If just the thought of being trapped in a confined space leaves you gasping for breath, then these 15 anxiety-ridden movies should be avoided at all costs. In fact, even those who have no qualms about going spelunking in the Appalachian Mountains, working in a 121-year-old copper-gold mine, or playing punk rock at a remote roadhouse may well feel the walls closing in after watching these masterclasses in claustrophobic cinema.
Focusing solely on films which largely take place within one setting – which is why you won’t find the likes of the first Kill Bill or the original Vanishing Point on here – our countdown isn’t the all-out horror-fest that you might expect. Indeed, in amongst all the creature critters, deranged criminals and demonic spirits, there’s a speedy action thriller, an existential sci-fi and even a couple of life-affirming biopics which all ratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels.
Here are 12 Movies That Will Make You Feel Claustrophobic.
So it’s fair to say that Ryan Reynolds earned every cent of however much he was paid for playing Paul Conroy in this incredibly nerve-shredding thriller inspired by the Hitchcock classic, Rope. The star was forced to endure 16 days crouched in a wooden box in a Barcelona studio while starring as an Iraq-based American civilian truck driver buried alive in a coffin with only a lighter and a Blackberry for company.
But there’s more to Buried than just its arduous shooting conditions. Giving his usual wisecracking persona a rest, Reynolds is a revelation as a man who must confront his own mortality in the most horrific of circumstances. Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés’ inspired camera angles, lighting and sound recordings ensures that the sight of essentially watching a man in a box for 95 minutes is never boring, and by the time the screen goes black, you will feel as though you'll need to come up for air too.
11 The 33
As with Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, the fact that everyone witnessed the real-life disaster of The 33 unfold on television just a few years prior practically rendered the film redundant. But although it’s hard to argue for the necessity of Patricia Riggen’s English-language take on Chile’s most famous survival story, it still makes for an intense and claustrophobic watch.
Of course, we all know that the 33 Chileans who found themselves trapped in the San Jose Mine for over two months back in 2010 made it out alive. But while the film's drama above ground descends into clichéd melodrama, the action below manages to paint a far more convincing, and for some, an all-too realistic picture of life at 2300 feet underground. Indeed, the cast and crew filmed these scenes in a real (and, according to star Antonio Banderas, heavily toxic) mine in Colombia over a six-week period in order to achieve maximum authenticity.
10 The Descent
And so now for an altogether more fantastical (and inarguably more frightening) cinematic experience set deep underground. Neil Marshall’s acclaimed 2005 horror might not have been filmed in the real Appalachian Mountains – in fact, most of the shoot took place at sets specially built at Pinewood Studios near London – but its nightmarish imagery still manage to deter a whole generation from the outdoor activity known as spelunking for life.
Trapped in an unfamiliar cave system after a passage collapses behind them, the film’s six female explorers must not only battle their unforgiving and harsh natural surroundings to escape with their lives, they also have to deal with an army of extremely unnatural, slithering and flesh-eating humanoid creatures. Filmed on a budget of just $3.5 million, The Descent may have been cheap to produce, but it didn’t look cheap, nor did it rely on cheap shock tactics to scare its viewers.
9 The Cave
Released in the States twelve months earlier, The Cave may have beaten The Descent to the underground monster punch, but it lacked the psychological chills, gripping tension and competent performances that made Neil Marshall’s flick such a cut above the rest. Nevertheless, Bruce Hunt’s fairly unremarkable film still contains plenty of moments to make the more claustrophobic viewer break out in a cold sweat.
Investigating a newly-discovered 13th Century abbey deep beneath the surface of a Romanian forest, The Cave’s intrepid underwater team – mostly the kind of cardboard cut-out characters you would find in any generic B-movie – soon find out they have some terrifying winged creatures for company. The monsters in question, who are much more Alien-esque than The Descent's, are nothing you haven’t seen before. But when plunged into darkness, the majestic scenery – all imposing stalagmites and labyrinthine corridors – is a far more inspiring and intimidating sight.
It’s one of those enclosed spaces that even non-claustrophobes can often get anxious about, and producer M. Night Shyamalan undoubtedly elevated the fear of getting in one with this supernatural horror. A semi return-to-form following the critically-mauled Lady in the Water and preposterous The Happening, Devil thankfully avoided the unnecessary narrative twists that Shyamalan’s films had become renowned for, and instead focused solely on telling a short but effective locked-in-the-box tale.
This 2010 box-office hit traps five strangers – all of whom have a rather shifty back story – in an office building elevator, an experience which then becomes deadly when good old Lucifer himself starts bumping them off one by one. Sure, it’s a hokey premise, but by preying on the lift breakdown fear which pretty much anyone who's ever been in one has had, it’s also one which inspired a significant section of the office-working population to start taking the stairs.
7 Phone Booth
A claustrophobic film doesn’t necessarily have to take place in the darkened indoors at night to be effective. Director Joel Schumacher’s taut and tense 2002 thriller is set almost entirely in a very public outdoor phone box in the broad daylight of New York, and yet still manages to get the heart racing quicker than you can say "connect call."
