on this list, but it certainly gets points for trying and has its murderous heart in the right place. The concept of three people being trapped in an ATM booth while a psychotic killer preys upon them has a lot of potential. If done right it could be some sort of horror equivalent to Phone Booth that really makes you feel trapped in a glorious way. ATM’s execution might be all sorts of sloppy, but it surprisingly gets a lot of mileage out of its tiny location, with touches like the killer turning off the heat going a long ways. The film manages to do some smart things, and even has some decent kills, but it’s just endlessly bleak, with a real downer of an ending on top of it all. It’s still worth getting drunk and watching with your friends as you bicker about what you’d do in such a situation.
Directed by Stuart Hazeldine
If ATM is dumb fun, then Exam is the most cerebral, with this film being a constant puzzle that you’re trying to solve with the characters within. Exam’s story is the simple sort of mind game that I love so much. Eight strangers (who we don’t even get the names of) are stuck in a room for 80 minutes—effectively making the film pass in real-time, too—as they try to pass an entrance exam for a prestigious job. More interestingly, the exam only has one question, but three crucial rules: they can’t talk to their invigilator, spoil their exam paper, or leave the room. Honestly, the less you know about the film, the better. It’s a movie that’s full of twists and surprises, and trying to figure it out as the film keeps pulling the rug out from under you is part of why it’s so much fun.
Directed by Bruce McDonald
Pontypool is a blessed mish-mash of love story and “zombie” outbreak in a truly different sort of way. The movie sees a shock jock and members of a radio station getting holed up in such a place because of the pandemonium that is going on outside their doors. While Pontypool might follow the beats of a lot of zombie films where the characters are trapped inside of somewhere, the film is really about language in the end. Rather than this being some typical outbreak virus, it’s actually one that infects the English language, which is a terribly interesting idea to play around with. McDonald and Tony Burgess have stated that the original War of the Worlds broadcast is a major influence here, and it’s certainly felt. Pontypool is an unnerving delight all around, and whenever you think you know where it’s going, it manages to surprise you.
Directed by Gerard Johnstone
Coming out of New Zealand, Housebound eerily feels reminiscent of What We Do In the Shadows, which also happens to hail from the region. The film sees a woman, Kylie, being sentenced to house arrest in what’s believed to be a haunted house, which is a very solid premise, but the picture tows a dangerous line with its tone through it all. Housebound nails most of its horror, with the idea of the ghost of some dead boy plaguing these people, but there’s a weird vein of comedy that runs through the film too, which might not work for all people. Johnstone’s influences were The Changeling, The Legend of Hell House, but also Ghosthunters, giving you an idea of the wide spectrum that’s hit here. Housebound might be trying to say too much, but it shows a lot of promise and certainly has a memorable ending, whether you’re into it or not.
Directed by John Gulager
Believe it or not, Feast is actually the result of the reality show, Project Greenlight’s third season, with the film’s limited locations being another example of how minimalism can be key for an independent feature. Feast sees a bunch of off-color bar patrons getting stuck in their watering hole as terrifying creatures begin an attack from the outside. It’s a classic “survive with strangers” scenario, and the film pulls it off well. Feast clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously either, and tries to be evocative of that smarmy vibe that makes things like Tremors work so well. For instance, the protagonist is straight up known as “Heroine”, with other characters having similarly clichéd monikers like Honey Pie, Hot Wheels, and Beer Guy. Oh, and Jason Mewes is also there, as himself. Surprisingly the film’s sense of humor is one of its greatest assets, with the weird sensibility punctuating the carnage even further. Somehow all of this insanity coalesces in the right way, and the film creates a fun world where it’s not surprising to see that the film spawned two sequels.
Directed by Mikael Hafstrom
Stephen King has written countless stories that have seen adaptation, but 1408 actually manages to be one of the more competent ones out there. The to-the-point story sees John Cusack’s, Mike, a horror author who investigates allegedly haunted houses, spending a night in one that’s supposedly just dripping in ghosts. This one might be a bit of a cheat, since there are some scenes before Mike gets into the titular room, but since the film is all about having to stay inside and survive said room, I think it’s excusable. Once Mike is inside, the film doesn’t disappoint with a lot of genuinely terrifying things messing with him as the room tries to push him over the edge. The film does a great job with getting inside Mike’s head and also illustrating the loneliness and isolation that Mike’s experiencing through this. The fact that Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson are also highly capable performers doesn’t hurt this creepy material either.
With more and more chances being taken within the horror genre, I’m sure we’ll only see more creative takes on this minimalistic approach. As more auteurs continue to prove that mixing things up can pay off, directors are going to want to keep rolling the dice. Directors realizing that these smaller scale projects are safe could lead to some interesting things in the right hands.
Note: After writing this piece, I’ve seen Mike Flanagan’s Hush, and it certainly deserves a place on here, too.