What is a siege movie? It’s basically any film in which a small group of people are trapped in some sort of enclosed or constricted setting, with someone(s) or something(s) outside that space threatening their lives and safety in the most aggressive manner possible. Quite often as well, there is someone or something inside the space that may also jeopardize the people inside, whether they know it or not. The newly released 10 Cloverfield Lane fits this bill quite nicely.
The thing about siege movies is that they exist within many different genres — action, horror, sci-fi, war, Western, etc. — and work effectively within each at creating dread, suspense, terror and excitement. There’s an undeniable, visceral thrill in watching a movie and waiting to see who emerges in the morning light, battered yet alive…and sometimes who doesn’t. Here’s a dozen of the scariest cinematic sieges we’ve encountered — and managed to make it through intact.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero’s horror classic is a model siege film: seven people seek shelter in an abandoned farmhouse as the dead begin to inexplicably rise from their graves and feast on the flesh of the living. The movie’s first act assembles everyone in the house, establishes the menace and the goal (stay alive) and proceeds to undermine that goal in every way possible by turning the occupants against each other through various petty and stupid actions.
By the movie’s finale, nearly everyone is dead and the last person standing — a black man, also subverting genre tropes — is killed not by the ghouls but by the authorities in what set a new standard for bleak horror movie endings.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
John Carpenter’s first fully professional movie (after his expanded student film, Dark Star) remains not just one of his best but an acknowledged classic of ‘70s exploitation cinema. Inspired in equal parts by Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter’s lean script pitted a ragtag collection of cops and criminals against an army of marauding gang members, with a soon-to-be-closed police station in a gritty part of Los Angeles serving as the battleground and no one trusting anyone else.
Working with a low budget, the resourceful Carpenter gets the most out of his cast and setting (aided by his own terrific score) and creates a surreal, hyper-violent excursion into urban warfare that you’re not likely to forget (warning: beware the controversial ice cream truck scene). A 2005 remake was decent if unmemorable.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George A. Romero returned to his zombies a decade later for a sequel that upped the scale, budget and gore but retained the same basic template: a group of survivors hole up in a single location, this time a shopping mall, and struggle to stave off both the undead monsters that unceasingly assault the mall and the living ones — in this case a massive motorcycle gang — running wild as society sinks into complete chaos and anarchy. The mall setting is a brilliant master stroke, adding a layer of social satire and commentary on top of what could have been just another horror movie, while Romero keeps the action and blood flowing at a fast, relentless pace.
Arguably the first modern horror epic.
James Cameron upped the stakes for his superb sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror/sci-fi classic, putting Sigourney Weaver and a team of space Marines at the mercy of not just one xenomorph, but an entire horde of them, and setting the whole thing within the confines of a labyrinthine base on the distant, bleak world of the original film.
Cameron’s movie is a masterful exercise in escalating tension as he winnows the crew down from 17 (plus one little girl) to a mere handful, backing them slowly into a smaller and smaller area until they are literally nose to nose with the monsters. The xenomorphs are not just the ultimate killing machines but a perfect siege engine: they just keep coming and coming, unwavering, unstoppable and unreasoning — but deadly and intelligent.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
John Carpenter was such a huge fan of the siege scenario that he used it more than once. The Fog and The Thing both contain aspects of it, but he explicitly used the template to frightening effect in this low-budget and often underrated chiller. Carpenter plays with big ideas here — the nature of evil, the origin of Satan, quantum physics, time travel — but keeps the suspense building at a steady rate as the scientists and students studying a mysterious object locked in an abandoned church soon begin to realize that forces outside and inside the church are converging to destroy them.
It soon becomes a matter of time before all of them are either killed outright or changed into instruments of evil. There’s no escape in Carpenter’s surreal, out-of-time-and-space setting.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Only in the minds of writer Quentin Tarantino and director Robert Rodriguez could a crime caper turn into a splattery horror exercise in which the criminals and a bunch of other characters played by people like Cheech Marin and Harvey Keitel come under attack from a tribe of vampires at a remote strip joint known as the Titty Twister.
