There is great power in constraint, or so I've gathered from a recent rash of horror (and horror-like) movies that confine their characters to a single, often claustrophobic location. The groundwork for this stuff was laid in Hitchcock's Rope and Lifeboat, much like Cannibal Holocaust inspired what would become the subgenre POV horror, and much like An American Family predicted reality TV years and years in advance. (Weirdly enough, the pattern in all three of these pop culture subgenres is that there's an extremely early foundational example, followed by a high-profile update on the form that becomes the most obvious point of reference -- The Blair Witch Project in the case of POV, The Real World for reality TV and Cast Away for single-setting stuff -- for a movement that emerges still several more years later.)
With Cast Away being an obvious influence and things like Phone Booth and 127 Hours being essential entries in the single-setting subgenre, it's a more fluid form than POV horror. But even if they all don't strictly rely on the conventions of horror, these movies deserve to be grouped together. They inevitably depict nightmare scenarios, for one thing (the difference between a thriller and horror is often just a bit of added politeness on the part of the director). Also, tropes begin to emerge within this subset: the movies typically have short running times (many below clock in under 90 minutes) and almost all feature exceptionally good-looking people, even by Hollywood standards. After all, there's not much else to look at within the confines of single-setting horror. They're just trying to give you your money's worth.
(Note that I'm not including movies like The Amityville Horror, whose single setting of a house affords multiple locations: rooms, the yard, etc. Extreme confinement is key here.)
I thought it'd be fun to examine what I consider to be the main entries in this subgenre, side-by-side. They present a range of seemingly insurmountable challenges for their characters, but are united by a single cinematic challenge: how to make something that is static in nature still move viewers.
127 Hours (2010)
The setting: Between a rock and a hard place -- literally and literarily.
The predicament: Phish-loving outdoorsman Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) goes for a hike in Utah mountains and, as he scales down a canyon, gets hand wedged under a fallen boulder.
The threats: Believe it or not, people's bodies don't take too kindly to being caught in rocks. Ralston also finds himself running out of water, food and sanity. The local ants are gigantic and involved enough to seem ominous. Drowning's a possibility, maybe? And then there is that haunting cameo of Scooby Doo.
How the film passes its time: We get to know Ralston's surroundings semi-intimately (they are, after all, being held at half-arm's length) in the 127 hours he's trapped: a hawk flies above daily at a certain time, he gets a shot of direct sunshine for a brief period each day, the rock that's trapping him is a helpful table for his hiker supplies. All of this is relayed by the video diary that Ralston keeps, which keeps the story moving and the exposition logical. Director Danny Boyle regularly employs a split-screen and sometimes uses montages to illustrate Ralston's yearning, fantasies and memories.
There are a few awesome camera pull-backs from the trapped Ralston to the greater environment (in one, the camera pulls back all the way to the Gatorade bottle whose presence tortures Ralston from his car). Oh, and Bill Withers lends some help (and irony) in this regard.
How successful it is: Very! I love this movie! It's as cathartic of a cinematic experience as any you're bound to encounter (it made me thirstier than Rango!), right through to the excruciating three-minute climax, in which Ralston amputates half of his arm in a last-ditch (and successful) attempt to free himself. That you know it's coming does nothing to diminish its impact (I'd argue, in fact, that the buildup only helps horrify). The nerve-cutting gets me every time! From then on, the denouement is pure release (I wept in the theater!). It just goes to show that when life gives you lemons, cut half of your arm off.
Phone Booth (2002)
The setting: A phone booth on 53rd and 8th in Manhattan -- "the last of its kind," according to a narrator (God? The president of AT&T? One in the same?).
The predicament: A douchey publicist (Stu Shepard played by Colin Farrell) at a pay phone he frequents to ring up potential mistresses takes the bait of a sniper, who conveniently believes that "a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it?" Through a series of precise details and bullets, Stu realizes that he is at the sniper's mercy and must follow his every order. Me, I'd never answer a phone that wasn't mine. I don't even answer my phones that are formerly mine, like the ones at my mom's house. I'd rather talk to a sniper than any number of family friends or relatives that could be at the end of that line. Giving into his Pavlovian response to bells is Stu's first mistake.
