tight spaces

Buried and the Eleven Most Claustrophobic Movies Ever

With today’s release of the Ryan Reynolds–in-a-coffin thriller Buried, last week’s strangers-stuck-in-an-elevator thriller Devil, and the upcoming James Franco–pinned-by-a-boulder thriller 127 Hours next month, it’s turning out to be a tough time for claustrophobic moviegoers … but a great time for those who love claustrophobic movies. Confining your film to a single space certainly has its advantages: a lower budget, obviously, but also an instantly suspenseful premise. (Seriously, Ryan Reynolds in a coffin: That doesn’t seem too hard to screw up.) Plus, anytime you set up a situation like this, you have some automatic elements to play with: For example, whatever amenities or supplies the characters might happen to have on them suddenly become of paramount importance. So, we’ve looked over film history and chronologically sized up eleven of the most claustrophobic movies ever made. What did we miss? Let us know.

Confined space: A lifeboat, after the sinking of a ship during WWII. Amenities: A small amount of rations. Contraband fresh water. Tallulah Bankhead Dangerous companion(s): A Nazi captain. Tallulah Bankhead. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of limiting action to confined spaces (see also: Rear Window, Rope, Dial M for Murder, The Lady Vanishes, etc.), and this was perhaps his most audacious attempt to show how characters who are stuck together and unable to leave break under pressure. Not just a thriller, but also something of a treatise on man’s inhumanity to man (John Steinbeck was involved in the writing), this wartime drama’s got everything: starvation, thirst, claustrophobia, paranoia, bigotry, and pure existential despair.
Confined space: A German U-boat during WWII. Amenities: Torpedoes. An Enigma Code machine. Alcohol. Dangerous companion(s): The Royal Navy. Allies planes. Exploding bolts. Water leakage. Just imagine what this thing must have smelled like. Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 masterpiece, about a crew of very sweaty and very tightly wound German sailors stuck on a submarine beset on all sides by Allied fire, is an engineer’s nightmare, giving the viewer a harrowing, blow-by-blow account of what actually happens to a wounded ship that’s flirting with being crushed by the sea. We’re pretty sure this is one of James Cameron’s favorite films, by the way: He borrowed liberally from it for both The Abyss and Titanic.
Confined space: The Holland Tunnel. Amenities: Glow stick. Sylvester Stallone’s rippling muscles. Dangerous companions: Toxic waste. Flooding water. Criminals. This Stallone vehicle is a disaster movie first and a claustrophobic thriller second. While we can’t argue that it’s a particularly great film, it does terrify the living crap out of us, since the Holland Tunnel (referred to in the film as “the tunnel to New jersey”) is a very, very scary place on a good day, let alone on a day when it’s being consumed by a toxic-chemical fueled fire.
Confined space: A Cube, which in turn leads to more Cubes, some of them booby-trapped. Amenities: Clothes and boots. Dangerous companion(s): Acid. Metal grates. Increasingly paranoid strangers. An autistic savant. Something of a cult item, this oblique, pseudo-allegorical Canadian sci-fi thriller never really explains the whole “Cube,” concept, which is both inspired and maddening. It certainly adds to the weird, surreal nature of the story, which is about a bunch of strangers who try to make it out of the Cube before they completely turn on each other. But this uncertainty also undercuts the characters’ constant wondering about what they’re doing inside the Cube. Or maybe that’s the point. Or something.
Confined space: A Phone booth. Amenities: A landline phone. A gun. Dangerous companion(s): Threatening sniper on other end of phone. Truth be told, this 2003 thriller — starring Colin Farrell as a philandering publicist who is trapped in a phone booth with a sniper on the other end of the line — might be claustrophobic in conception, but winds up less so in execution, thanks to famously maximalist director Joel Schumacher’s total inability to control himself stylistically. Still, the tension helps, thanks not only to Farrell’s desperate performance but to the oily and sinister voice of Kiefer Sutherland as the sniper threatening to take him out if he hangs up.
Confined space: The middle of the sea. Amenities: Weight belt. Wet suits. Underwater camera. Dangerous companions: Sharks. An annoying spouse. This 2004 hit about a bickering couple left behind by their scuba-diving tour, alone in the open sea waiting to starve and get pecked at by fish, is yet another good example of the way claustrophobia need not be confined to tight spaces in the thriller genre. But perhaps even more scarring than the sharks waiting to gobble up our heroes is their constant, profoundly annoying bickering — making this perhaps the one shark-attack movie where you find yourself rooting for the shark.
Confined space: A mazelike underground cave. Amenities: Lots of caving equipment. Dangerous companion(s): A race of inbred, mutant, cannibalistic humanoids. Also, your double-crossing, bitchy friend who tried to destroy your marriage. Neil Marshall’s spelunking-chicks-chased-by-cave-monsters horror movie might not be the smallest confined space on this list, but it takes terrific advantage of the tight, dark corners of its locale. Indeed, some were actually disappointed when the film introduced the crazed race of cave zombies and turned toward a more standard horror-movie plot, since it was doing perfectly fine playing up the knuckle-biting claustrophobia up until that point.
Confined space: Quarantined apartment building. Amenities: A news camera with infrared vision. Dangerous companion(s): Demonically possessed apartment dwellers. An apartment building in and of itself, even one that’s full of residents who’ve been consumed by a strange, demoniac illness, wouldn’t necessarily be so claustrophobic, but this Spanish thriller and its virtual shot-for-shot American remake (the latter of which was directed by John Erick Dowdle, who went on to direct Devil) takes things to a whole other level by giving us the whole sordid affair through the lens of a news camera, much of it in the dark, compounding the sense of tightly wound calamity.
Confined space: A ski lift. Amenities: Jackets and gloves. Dangerous companion(s): Coyotes. Frostbite. In the broader genre of movies about annoying people trapped in ironically terrifying and somewhat implausible circumstances, Frozen is actually quite effective, even if our ill-fated skiers never think to zip up their jackets all the way. But what makes this one work is the way it builds up the tension through small details — initially, it seems like surviving this ordeal wouldn’t be all that hard. But then the plot slowly tightens around the characters until they realize just how unbelievably screwed they are.
Confined space: An elevator Amenities: Intercom to building security. Dangerous companion(s): The Devil. It’s a big month for claustrophobic thrillers, but this film is actually something of a dodge: While it takes advantage of some of the potential horrors of being trapped in a closed space, it’s more about counting down the victims until we can find out which of them might in fact be Satan. (Though it’s not exactly that straightforward; there is a bit of a not entirely unexpected twist at the end.)
Confined space: A coffin. Amenities: BlackBerry. Zippo lighter. Knife. Alcohol. Dangerous companion(s): A snake. Whatever its flaws, Rodrigo Cortes’s thriller probably achieves a new pinnacle in claustrophobic filmmaking — primarily by refusing to leave the box in which Ryan Reynolds’s U.S. contractor finds himself buried, in Iraq. Of course, one also has to suspend some serious disbelief, since repeatedly lighting that Zippo would probably have sucked a great deal of oxygen really quickly.
Buried and the Eleven Most Claustrophobic Movies Ever