George Clooney and Tarantino himself are the none-too-bright bank robbers who stumble into the club while on the run from the FBI and soon find themselves in the midst of a war with said bloodsuckers. Funny, ultra-violent and overly stylized, this is a siege movie that only Tarantino and Rodriguez could make.
The Mist (2007)
This pitch-black, uncompromising adaptation of Stephen King’s classic 1980 novella finds Thomas Jane, Laurie Holden and Toby Jones trying to keep order and sanity among a group of survivors in a supermarket when a mysterious mist covers the land and brings with it all kinds of nightmarish monsters. Meanwhile, a faction forms in the supermarket led by a religious fanatic (Marcia Gay Harden) who sees the mist as God’s punishment and a human sacrifice as the only solution.
Writer/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) described his film as “Lord of the Flies that happens to have some cool monsters in it,” and the tension between the monsters outside and ones inside make the movie especially intense, leading to one of the bleakest endings ever committed to celluloid.
30 Days of Night (2007)
Based on Steve Niles’ popular comic book series, 30 Days of Night starts with a terrific premise: what if a gang of vampires could find a place where it’s nighttime for weeks at a stretch – such as the tiny burg of Barrow, Alaska, where the residents are preparing for a month-long polar night. Their usual preparations, however, turn into a desperate battle to stay alive for 30 days as the pack of vicious, feral vampires led by Marlow (Danny Huston) overrun the town and aim to slaughter everyone they can find.
Brutally violent and featuring some of the nastiest vampires of recent vintage – no Twilight-style fashion plates or hotties here – 30 Days of Night is tense, often horrific and probably better than you remember.
The Strangers (2008)
Director Bryan Bertino made one of the most disturbing horror movies of the last decade with this small yet genuinely unnerving chiller, in which a young couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) are mercilessly attacked in their home by three masked assailants. What makes The Strangers so incredibly effective – aside from Bertino’s excellent use of sound, editing and the spaces in the house – is the fact that we never, ever get to find out why this is happening, who the strangers are, and why the couple were chosen (“Because you were home,” one of the intruders says when asked that same question).
Everything is scarier when it’s inexplicable – including this prototype home invasion film.
You’re Next (2011)
What begins as if it’s going to be a rather formulaic if still intense home invasion thriller with many similar aspects to The Strangers (masked intruders, etc.) abruptly turns itself into a family dysfunction drama on steroids, all while keeping the pacing, suspense and dread of the siege itself front and center.
Director Adam Wingard deploys a bunch of actors from the mumblecore world, a couple of horror vets (Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden) and the delicious little twists of Simon Barrett’s script to fashion not just a neat little siege film but a prickly black comedy as well in which everyone turns against each other at one point or another.
The Purge (2013)
It will always remind me of the old classic Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons,” but I found myself enjoying this mix of dystopian sci-fi and home invasion horror all the same. One night out of the year in a future, despotic America, all criminal activity is permitted and all legal protection suspended. A security systems salesman (Ethan Hawke) and his family prepare to hunker down for the evening’s “festivities” – until his son lets someone in from the outside who may or may not be a home invader.
Meanwhile, other depraved attackers gather outside. The Purge doesn’t really land its thematic concerns very well, but works quite effectively as a super-violent and bleak B-movie apocalypse.
Attack the Block (2011)
Remember how we mentioned that the siege movie often lives inside another genre film, whether it’s sci-fi, Western or something else? Here the siege is part of a brilliantly conceived indie that’s part sci-fi, action, thriller and sociopolitical melodrama. A residential tower block in a tough part of South London falls prey to an alien invasion, forcing the gang members, families and others inside to either unite and fight back or die alone and isolated from the outside world.
The aliens in first-time director Joe Cornish’s searing debut are original enough – black with razor teeth and needle-like fur – but the real star of this intense, funny and powerful film is John Boyega, giving his all as a gang leader turned hero and showing why he was perfect to bring on board the Star Wars franchise.