Isolation is at the base of nearly every horror film ever made. Even when it is not explicit within the story or the source of the horror itself, isolation is one of the key elements that creates the suspense and dread necessary for a film to be considered horror.
No one is scared of the slasher that might be walking amongst them on the bustling streets of New York City; the slasher only becomes frightening when the victim is alone, in the dark or someplace where screams can’t be heard, and the slasher can do his work in privacy without being interrupted. The idea that there is safety in numbers is a cliché for a reason. Though our ancient ancestors were often solitary beings that would fight amongst each other for the scarce resources, it was when humanity started building communities and protecting themselves as a group that we began to flourish as a species.
This is why the single location horror film is so effective for audiences that love true horror. A single character or small group of characters that find themselves trapped in a place, be it a broken elevator, a car, or a farmhouse in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, is a perfectly relatable circumstance to all of humanity. Though books, television, and movies can widen the scope of human knowledge, the human experience happens viscerally in a single perspective. The world may be getting overrun by monsters, but the only experience you have with it is the one happening right at your door. To make a stronger real-world analogy, the horrifying events of September 11th, 2001, may have a national consciousness, but everyone who lived through has a very specific memory of where they were and what they were doing when they heard about it.
Horror is personal. When the entire world is ready to explode and kill humanity forever, that is not a horror film; that is a disaster film. Horror is what happens to individuals.
The history of the single location horror film actually predates the medium of film itself. Many early films were based on popular stage plays of the time, translated to the screen for wider recognition (and because, in the heyday of filmmaking in the early 20th century, movie writers couldn’t churn out scripts fast enough for the movie machine), and some of these stage plays contained in them the seeds for what would become the elements of horror: old dark houses, mysterious murders, characters with dubious motivations. A stage play, by its nature, works best when a single location can be constructed on the stage and used throughout the performance, and many of those stories embraced the “chamber room” storytelling style.
It’s a fun coincidence that making a film in a single location is always cheaper to produce and therefore more appealing to the financier, which has kept the sub-genre alive and doing well for the entire history of the filmic medium. Here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre.
Director Alfred Hitchcock loved a challenge, whether it was murdering his leading lady before the halfway mark in “Psycho”, setting an entire film on a life boat in “Lifeboat”, or making a monster out of innocuous creatures like “The Birds”. But perhaps his biggest challenge was to turn “Rope”, a stage play about a murderous gay couple hosting a dinner party, into a single location thriller film shot in ten uninterrupted ten-minute takes.
Burdened with the name M. Night Shyamalan upon its release (though he only came up with the concept), “Quarantine” director John Erick Dowdle and “Hard Candy” writer Brian Nelson worked from an outline from Shyamalan to create this claustrophobic combination of single location horror and supernatural battle with the devil. With a good cast boasting “The Mindy Project” co-star Chris Messina, “Hannibal” actress Caroline Dhavernas, and a pre-“Prometheus” Logan Marshall-Green, and some interesting imagery, this film was better than its namesake would have you believe.
A challenge more difficult than making a suspenseful film that takes place almost entirely in a single room might be making a suspense-thriller in which math seems exciting, and “Fermat’s Room” achieved them both. The premise, about four mathematicians invited to solve a major math mystery, only to find themselves trapped in a shrinking room with only their knowledge to save them, is just the tip of the iceberg in this very crafty Spanish-language film from director Luis Piedrahita.
Before director Vincenzo Natali was so effectively creeping people out with his Oedipal genetic Frankenstein story “Splice”, he started his directing career with this truly dark and bizarre film about seven strangers who wake in a massive machine made out of cubes of varying colors that contain all manner of horrible traps. A clear influence on “Saw” as much as it was a loving homage to classics like “Ten Little Indians”, it wears its horror as proudly on its sleeve as it does its dark science-fiction.