The film which cemented Colin Farrell as a bona fide leading man, Phone Booth sees the Irish star play an arrogant and adulterous PR executive whose past indiscretions come back to bite him in the deadliest of ways. You can almost touch the beads of sweat that drip from Farrell’s face as his character is slowly tortured by Kiefer Sutherland’s unseen but resolutely creepy sniper over the course of 81 entertainingly fraught minutes. But if anything, Phone Booth ensured that no-one would ever stop and answer a ringing payphone ever again.
6 127 Hours
Sticking with the outdoors, the majority of 127 Hours is set in the Blue John Canyon in Southeastern Utah. And to be more specific, in a highly isolated slot canyon where no-one is around to hear you scream — something which the real-life Aron Ralston knows all too well after a boulder trapped him there for five days back in 2003. Based on the true story of the intrepid canyoneer, Danny Boyle’s adventure-gone-wrong picture explores this hellish scenario to visceral effect.
Indeed, James Franco, who was rightfully Oscar nominated for his performance, has never been better as the man forced to contemplate his life choices before performing the kind of self-surgery that would make even the most bloodthirsty of viewers a little bit squeamish. While released in-between the colorful and expansive Slumdog Millionaire, and the ambitious London Olympics opening ceremony, it also proved that Boyle didn’t always need a huge spectacle to produce something utterly compelling.
5 Green Room
Having graced both instalments of the Star Trek reboot, Anton Yelchin was no stranger to playing characters forced to inhabit a confined space, but Jeremy Saulnier’s psychological horror was a different beast altogether. Here, the Russian-born actor plays the frontman of a destitute hardcore punk band, The Ain’t Rights, who take a gig at a backwater bar, which not only happens to be a meeting place for neo-Nazi skinheads, but also becomes the scene of a brutal crime.
As implied by its title, the majority of Green Room takes place in the bar’s dank and dingy backstage area as the group are held against their will by another Star Trek regular, Patrick Stewart, who is theatrical as ever as the venue’s ruthless and vicious owner. And as the film progresses, the intended safety net of the green room soon starts to make even the unruliest of mosh pits look like a children’s play area.
Forget the Candyman, the masked Scream killer and the clown from It, one of the scariest ‘90s horror baddies was a frumpy middle-aged nurse named Annie Wilkes. Indeed, Kathy Bates deservedly received both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her iconic performance as the sledgehammer-wielding villainess who took fan worship to a whole new level in this 1990 hit.
Following a severe car crash which leaves him with two broken legs, James Caan’s romance novelist is rescued, without anyone else’s knowledge, of course, by his biggest admirer. Inevitably, things take a turn for the twisted and the best-selling author soon realises that from being nursed back to health, he’s being held captive as a writer-for-hire. One of the most successful Stephen King adaptations ever to grace the big screen, Misery is a terrifying two-hander which brilliantly conveys the terror of how it feels to be entirely isolated from the outside world.
3 Ex Machina
Having previously explored the wide open spaces of an idyllic paradise island in The Beach, a terrifying zombie apocalypse in 28 Days Later and the final frontier in Sunshine, writer, novelist and producer Alex Garland created a far more insular world with his highly acclaimed directorial debut. Indeed, Ex Machina takes place entirely in the luxurious and futuristic estate of an internet search giant’s reclusive CEO, played superbly by Oscar Isaac. But although it looks like the house of dreams, the underground compound soon turns into the stuff of nightmares.
Described as a hi-tech take on Frankenstein, this 2015 sleeper hit sees Domnhall Gleeson’s wide-eyed programmer reluctantly become the human component in a Turing test involving his eccentric boss’ latest artificial intelligence project, an android named Ava. Of course, the experiment doesn’t quite go as planned, resulting in a man vs. machine tale which embraces its claustrophobic nature head on.
This high-concept '90s classic shows that it is still possible to feel claustrophobic when hurtling down the freeway at 50 miles per hour. Featuring Keanu Reeves in his action hero prime and Sandra Bullock in a star-making role, Jan de Bont’s hugely popular thriller sees our two leads attempt to steer a bus load of passengers to safety upon discovering that Dennis Hopper’s dastardly extortionist has rigged it to blow up if it drops below the aforementioned speed.
Sure, the finale takes its entertainingly ridiculous premise a step too far, and the dialogue is cornier than a box of Kellogg’s finest, but the fast-moving action on the bus itself is so skillfully directed that you soon begin to feel as though you’re traveling alongside Reeves and Bullock for real. Sadly, despite the latter's best efforts, the much-maligned follow-up proved that a cruise liner can't quite produce the same gripping effect.
1 10 Cloverfield Lane
The premise of 10 Cloverfield Lane – a young woman wakes up from a car accident to find herself in in an underground bunker with a doomsday prepper who insists that an apocalyptic catastrophe has made the ground above completely inhospitable – may share a few similarities with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But you won’t find any insanely catchy odes to Pinot noir in producer J.J. Adams' spiritual successor to his 2008 monster movie.
Laughs may be in short supply, but there are certainly enough chills and thrills to keep viewers engrossed in an intriguing Twilight Zone-esque tale which is perhaps better to watch without knowing anything about it beforehand. We therefore won’t give away any more of its plot (unlike the damn movie poster), but we can say that its array of first person shots, oppressive setting and overwhelming sense of paranoia makes 10 Cloverfield Lane one of the most claustrophobic box-office hits of the decade, and a definite must-see.
Which claustrophobia-ridden big screen tales make your skin crawl? Sound off in the comments.
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