Few feelings create more anxiety than the sense of being trapped in a small space or unable to move or escape. Even if you’re not a full-blown claustrophobe, almost everyone can relate to that inner panic that floods in when placed in such a situation. It is a testament to the power of cinema that certain movies can often make us feel this way, viscerally transporting us to a place, usually (but not always) physical, in which we can almost feel the walls closing in.
The movies below all expertly exude this discomfort. Many are horror films, many take place in just one location, but all show the talent of the writers and directors who have challenged themselves with such limiting settings. Note: I’ve excluded films that contain only one claustrophobia-inducing scene (‘Kill Bill: Volume 2’, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, etc.) in favor of films that communicate a pervasive sense of claustrophobia from start to finish, ranked in order of confinement. Hold your breath and read on.
Where We’re Stuck: A mining base on the moon with astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell).
Why It Works: It’s hard to be any more isolated than when you’re the only human being on the planet (or moon, in this case). Accompanied only by an artificially intelligent robot voiced by Kevin Spacey, Sam Rockwell gives a tour de force performance as a man who begins to question his true purpose when he stumbles upon a second version of himself during a routine day at the office, so to speak. Is it a twin? A clone? As we watch him deal with his increasingly perilous situation, it’s clear that at the very least, the setting itself is a character here, creating a suffocating sense of dread. And did I mention this is one of those rare movies set in space that doesn’t feature any aliens? But more on that one later…
Where We’re Stuck: A mysterious, cube-shaped structure with a group of strangers.
Why It Works: Directed by Vincenzo Natali, ‘Cube’ is a downright bizarre film, but never less than compelling. A clear influence on ‘Saw’, it poses the question: What would happen if you literally woke up inside a puzzle box? As the characters navigate the deadly traps of their unique setting, there’s never a comforting sense of place that even an isolated cabin or space shuttle would provide. Instead, they must use their intelligence and powers of deductive reasoning to survive, making this a brainy horror film that keeps you on the edge the whole time.
Where We’re Stuck: An elevator, a bus, and then a train… but mostly just the bus (that’s been rigged to explode if it falls below 50 miles per hour).
Why It Works: In this classic ‘90s action film, Keanu Reeves plays LAPD agent Jack Traven, the officer tasked with outsmarting the malevolent domestic terrorist (Dennis Hopper, deliciously chewing the scenery) who’s planted a bomb on a city bus. Though the whole movie takes place in broad daylight, it manages to jolt us by turning the most normal of everyday settings into a spring-loaded deathtrap ready to blow at any moment. After viewing this one, you’ll never ride the bus quite the same way ever again.
Where We’re Stuck: Outer space during a routine shuttle mission gone awry with astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Why It Works: The most recent film on this list (and the second to star Sandra Bullock), ‘Gravity’ creates claustrophobia in paradoxically the most open environment possible. How, you ask? Thanks to Oscar-winning sound design and painstakingly researched costumes and sets, we feel just as trapped as Bullock, who floats with only a thin space suit separating her from the cold harshness of space. The moment when the camera goes from tracking her to assuming her point-of-view, all in the same shot, no less (this is an Alfonso Cuarón movie, after all), serves as a microcosmic example of a filmmaker forcing us to feel his protagonist’s helplessness.
Where We’re Stuck: Most of the action takes place in a filthy bathroom where two strangers – one a doctor and one a tabloid photographer – wake up to find themselves chained to the walls in the presence of a bloody corpse and some rather sinister tape-recorded instructions.
Why It Works: Its reputation unfairly tarnished by the increasingly sadistic sequels that followed, ‘Saw’ is more psychological thriller than “torture porn.” While there are plenty of flashbacks and uses of parallel editing to fill in the characters’ backstories, the film’s primary setting is so grimy and foul that we wish the two could escape just so they can have a hot shower. It’s a fine example of how eerie lighting design and simple art direction can be chillingly effective. The whopper of a twist ending makes it all the more worth checking out, even if you’re not a hardcore horror fan.
20. Panic Room
Where We’re Stuck: The titular room of a New York City brownstone with Jodie Foster and a pre-‘Twilight’ Kristen Stewart during a home invasion.
Why It Works: You’ve got to hand it to director David Fincher for turning what could’ve been just an ordinary thriller into a gorgeously shot rollercoaster of suspense. His camera zooms and swoops through the house in ways that would have been impossible before the advent of computers, keeping the film’s constant setting from becoming boring. Add the committed performances of Oscar-winners Forest Whitaker and Jared Leto as two of the villainous burglars and you have a moodier, more adult version of ‘Home Alone.’
19. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Where We’re Stuck: In the mind of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a real person mercilessly imprisoned inside his own body by the horrifyingly real condition known as locked-in syndrome.
Why It Works: Sometimes one need not be in an isolated setting or chased by monsters to feel trapped. As demonstrated in Julian Schnabel’s French drama, a simple stroke of bad – no, horrendous – luck can turn you into your own captive. The camera often takes the perspective of the film’s protagonist, who becomes completely paralyzed with the exception of his left eyelid. Despairing at first (his first reaction to his new condition is to beg to be put out of his misery), Bauby soon learns to communicate with the only body part he can voluntarily move. You know the phrase, “Don’t take things for granted”? Yeah, this movie is an extreme version of what that could be referring to…
18. Night of the Living Dead
Where We’re Stuck: Inside a Pennsylvania farmhouse… that’s besieged by zombies.
Why It Works: The fact that George A. Romero’s low-budget horror flick still holds up today shows just how well crafted it is and remains. Shot in black and white (again, budget) and released in 1968 (the year the MPAA was created… coincidence?), Romero’s film introduced the world to the modern concept of the flesh-eating zombie, in effect influencing every zombie movie, book, video game, and hit TV show that came after it. While the characters bicker over which part of the house is safest to hide in, the threat outside grows and grows (it’s not too much of a stretch to read this in all sorts of allegorical ways). Regardless of any scholarly interpretation, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is first-rate (and surprisingly gory, for its time) entertainment.