Playing on our fears of being trapped and alone, the single-location thriller updates old haunted house and home invasion stories to include new, more inventive locations, and it seems that filmmakers haven’t yet run out of ideas of how to scare the living daylights out of us. Some have played on modern fears of corporate meddling or reality television, while others have simply tried to expand their locations to icy prisons and public places.
To celebrate those great genre-bending efforts, here are a dozen and a half of our favorites from the last ten years (with a doff of the cap to Panic Button, a low budget Brit horror that just misses out)…
15. Devil (2010)
Shamelessly exploiting many people’s paralysing fear of elevators, Devil pitches the situation of five strangers trapped inside a elevator in a high-rise tower block. Scary enough, right? Well some malevolent force soon turns up to start messing with them, too. Is there a murderer amongst them? Or is it some sort of demonic presence? One of the few good things to come from M Night Shyamalan for a few years, the movie is a surprisingly solid and entertaining thriller that asks, ‘who can you trust?’ Sure, we’re watching stock characters speak contrivances at each other, but who said it had to be great art?
14. Vacancy (2007)
It always seems best, when creating a single-location horror, to keep your protagonist as much in the dark as possible. It certainly doesn’t help his or her mental state once the shenanigans kick off, but it sure is fun to watch for the audience. Getting increasingly confused and agitated in motel thriller Vacancy is Luke Wilson’s David Fox, who is compelled to check into a creepy road side motel with his wife after their car breaks down. They soon find hidden cameras in their room, and are forced to take part in a sadistic horror movie of their own.
13. Frozen (2010)
“It does for skiing what Jaws did for swimming” announces the trailer for Frozen, a low budget thriller set on a set of treacherous slopes. Stuck on a broken down ski elevator for over a week, three friends must figure a way down to safety before they either freeze to death, starve to death, or both. With chancing the sheer drop seemingly the best option, the movie remembers to add hungry wolves down below, and it’s a case of choosing the lesser evil before they meet their maker anyway. Frozen is a bit of a forgotten gem, and ends up being quite grisly, as well as truly terrifying.
12. Identity (2003)
You’ll have come to realise from reading this list, if not before, that motels are a great breeding ground for fear, tension and claustrophobic horror. Identity might just be the best example of motel-based horror in recent memory, following a seemingly disparate group of people driven to the hotel by a freak rain storm. As they start to bite the dust one by one, we come to realise that they might not be as disconnected as they first thought. It’s one of those thrillers that revels in its twist ending for a little too long, but whether you’re on board with it or not, it never diminishes the fun.
11. Exam (2009)
Part of the relatively new corporate horror subgenre, British movie Exam smartly plays on our fear of job interviews and formal business settings. Appealing to people who watch The Apprentice and its various off-shoots, the movie brings together a group of eager job applicants and puts them in a room together. Asked to answer a cryptic puzzle within 80 minutes, they are forbidden from leaving the room. The movie’s tension and sense of dread builds to a crisis point, and Exam is a fascinating insight into those dangerously ambitious minds we’re so fascinated by in current times.
10. Right At Your Door (2006)
Slightly different from some of the more elaborate films on this list, Right At Your Door poses a ‘what would you do?’ question when Los Angeles is devastated by a dirty bomb explosion. Told to stay home and seal themselves off from outside air, Brad’s wife begins knocking on their door. Does he let her in and risk being exposed? Or does he keep her out, watching the consequences of those actions unfold on his own doorstep? The panic on both sides of the glass escalates, and we’re asked to ponder what we’d do if the unenviable situation were our own.
9. The Killing Room (2009)
Working with the same ideas as Exam, The Killing Room flips it on its head by putting a group of homeless people in a room and testing their resolve. With corporate meddling behind the scenes, the movie turns into an intense psychological study of human nature and the ways we react when our survival depends on answering various questions. Elsewhere, a woman conducting the experiment starts to question their methods, and things unravel, fast.
8. Splinter (2008)
After motels and haunted houses, gas stations are probably the most popular venues for the subgenre. Such is the case in Splinter, which sees a young couple led there by ruthless carjackers. Soon they’re trapped by some kind of infection, and people start being invaded by the mysterious entity one by one. The trouble is that there’s no way of telling who’s infected and who isn’t from the outside, and the group already have some unresolved trust issues. The movie has a sense of fun that lifts it past other genre fare, but is also smart enough to scare us silly in the process.
7. The Mist (2007)
Of all the films to come out of Frank Darabont’s love affair with Stephen King’s work, The Mist must be the most unloved and unwatched of all. It’s a travesty really, as the movie is a brilliant find for those who’ve gone and done some digging. In it, we focus on a gang of small-town residents who become trapped in their local grocery store when an alien-infested mist appears. Combining all the best parts of a Lord Of The Flies-style character study with a classic monster movie, it evolves into a tense and incisive two hour thrill ride with a famously down-beat ending.
6. Red Eye (2005)
You’re never more trapped than when you’re thousands of feet in the air, and Red Eye uses this truth to engage our claustrophobia and common fear of flying. In the movie, as Rachel McAdams’ character flirts with Cillian Murphy at the airport, she has no idea he is actually involved in an elaborate murder plot. Kidnapped during the flight, her captor threatens to murder her father, and she’s soon deeply involved in his plans to assassinate a prominent politician. It’s more of a thriller than a horror, but uses its talented leads to great, creepy, effect.
5. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Paranormal Activity made a huge impact when it was released and it says a lot about its originality that the franchise is still going strong four films in. The first instalment bought its power with the famous static bedroom shot, used intermittently in an otherwise still housebound horror. As we watched the central couple sleep, searching each nook and cranny of their bedroom and hallway, the audience was tricked more than once into scaring themselves. The sequels may never have lived up to the novelty factor of this first movie, but we shouldn’t take the series’ simple horrors for granted.
4. Triangle (2009)
There’s lots of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff going on in mind-messing horror Triangle, in which a group of stranded sailors find themselves reliving a pattern of torment and violence over and over again. Realising they must break the pattern in order to survive their ordeal, they must stop themselves from crossing paths with other timelines throughout the movie. Complicated? Yes. But it’s worth every minute when a modern thriller comes out as slick and entertaining as Triangle.
3. Pontypool (2008)
Zombie invasion movies are usually very ‘big’ films, preoccupied with violence, gore and impending doom. Pontypool, however, takes the opposite tack, and shows us the ascension of a full-scale zombie apocalypse from the confines of a Canadian radio station. As low of a budget as you can get, the movie uses such limitations to its ultimate advantage, with calls coming in from the outside and an impending realisation from within escalating the fear and panic for the audience right along with the characters trapped there.
2. Buried (2010)
The most strictly single-location movie on the list, Buried is a masterclass in how to keep an audience’s attention whilst never actually going anywhere. Ryan Reynolds plays the unfortunate victim of a terrorist ransom plot, and he must survive in his makeshift coffin while negotiating his own search and rescue effort. Through a series of increasingly frantic phone calls, grisly demands, and in-coffin complications, Paul Conroy never loses our devoted attention and sympathy. It’s another one that proves how difficult it is to end with a rosy resolution, but this movie deserves all the plaudits for the terror and panic it incites from within one wooden box.
1. REC (2007)
Including its US remake, Quarantine, which – let’s face it – ended up a shot-for-shot rehash anyway, REC is one of the most frightening zombie films, single-location thrillers, and found-footage horrors of all time. The masterstroke of the movie is that things are revealed to us at the same time as Angela, and the real time structure allows the terror to be amped up gradually, exploding spectacularly at the end. Of course, this tactic also means that we get minimal answers as to what was going on in the apartment block, leaving it cut short with many questions left unanswered.