The threats: BEING SHOT BY A SNIPER. Also, while the caller is indebted to Hannibal Lecter and Scream's Ghostface in delivery, he has a twisted sense of morality that made him a pre-Saw Jigsaw. He castigates Stu for being "guilty of inhumanity for your fellow man" when Stu refuses to let a pimp into the phone booth that Stu's life depends on staying in, per the sniper's terms. If there's anything worse than a dick, it's a dick with a gun, and if there's anything worse than a dick with a gun, it's a dick with a gun with a scope. When cops arrive after said pimp is shot, they immediately assume Stu is to blame and so begins a dance between Stu and head cop in charge Forest Whitaker, whom Stu must convince not to shoot him while appeasing the sniper's diva-like demands. What a headache!
How the film passes time: Nobly, it almost always centers on Stu in the phone booth and incorporates other characters via a series of split screens...
...for a while, it feels like director Joel Schumacher is almost competent! Also, as far as single settings go, a street corner in Midtown New York is a pretty ingenious location, since there are inevitably several stories going on in any given minute. One subplot involves a pack of cartoonish hookers:
This movie is no classic, but there may never be a line in cinema as perfectly specific and absurd as, "You done made me hurt my dick hand!"
How successful it is: You know, it's OK. The suspense builds for a while, but Stu's ultimate confession plays like it was written by a journalism teacher with an axe to grind (to his son, he says, "Don't be a publicist, you're too good for it," which is reminiscent of multiple college professors, who told me virtually the same thing). His emotional outpouring is corny and comes from a source so untrustworthy, the movie ends up devolving into melodrama when a real climax is needed (don't give me rubber fucking bullets and call them a climax!). But at least Katie Holmes, who plays one of Stu's actress clients, predicts what would come to be her real-life life path just a few years late: "We're doing this scene from Jerry Maguire and I'm playing Renée Zellweger's part." That foreshadowing is easily the eeriest thing about this movie.
Open Water (2003)
The setting: Open water, duh. Even though it takes up more space than the other settings described here, it turns out that the ocean is just as confining.
The predicament: A couple goes scuba diving with a group in the Great Barrier Reef, only to be left behind after their guide messes up the head count.
The threats: Drowning, dying of thirst and sharks.
How the film passes time: Complaints, complaints, complaints. Daniel and Susan are so fucking annoying that I wanted to jump through the screen and drown them before the sharks got to them. She's stung, she's seasick, she has to pee, something's tapping on her leg/eating her, he's got a leg cramp. And on and on and on.
How successful it is: This movie breaks the No. 1 rule of sharks, which is: only great whites are scary. Sorry, it's true. I know great whites are not the only man-eaters, and I write from the privilege of dry land, but until I find myself in the actual presence of a bull shark, I will continue to only fret over great whites. (The other night I had two separate dreams about them -- one involved shark-skin boots that someone else was wearing and that looked not like snakeskin boots, but more like Uggs. Fretting.) For this reason, last year's Australian Open Water rip-off The Reef is leagues scarier than its source material. Yes, stupid, unrealistic shit like this happens in it:
But I'll take that over this...
...any day. There's no contest!
Also, Open Water looks like shit. I know it was shot for so little, they traded in actual human feces as opposed to cash, but the non-water scenes are at The Room/Birdemic levels of terrible (without any of the hilarity) and there is a scene that involves multiple eels and acoustic-guitar noodling. We all deserve better than that, especially the eels.
The Ruins (2008)
The setting: Mayan ruins.
The predicament: A bunch of stupid white people stumble onto ruins that are infected with plant life that eats its live prey from the inside out. A group of villagers keep them on the ruins, aware that if the culturally insensitive idiots are to leave, they'll spread the killer plant's seed. Once you touch the ruins, there's no going back.
Also, the villagers have guns and arrows and they're not afraid to use them.
How the film passes time: It cheats by hosting multiple locations within its single setting: there's a shaft that's home to a whole world of plant life and a crazy girl corpse, there's a tent and then there's the open-air ruins. It might as well be a haunted house, really, for all the variety offered, but whatever. I love The Ruins and it comes close enough. So put that in your pipe and watch it wriggle through the mouthpiece and into your body.
How successful it is: As a single-setting film, eh... But as a film, period: very! I have already written about how much I love this modern, gruesome fairy tale. It remains as unique as it was when it came out three years ago. An underrated gem.
The setting: A ski lift in a New England resort.
The predicament: After scamming their way on a ski lift, a trio of college kids find themselves stuck in the sky when some administrative shuffling at the bottom of the mountain leaves them unaccounted for. The resort then closes...for the week!
