17. Hard Candy
Where We’re Stuck: The house where Jeff, a photographer and possible pedophile, has invited Hayley, the 14-year old girl he’s been chatting with online.
Why It Works: Before she was the loveable title character in ‘Juno’, Ellen Page gave this unforgettable performance as the unhinged psychological sparring partner to Patrick Wilson’s creepy online predator. An undeniably nasty shocker of a film, ‘Hard Candy’ takes place almost entirely in one location, centering almost exclusively on two people (Sandra Oh shows up briefly at one point). With this cat-and-mouse game that’s been turned on its head, the audience is left uneasy and unsure who exactly to root for throughout. The camerawork consists mostly of close-ups, giving us little breathing room, and that’s before things even start to get crazy. Featuring a vibrant color palette that highlights the film’s ominous setting, director David Slade keeps us glued to our seats. Be warned: there’s a scene about halfway in that, while not graphic, is one of the hardest this writer has ever had to sit through.
Where We’re Stuck: The secluded Colorado cabin of Annie Wilkes, the psycho former nurse and self-proclaimed “number one fan” of her patient and prisoner, novelist Paul Sheldon.
Why It Works: The second snowbound Stephen King adaptation on this list, ‘Misery’ works double in the incapacitation category: The protagonist, played by James Caan, is both severely injured and held against his will by a crazy lady (to put it mildly), brought to life by Kathy Bates, who deservedly won an Oscar for her performance. Actor-turned-director Rob Reiner keeps the pace taut and the suspense high as the resourceful author seeks to physically and psychologically escape his captivity, which he at one point refers to as “what some people might actually consider an oddball situation” (there’s a small amount of well-placed humor to even out the shocks here).
Where We’re Stuck: On board the USCSS Nostromo, a spaceship carrying seven people, a cat, and the eponymous pissed-off and hungry creature.
Why It Works: Pitched as “‘Jaws’ in space,” ‘Alien’ seems basically like a haunted house movie with an unusual futuristic setting, but it’s so much more. One of the greatest – if not the best – sci-fi horror films of all time, much of its effectiveness is due to the incredible detail of its setting. Though it has what today might be considered a slow pace, the first third of the movie works to acquaint us with the full interior of the Nostromo. Once the alien gets loose and begins its own game of hide-and-seek with the crew, our familiarity with the setting keeps us completely in the shoes of the shrinking cast of characters. It also boasts one of the greatest taglines in cinematic history: “In space no one can hear you scream.” Undoubtedly, Cuarón must be a fan.
14. Paranormal Activity
Where We’re Stuck: A house (mainly the bedroom) whose two inhabitants are being terrorized by an unseen force.
Why It Works: Say what you will about the found footage genre, say what you will about this particular franchise… The first ‘Paranormal Activity’ is downright scary – so much so that it essentially forced its way into multiplexes through the sheer combined power of word-of-mouth and clever marketing. Made on a budget so tiny that it wouldn’t pay for a week’s worth of catering on a studio film, it centers its action on the one place from which there’s no retreat: the bedroom.
While ‘Jaws’ was responsible for sparse beach attendance the summer it was released and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ may have unfairly damaged the image of rural Texans, there’s no retreating from one’s own bedroom. In one fell swoop, a little movie shot on a camcorder made us afraid of where we sleep at night, suddenly turning every house settling noise into a potential symptom of demonic infestation. As for those who criticized the shaky-cam styles of other found footage films like ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and ‘Cloverfield’, the makers of ‘Paranormal Activity’ had an ingeniously simple solution: the tripod. Not only did it make sense within the narrative of the film, but it resulted in static shots that gave no warning of where the next scare would come from, all but holding us down and forcing our eyes open, ‘Clockwork Orange’ style, daring us to look away.
13. United 93
Where We’re Stuck: Inside Air Traffic Control and on board the doomed title aircraft – the only hijacked one that didn’t reach its intended target on 9/11.
Why It Works: Some refer to it as one of the best films you’ll never want to see again. Truly, it’s not an overstatement to say that ‘United 93’ is one of the most important films of the decade. It will no doubt be revisited by future viewers attempting to gain an understanding of not just what happened on that infamous September day, but what it felt like before anyone knew the big picture.
Paul Greengrass, of ‘Bourne’ series fame, directs this carefully researched and heartbreaking exercise in verisimilitude by choosing to tell the story more or less in real time, and even with some of the real people involved that day, including FAA operations manager Ben Sliney, who plays himself. While he and his co-workers on the ground scramble to understand and stop the ongoing attacks, the passengers aboard Flight 93 react to their situation not as action heroes, but as ordinary people caught in a terrible situation. Everyone knows the story by now of what ultimately transpired on that plane, but Greengrass’s decisions to keep us locked inside – never cutting away to loved ones on the other end of those phone calls – and to stay with the flight for the last heart-pounding minutes of the film without cutting back to Sliney and the FAA or to bystanders on the ground, make the disturbing events feel all too real… again.
12. Session 9
Where We’re Stuck: Inside a closed mental hospital in Massachusetts as an asbestos cleanup crew approaches it with the nonchalance of any other job… fools.
Why It Works: An abandoned mental hospital is a creepy enough setting – using a real one as your shooting location just makes it all the more so. This 2001 indie horror film isn’t for your casual slasher fan. Rather, it’s a relatively bloodless slow burn that plays up its twisted setting as much as possible as odd events begin to befall the crew. To give away any of the twists would be a mistake, but let’s just say the tagline, “Fear is a place,” couldn’t be more appropriate. It also ends with one of the most unsettling lines in horror movie history.
11. The Shining
Where We’re Stuck: The Overlook Hotel, a Colorado-based lodge that’s been closed down for the winter, with only Jack Nicholson’s caretaker and his wife and son as its sole living inhabitants.
Why It Works: Endlessly studied, analyzed, and debated, ‘The Shining’ is indisputably a horror classic (even if its initial reception was, shockingly, far less laudatory). Much of its success is due to the meticulous interior design of the Overlook, lovingly explored via Kubrick’s groundbreaking Steadicam. Despite its wide-open spaces, the hotel becomes gradually more stifling as the film continues. Once the snow begins to fall, the prospect of leaving – even for an afternoon stroll – becomes an impossibility. It’s the ultimate cinematic portrayal of “cabin fever” (yes, even including the movie of the same name).
Where We’re Stuck: The London apartment of a disturbed young woman (Catherine Deneuve) for a long weekend.
Why It Works: This 1965 Roman Polanski film effortlessly conveys the potential horror of simple apartment living. It’s clear already from the beginning that Carol has some mental issues, but when her older sister leaves her alone for a few days, her downward spiral manifests itself via metaphorical cracking walls and a rotting dead rabbit. Future films like ‘Black Swan’ and the underappreciated ‘May’ owe a lot to this black and white psychological creepshow.