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Many of the best thrillers see characters trapped in single locations with tricky situations to overcome before their escape to safety. Here’s ten of Cameron Johnson’s favorite of these “claustrophobic thrillers”.

The thriller genre is a hard one to pin down, with films given the label often made up of an amalgamation of action, crime, and suspense. At its most simplistic, the genre can best be described as one that has characters in a difficult and intriguing situation with little room to breathe and few loopholes to save them. There is no film more representative of this description than the claustrophobic thriller, a sub-genre in which characters are stuck in a single location for most or all of a film, usually until they escape, solve a puzzle, or are rescued. 

There are dozens of thrillers that fit into this category, which also sometimes crosses over with drama, horror, and sci-fi as well. Heck, you could even call Groundhog Day a claustrophobic thriller; it’s got suspense, mystery, and a man trapped in a single location (one repeating day) with seemingly no way out. Last year’s great action hit Edge of Tomorrow also follows this formula. 

Then there’s movies like All is Lost, Cast Away and Life of Pi, where the protagonists are left to their own devices in the middle of the ocean and forced to use their creative skills to survive, and airplane thrillers like Non-Stop, Snakes on a Plane and, yes, Airplane!, in which people are required to avert disaster against the clock inside a moving vehicle high above the ground. 

But for the purpose of this list I’ve stuck mainly to the most claustrophobic and the most thrilling of single-location thrillers, and included both mainstream and independent examples. 

127 Hours (2010, dir. Danny Boyle)

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Perhaps not a thriller in the traditional sense, Danny Boyle’s magnificent 127 Hours is nonetheless an exciting suspense drama which sees James Franco, here playing real-life outdoorsman Aron Ralston, trapped under a rock for most of the 93-minute runtime. Gruesome and blatant, Boyle’s film never whys away from the horrors of Ralston’s thirst, starvation, and eventual attempts to amputate his own arm. 

Creatively mixing expansive wide shots of the scorching desert Ralston is trapped in with intimate home-video shots taken on Ralston’s camera, 127 Hours expertly displays the irony of the entrapment of a person so well-prepared and nimble in a place so vast and open with no help for miles. It doesn’t get more claustrophobic than this. 

Buried (2010, dir. Rodrigo Cortés)

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The most obviously claustrophobic film on this list, Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried is set entirely in a coffin buried underground, without a single shot filming the outside world before or after the events of the movie. Starring Ryan Reynolds as a contractor held hostage underground in Iraq by people demanding $5 million in ransom, Buried is as gimmicky as movies come, but the execution is just as good as the idea. 

Though it’s unrealistic that Reynolds’ character would end up buried alive in an underground coffin with an assortment of conveniently placed items including water, anxiety pills, a flashlight and a fully working cell phone (with full bars underground), the film puts these plot devices to good use and is able to develop solid themes about survival, priorities, and international relations. 

With creative cinematography given the film’s limits, a superb lead performance from Ryan Reynolds, and a strong script with relevant themes and jaw-dropping twists, Buried is an unmissable film for lovers of claustrophobic movies. 

Coherence (2014, dir. James Ward-Byrkit) 

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A discombobulating sci-fi mind-bender made on a budget of next to nothing in just five days, Coherence is an against-all-odds success story that pits an affluent group of dinner-party guest against a terrifyingly intriguing night of shocks and scares in which every action they take results in a different action in an alternate version of their reality. 

Playing on the idea of an infinite number of dimensions, the film confines our heroes to the house of the hosts and the street surrounding it, but wherever they go they always end up right back in the house again. But is it really their house? Will they ever be able to return to their normal lives?

These are but a few of the countless intriguing questions the film asks, layered between the grudges each of the guests hold against each other. Once the otherworldly elements come into play, every scene in Coherence is exciting, and it’s a true marvel of low-budget filmmaking and improvisational acting to boot. 

Cube (1997, dir. Vincenzo Natali) 

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One of the purest claustrophobic thrillers out there, Cube is set entirely inside a giant cube, one made up of thousands of smaller cubes which characters move between in their attempts to escape. None of the subjects in custody in The Cube have any idea as to why they’ve been put inside, and it’s only through basic maths and guesswork that they’re able to advance from room to room. 

Cube is a marvel of production design, with each individual room within The Cube a redesign of the same incredible set. Its characters may be archetypal and melodramatically acted, but the story is far from cheesy, with a variety of creative action sequences and some deeply profound themes as well. Cube will have you further off the edge of your seat with each tense escalation of the plot. 

Exam (2009, dir. Stuart Hazeldine)

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I’ve watched this overlooked, underrated indie cracker twice on Netflix over the past few years, and plan on watching it many more times in the future. Not only does it have one of the best final twists in the history of cinema, it’s also one of the most all-round entertaining films you’ll see anywhere in any genre. 

Exam is set entirely in a single room in an alternate future, in which eight job candidates are presented with the challenge of answering a question without being given any hint as to what the question actually is. Each candidate is given a blank piece of paper, with the knowledge that any damage to it will mean their application will be terminated. Alliances form and battles are had, and things only escalate as the film continues. 

