The Film Pit: Single Room Horror

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It was announced this week that the 1997 cult hit Cube is getting a remake as Cubed, because Hollywood apparently just had a primary school maths lesson and is keen to show us what it’s learned. For this week’s column I’m talking about single-room horror films like Cube, and about four films that, while not be perfect, use that setting to their creepy advantage.

CUBE (1997)

This film posits the question that we all find ourselves asking on a lonely winter’s night: what would it be like if you were stuck inside a Rubik’s Cube that was also full of lasers?

A handful of characters wake up inside a large cubic complex, itself built out of hundreds of interlocking small cubes that move and rotate around one another. Each smaller cube may or may not contain death traps.

Honestly this film is a little limp in its execution. The characters just aren’t interesting, and the internal rules of the cube are used in place of actual story beats. Mysteries involving serial numbers are used in scenes the way that character moments should be, and that’s exactly as not engaging as it sounds.

I list this film amongst the others due to an offhand moment, where the characters momentarily question why this place even exists. It’s quickly discovered that this entire Cube complex is the result of a hilarious bureaucratic oversight, incrementally built by different government departments who continually bucked the project onto successive unwilling office employees – meaning that no one even vaguely remembers what the original purpose of the prison was.

A government accidentally creating a super prison full of laser beams? That’s the film I want to see.

FERMAT’S ROOM (2007) 

Here’s a nice little creeper. A group of mathematicians are invited to a house in the middle of nowhere, given only the instruction that they are to remain anonymous to the other guests and must solve a great mathematical conundrum. Once they arrive, wouldn’t you just know it, the room they’re in is locked tight and the walls begin to slowly constrict, and the only way to stop them is to solve a sequence of maths based riddles.

The film works because the focus is on an overarching petty feud between competing mathematicians, and the melodrama mined out of that premise is genuinely entertaining. The idea that paranoid and jealous academics are pushed to elaborate and violent extremes is satisfying to anyone who’s been inside a university library.

There’s also something strangely satisfying about watching logic puzzles getting solved on a film screen. If you have a tolerance for watching apparent mathematical experts explaining rudimentary mathematical concepts out loud to one another then this little film has a lot to offer.

EXAM (2009)

Exam is a film entirely set in a group interview room for a large pharmaceutical firm, with half a dozen or so candidates competing for the same job. In front of them is a single sheet of white paper where they are to write their answer. The problem? Nobody knows what the question is. If you spoil your paper by writing the incorrect response, or ask the invigilator for assistance, you are immediately escorted out of the room.

This is a great premise. That panicking throat-tightening feeling of a job interview is such a perfect setting for a horror film that I’ve been racking my brain this last week trying to think of another film that’s done it. I can’t think of any.

While an effective film and entertaining enough, Exam unfortunately falls short due to one very specific flaw. The company that the candidates are trying to work for is named and described in the first movement of the film, which takes away any universality the setting should be inducing. It’s a story just screaming out for that extra layer of mystery, for the company and job to be unnamed. What could have been romanticised and mythic becomes perfunctory.

SAW (2004)

This was an inevitable inclusion. The Saw franchise comes under a lot of flak, and for the later entries it may well be deserving of it, but the original is an out-and-out classic. Whereas other films set in a single location often get fidgety and succumb to ridiculous levels of convolution, Saw gives you two characters in a room and then sits back and watches for ninety minutes. It’s a genuinely character driven story with enough mystery around the edges to make it feel part of a larger mythic world.

Very similar to something I enjoyed about Fermat’s Room, Saw doesn’t get lost in its own internal riddles and instead focuses on an unfolding story about a small pack of characters who are scared, deceptive, and conniving. For a series that is known largely for its gore content its worth remembering that it all started with this very stripped back character piece.

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of films that use single locations in horror, but these are the stories that clung to something in my head, and I hope you find something in them to enjoy too. Come back next week when I’ll be exploring the phenomenon of Director Jail, the prison where unsuccessful film directors are put when they disappoint a major studio.

It unfortunately lacks laser beams.

 

Image credit: R Kurtz via Compfight 

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