All horror, in one way or another, deals with being trapped. There's something after us, and we can't get away from it. The mind, the environment, circumstance, or simply the sheer tenacity of the predator can provide the chains. It's a simple facet of the genre – if we can simply get away from it, it must not be that scary.
A-List: Confinement Horror
By Sean Collier
October 10, 2008
Some of the most visceral and engaging horror films take this paradigm a step further. When confronted with a predator and physically unable to escape – trapped not by weakness or choice, but by space and time – fear is much more intense. Every moment is a threat; there is no relief. Our most primal choice, the binary of flight or fight, is reduced to one terrible option.
These films enable some of the most tense, thrilling scenes in horror. John Carpenter, in particular, was a master of creating a guaranteed heart attack scenario: the moment when the hero wants nothing more than to run, but realizes that not only is escape impossible, but fight is a necessity. Think of the reluctance in Jamie Lee Curtis' face as Michael Myers burst through the closet door, and she not only had to remain there, but actually attempt to fight him off with no more than a coat hanger.
Terrifying as well: the gallows face when a protagonist realizes that the fight is over but the suffering is not. It's in Robert Shaw's face as he continues to strike at Jaws, even after he's been bit in half; it's in James Caan's hopeless protestations as Kathy Bates explains just why she's about to break his legs with a sledgehammer.
For this A-List, I'm choosing to narrow the focus not just to films where escape is difficult (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the aforementioned Jaws and Halloween, for example,) but to films where the majority of the running time finds the protagonist either utterly confined or failing to get away. With hope that Quarantine lives up to its intimidating premise, The-A List presents the best of confinement horror.
The tagline referred to the vastness of space, but the problem aboard the Nostromo was a lack of it. When confronted with the most terrifying parasitic beast ever imagined, most of us would want to go very, very far away as quickly as possible. With no way to escape and no chance of getting to earth anytime soon, however, Sigourney and company had no choice but to face a ferocious, invincible beast. A big component of Alien's effectiveness was the film's constant tendency to offer the viewer a bit of hope for escape, only to dash it spectacularly – and take a crewmember or two in the process.
See, there are just some places where you don't want things to go horribly wrong. Antarctica is one of them. John Carpenter's '80s masterpiece sees his favorite antihero, Kurt Russell, leading a team of frigid scientists in battle against a...well, a thing. From space. That's turning them into horrible monsters and killing them in unfathomably gruesome ways. So, kind of a bad situation, there. For bonus points, the creature can take over the bodies of humans, so The Thing piles on the really intimidating horror situations – the which-one-is-the-killer trope on top of being utterly trapped with a relentless monster.
As much as we all like to rag on Stephen "I write novels in my sleep" King, he's responsible for a laundry list of genuinely compelling books, and many near perfect films. The Shining, Carrie, Stand by Me – these are some of my all-time favorites. Not to mention Misery. We like to trust that in an emergency situation, those strangers that come to our aid can be trusted and have only our best interests in mind. Misery poses the threat of someone preying on us when we are at our most weak and vulnerable. It turns "do no harm" upside down. Kathy Bates is excellent and haunting, and truly deserved her Oscar for this one.
In this divisive cult hit, the location is both prison and predator. A group of prisoners finds themselves dropped into a network of nearly identical rooms, some containing deadly traps, others containing safe passage to more and more rooms; the challenge is in identifying the threats and breaking an elaborate code for escape. While certainly more than a bit contrived, Cube is unique and compelling, with intricate character arcs and intense terror on a small scale. It's a truly one-of-a-kind project, and worth a look.
The Descent really came out of nowhere in the summer of 2005. Directed by Neil Marshall, who's well regarded in horror circles but little known to the public at large, this otherworldly escape story was (in my opinion) not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best horror films in decades. If you're a fan of the film, you've probably gotten bogged down by a debate over which is the better ending to the film, the hopeful version or the doomed version; the truth is, both are chilling. The decidedly believable creatures in the film's subterranean hell were believable and chilling – a refreshing break from the CGI ghouls that have been running mainstream horror for a little while now.
This little-seen Spanish haunted house film, a product of the After Dark Horror Fest, is a personal choice for me. I went into the theater looking for a quick horror fix, knowing little about the movie, and quickly discovered that I was the only one to buy a ticket. Sitting alone in the middle of the theater, I was utterly, utterly terrified. The film just worked on me that night, for some reason. The plot concerns a woman inheriting a home deep in the Russian countryside. From there: zombie doppelgangers. There's not much more you need to know after that, I think. Seriously. Zombie. Doppelgangers.
One To Watch For
As I have in the past, I'm going to flip this category and recommend an upcoming film to avoid. Much to the chagrin of...everyone, we're nearing pre-production on Hostel Part III, another chapter of the budget-tourism-leads-to-torture franchise created by Eli Roth. Despite his less-than-perfect track record, Roth has gone on record to say he'll have nothing to do with this edition; realistically, there's only so far that the premise can go. There's less chance of plot advancement here than in Saw V. Even if you liked the first two gorno flicks, for everyone's sake, take a pass on this one.