The Best Movie Ever: Claustrophobia
Movies – like pretty much every art form – exists to make you feel. And although we tend to use motion pictures to make you experience love, excitement and pleasure, sometimes filmmakers like to creep you out. They like to get under your skin. They like to exploit your anxieties for high drama and outright horror. Movies can play off your phobias and even give you new ones. And one of the most unsettling phobias the movies sometimes like to trot out is claustrophobia, the fear of confined spaces.
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With the new movie As Above, So Below going for claustrophobic thrills this weekend, we decided now would be a good time to decide, once and for all, which film was The Best Claustrophobic Movie Ever. We asked our four film critics William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo to each present their own learned selections, and then we’re handing the final voting duties off to you, the readers, with our handy-dandy poll at the bottom of the page.
So what’s The Best Claustrophobic Movie Ever? Let’s find out what the critics had to say…
Sweat. Hot breath on your face and sweat. Dirt mixed with sweat. For me, a movie about claustrophobia should possess an oppressive, hot quality. It’s more than just being in one setting (Rear Window and Rope don’t count), and it’s more than being held prisoner (The Great Escape only has a few claustrophobic scenes). The nearness of the walls has to make me uncomfortable. And it certainly helps matters if it makes me sweat. Not just out of nerves, but as a psychosomatic response to the muggy, thick air in the tiny, tiny room.
Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic 12 Angry Men makes me sweat. I think it would make anyone sweat. Just looking at the twelve titular jurors in their stuffy, heavy-looking 1950s suits, underneath fans that don’t work, some of them wearing fistfuls of heavy pomade in their hair… that would make anyone perspire. 12 Angry Men, however, is more than just an analysis of claustrophobia. It’s an energetic and accessible treatise on the way our legal system works. The twelve central characters spend the film arguing over the fate of a young man who is potentially going to be executed for a murder he may or may not have committed. In order to suss out what is a fair verdict for this man – to properly enact justice – twelve strangers must essentially lock themselves into a room until they figure out what’s what. They don’t have weeks to mull it over. They can’t ask advice from others. They have to figure it out for themselves. The sequestering of the jury is essentially using claustrophobia to force people to think their clearest and come up with their best solutions under immediate scrutiny. To squeeze you until you focus.
So the film is not just claustrophobic. In many ways, it’s about claustrophobia. It’s the best claustrophobia movie. It also helps, of course, that 12 Angry Men is an indomitable American classic.
There are so many fantastic films that could make a case for best claustrophobic film ever: Alien, Repulsion, Nobody Knows, even Dr. Strangelove (where being confined to an underground war room makes the military leaders learn “to stop worrying and love the bomb”) and so many more. I’m going to go with Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Buñuel not only confines his characters to a mansion, but was also free of confinements — for the first time — as a filmmaker.
Buñuel was a Spanish filmmaker who left under the rule of the Spanish-Franco regime and lived and worked in exile in Mexico for 14 years. Many of his Mexican films were for-hire melodramas with straightforward narratives (which isn’t a knock, Buñuel made some of the best 50s melodramas that are a bit of an afterthought in his filmography that consists of later French avant garde dreamscapes, but The Brute, El and The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz are fantastic). Exterminating Angel was his only Mexican film where he had complete control over the story. So of course there is no exact story, just a situation. After viewing a play, a large group of bourgeoisie attend a dinner party at a private residence, and for some inexplicable reason they cannot leave. The servants can and only one stays behind.
The bourgeoisie retreat to closets to gossip or fornicate and when sheep enter the house, they slaughter them. That the confinement is never explained is an absolute political masterstroke by an ex-patriot living in exile. Individuals just accept how things on a larger scale: corrupt politics, corrupt economic systems (here, society as a mansion) because the guests/the servant feel a lack individual willpower in those larger systems. They view their individual willpower in terms of who they choose to pair off with into closets and whether or not they slaughter an animal. They just heard that everyone was trapped, and resigned themselves to the situation without checking for themselves. And that is the most common confinement.
It’s always fun to think: How could you do a whole movie in the most confined space possible? Quite often it works rather well. A whole movie in a phone booth, a whole movie on a bus (or at least the whole second act on a bus), a whole movie in a coffin or a hole movie in a panic room. I would even recommend Freezer as a lowbrow B-movie set entirely in a freezer that works as a simple premise. But, for my ultimate pick I was torn between two wildly different approaches to confined spaces: Die Hard and Saw. I ultimately picked Die Hard because Saw uses flashbacks to get out of the bathroom, but Saw is a brilliant mystery that uses many confinement scenarios effectively.
There’s a reason Die Hard became the template for confined movies, the “Die Hard in a…” wave that proliferated through the ‘90s and I kinda wish would come back. It happens to be one of the greatest movies ever made regardless of genre (it’s in my top three personally), but it uses the building so expertly, it continues to endure. When I first saw Die Hard, I just thought it was cool to see a cop run around a building killing terrorists. The more I learned about production design and mise en scene, with the help of some astute critical analysis of Die Hard over the years, I became aware how carefully designed Nakatomi Tower was so that the viewer always knew what floor John McClane (Bruce Willis) was on.
There are objectives to the building, certain floors McClane needs to get to to get certain things, different battlegrounds for terrorist fights, and a certain glass filled cubicle that creates one of his most emotional moments. When he’s in the air vents, you still know where he is and where he’s going. To this day, you can turn on Die Hard at any point in the film and know where you are in Nakatomi Tower. True, it helps if you’ve seen it 20-some times, but director John McTiernan and screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza maximized a simple space the way I always hope a single setting film will.
Claustrophobic movies don’t have to be high art. They don’t even have to tell great stories. If the whole purpose is to make the audience feel like they’re trapped in a confined space and want to get out, but the walls are closing in tighter and tighter until escape feels impossible and you just want to SCREAM… then what more do you need? Thoughtful themes? Fully developed characters? Bah! Everything else is secondary when your goal is that straightforward.
So although there are better films that take advantage of confined spaces for lofty drama (12 Angry Men), high art (Replusion), blockbuster thrills (Apollo 13) and spooky chills (Alien), I am forced to instead pick a simple, blunt horror thriller that creeps me the hell out every time I watch it. Neil Marshall’s The Descent is a deep movie only in the sense that its heroines venture deep into the fissures of the Earth; the actual story is paper thin, the characters may be well performed but they’re not very complicated, and honestly, the whole thing is just fucking goofy if you think about it too hard.
In The Descent, a group of female spelunkers travel to a remote cavern in the middle of nowhere and get trapped inside, with no way of knowing whether the next tunnel will lead them back to daylight or further into dark, cramped caves that threaten to kill them all. There’s a subplot about how one of the heroines is a recent widow, and one of the others may have a secret that could destroy their bond with the others, but the real story here is the unsettling and outright nerve-jangling descent, if you will, that they have no choice but to take, even though there’s no guarantee it’s even the right path to survival. And yes, there are some monsters in the third act, but that’s neither here nor there: throughout the film Marshall crams his cast into tiny crevasses and surrounds them with pitch black shadows and no amount of cheesy writing can distract from the effect: sheer, overpowering claustrophobia. It’s the best claustrophobic movie ever. Wouldn’t you agree?