The threats: Um, being frozen, maybe? Also wolves, Red Ridinghoodly enough! And finally, each other, as bickering gives way to guilt and grief.
How the film passes its time: Extremely well -- it tests out the hypotheses any horror-movie fan will develop and inevitably shout at the screen, and then knocks out their practicality, one-by-one. They're too high up to be noticed, or to make jumping a safe option. The cable holding them is too lacerating to attempt to scale (until it becomes the only way). The kids (including Shawn Ashmore who also prettied up The Ruins) talk and talk and talk, and their inane yammering about their current situation and how it applies to life and smoking and being called your last name in bed all feels really authentic. That the talky parts are just as good as the scary ones says a lot about director Adam Green's ability (he's easily the most exciting young horror director working today).
How successful it is: On first viewing, I was so involved! My breathing was visible! I yelled and squirmed and my heart raced. Frozen requires a bit of a suspension of disbelief (are wolves really that aggressive?). Furthermore, it doesn't always quite telegraph the terror it claims (are they really that high up...
...?), but it is a horror movie through and through, right down to the final girl who lives because she has to.
The setting: An elevator in a Philadelphia office building (which part of that setting is scarier?).
The predicament: A bunch of assholes get on an elevator, only to have it stop between floors and somehow manage to be inaccessible to a team of cops, security guards and managers, each with his thumb further up his ass than the last. The assholes then start dying but, I assure you, not quickly enough.
The threats: Dying mysteriously in one of several power outages. Having someone else dying mysteriously in one of several power outages, potentially leaving you the biggest asshole standing. The devil, I guess. Toast that falls jelly side down.
How the film passes the time: It cheats so hard at the single-setting format that it doesn't ultimately belong in the genre -- I'm including it among these movies as an example of ineptitude (and it certainly aspires to be part of this trend, having been released in 2010 along with four out of the seven movies described here). The film regularly cuts away from the assholes in the elevator to scenes of the security and cops attempting to get them out. The one cop is investing a Ponzi-scheme-related suicide (oooh, topical!) and still coping with the years-old hit-and-run of his wife and child, which is mentioned enough times to hit you over the head with the fact that it will have everything to do with this film's not-really-a-twist-at-all ending. Only the best from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan!
Alternately, here's how I passed the time:
By marveling at the fact that Logan Marshall-Green is not Tom Hardy. The most fascinating thing about this shit, by far.
How successful it is: It isn't. This movie is basically a moving Chick Tract, with the devil in the end sparing Marshall-Green's character because he asked forgiveness. I know that falls in line with a lot of dogma, but if Satan is that respectful of the act of forgiving, how bad of a guy could he be? I will say that I was delighted to see Jenny O'Hara play the devil -- loved her on the $25,000 Pyramid! Ultimately, the only cutaway that would save this movie is one that cut entirely away from it.
The setting: A coffin underground somewhere in Iraq.
The predicament: A U.S. truck driver named Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up to find that he's been buried alive. While the setting is integral to Buried, as it is to the rest of these movies, part of the fun here is discovering why and exactly where he's been buried.
The threats: Suffocation. An angry Iraqi who put him there and who knows way too much about Paul's family (they communicate through cell phone -- at last one works, and it's underground to boot!) Sand steadily pouring in. Bureaucracy -- as Conroy attempts to get help from his company/homeland, he meets wall after wall of communication, mostly due to certain procedures in place (his short fuse doesn't help matters). In the end, when he's informed that he's been terminated from his job because of a supposed affair he's been having, thus absolving his company of any responsibility regarding his rescue, the film emerges as a metaphor for the way the corporate structure buries its workers -- in rules, in paperwork and in life.
How the film passes its time: Ingeniously. This is the only truly single-setting film of the bunch. There's no intro leading up to the single setting, no cutaway and additional characters are portrayed as voices on the other end of Paul's line. Because the environment is so confined, Paul's attempts to retrieve things like the cell phone or a bag at the bottom of the box become points of tension in themselves. Also, director Rodrigo Cortés has little to work with in terms of space, but does everything he can with lighting (the scenes turn from green to blue to yellow to white, depending what's lighting at any given time). This movie's gorgeousness goes beyond Reynolds, even.
How successful is it: It's amazing. While you can't help but be aware of the claustrophobia in every second of this film, it doesn't feel nearly as minimal as it is. That's to say it works on several levels, many of them existing way above ground.