Besides its thrills and chills, the success of Exam comes mainly from its excellent cast, each one of them playing characters which together makes the perfectly politically correct lineup dreamed of and ridiculed by so many in the modern world. As grudges develop and candidates are eliminated by supposedly stronger alternatives, our perceptions of race and gender stereotypes are consistently played with. And nothing can rival its ending, shockingly clever and hilariously cringeworthy at the same time. It’s smart, suspenseful entertainment at its finest. 

Grand Piano (2014, dir. Chuky Namanera) 

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Chuky Namanera’s Grand Piano, written by Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, was one of quite a few single-event films released in 2014, with the excellent drama Locke being another notable example. Unlike Locke, which has Tom Hardy solving family and work problems on an hour-and-a-half car drive, Grand Piano is a more traditional, formulaic thriller, and all the better for it. 

Elijah Wood plays world-class pianist Tom Selznick, who is now considered the best classical pianist in the world after the death of his famous mentor. Only one song, “La Cinquette”, still eludes him, and it’s a live performance of the song that serves as the film’s centerpiece. Upon entering his dressing room, Selznick receives a call which instructs him to put on an earpiece, and it is revealed that a sniper is hiding at the top of the orchestra hall and will shoot Selznick and his world-famous girlfriend if he gets a single note of the song wrong. 

Films rarely make us feel like we’re under as much pressure as Selznick is in Grand Piano, which deft editing and a strong, physical lead performance from Elijah Wood. Similar to Whiplash, it’s a firecracker of a drama with heavy musical undertones, but unlike Chazelle’s Oscar-winner the protagonist is restricted by outside limits as opposed to being forced to break them. 

Gravity (2013, dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

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A movie not just claustrophobic but also downright nauseating for some, the Oscar giant Gravity is an enlightening and humbling experience that admits that even the vast expanses of space have room for loneliness and confinement. 

Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer who becomes trapped above earth after a satellite is destroyed by a Russian satellite and a chain reaction puts everything off-centre. With only about 90 minutes (a conveniently recurring timeframe in this kind of movie) to get to the International Space Station, the only place where she can possibly find a way of getting back home, she’s against the clock in one of the scariest places possible. 

The stunning visual effects, masterful direction and groundbreaking cinematography of Gravity are all equally important to the film’s resounding success, but it’s Sandra Bullock who grounds (pun intended) the film with her heartfelt, genuine performance as the doctor-in-distress. The stunning film is proof that confinement isn’t always a result of enclosed spaces, but a result of separation instead.

Panic Room (2002, dir. David Fincher)

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David Fincher is a master of thriller movies, and no list regarding the genre would be complete without one of his works. Panic Room, his fifth feature between Fight Club (1999) and Zodiac (2007), isn’t his most mature or controlled film to date, but for by-the-books popcorn thrills, it’s amongst his most entertaining. The film stars Jodie Foster and a ten-year-old Kristen Stewart as a mother and daughter who hide in the panic room of their new house when three thieves played by Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam break in to steal a large sum of money that had been left there by the previous owner.

Like many of Fincher’s films, it’s graphic, suspenseful and expertly shot, with creative cinematography from Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. And whilst a lot of the film happens in the house around the panic room – the criminals are as much the main characters as the victims – it’s a fully enclosed movie, since no one is able to leave the house until the conflict has been satisfied. Like many claustrophobic movies, its quality stems largely from the performances of its leads, with Jodie Foster and Forest Whitaker bringing to life the film’s two strongest characters with their excellent performances as an endangered yet coolheaded mother and a kindhearted crook, respectively.

Phone Booth (2002, dir. Joel Schumacher)

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Clocking in at a brief 81 minutes, Phone Booth is true to the single-event nature of its plot, in which publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is forced to stay inside a New York phone booth while on call with a sniper who threatens to shoot him if he leaves. 

While the film does include frantic exchanges between a police chief played by Forrest Whitaker and his crew who surround the booth, the conversation between Shepard and the gunman is the film’s main focus. Shepard is instructed by the sniper to reveal secrets about himself to his loved ones and the media, all while staying inside the titular booth. 

Despite the film being a bit too clever for its own good in its twists and turns, it’s held up by exceptional lead performances and excellent production values which manage to up the ante in suspense even as the protagonists start to gain more and control over the situation. 

Speed (1994, dir. Jan de Bont )

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A thriller classic, Speed is about as high-octane as any movie has ever gotten, and on top of that it fits perfectly into the category of claustrophobic movie. Its heroes, SWAT officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and passenger Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), are forced to keep a bus going over 50 miles per hour or a bomb attached to it will explode. Until the bomb is deactivated, Jack and the passengers are forced to stay on and around the bus, creating a tense situation unlike many or any ever shown on film. 

Like the later films Argo, Non-Stop and Unstoppable, Speed involves communication with technicians and officials on the outside, but its characters are confined to a single location and are the driving force behind the solution of the film’s main problem. And in basing the central device of the film’s conflict on speed, it’s the perfect thriller invention, a film that is required to be fast-paced to work. With energetic editing and stunning action sequences, it’s a staple of the action and thriller genres, and for good reason. 

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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Posted on Mar 2, 2015

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