Right now, many of us are stuck inside our homes for the foreseeable future, and it can seem like an incredibly dull place. Movies have repeatedly shown us how even one tiny room can hold great stories within. Here are some movies that use small spaces to tell tense and exciting stories.
Rear Window (1954, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
This is one of the classic films in the single location subgenre. Jimmy Stewart plays L.B. Jeffries, an adventurous photographer who broke his leg and his confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. He has a rear window that looks out into the courtyard and allows him to peek into the rear windows of neighboring buildings. It’s the summer, and a powerful heatwave has swept through the city forcing people to give Jeffries an intimate view. One night, Jeffries is awakened by a scream and observes what he believes to be a murder by a neighbor. His girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and his nurse (Thelma Ritter) start out not believing, but the more he explains and the more they see, the trio becomes convinced they have to do something. Rear Window a beautiful exercise in tension, which was something Hitchcock mastered. The film has aged beautifully and will still cause your knuckles to whiten and for you to hold your breath during that great third act.
12 Angry Men (1957, directed by Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet was one of the great American directors, five times nominated for the Academy Award yet never won Best Director. After working in television and honing his craft, Lumet made a name for himself with this 1957 courtroom drama. The entire film takes place in the jury room where the titular twelve jurors argue out a troubling court case. An 18-year-old youth has been charged with murder, stabbing his father to death. The cast is composed of a fantastic group of stage and screen actors. Henry Fonda is the lead supported by Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, and more. The film does a beautiful job of spotlighting voices of the time when discussion of race & economics came up. What’s sad is how relevant the film remains as many of the prejudices you hear are still present in society. This is probably the best single location film ever made, and I can’t imagine it being topped any time soon.
Misery (1990, directed by Rob Reiner)
Poor Paul Sheldon. He was just on his way to turn in a new manuscript when blizzard drives him off the road. His rescuer, Annie Wilkes, seems like the sort of good samaritan we’d be thankful for. Pretty soon, it turns out the woman who refers to herself as Paul’s “number one fan” doesn’t plan on letting him leave any time soon. I never would have pegged Rob Reiner for making one of the best horror films of the 1990s, but he delivers. The movie is definitely heightened Kathy Bates’ performance as Annie. She is the gem of this movie, able to shift between folksy & simple to downright homicidal. Bates never plays Annie as a cliche psychopath, but gives her layers and even some sympathetic qualities. She’s an obviously mentally ill woman, but she’s not a cartoon. Most of the action takes place in Annie’s house, and Reiner is able to create a whole world inside it.
Funny Games (1997, 2007, directed by Michael Haneke)
Austrian director Michael Haneke remade his own movie, shot for shot in English a decade after the original. Either movie is excellent as a result, I personally prefer the remake. George, Ann, and Georgie are a picture-perfect family spending some time at their summer lake house. Two strange men show up on their doorstep, Peter and Paul. They ask to borrow some eggs, and then things get sinister. It becomes clear this duo is wholly deranged, and they put the family into a living hell for the next twelve hours. Funny Games is a profoundly uncomfortable movie to watch. However, it is immaculately made, as are all Haneke films. Every shot is precise, and the structure of the picture will likely surprise most viewers. Haneke makes it clear he wants to play with audience expectations and the boundaries of reality.
Pontypool (2008, directed by Bruce McDonald)
Things begin in an eerie fashion in the opening scene of Pontypool. Radio DJ Grant Mazzy is driving to his station in the snowy early morning hours when a strange woman approaches his car, gibbering nonsense. He’s disturbed but heads on to work. The day goes on as usual until a story comes in that a riot broke out at a doctor’s office in town. Grant and his co-workers try to make sense of what is going on, and then the reports of people speaking in seemingly random words come pouring in. Pontypool presents a zombie story that is unlike anything you will ever see. It’s one of my favorite horror films from the 2000s because of how strange and different the virus presented behaves. If you are bored with zombie movies that lean on the same annoying cliches, Pontypool will provide a fresh new take.
127 Hours (2010, directed by Danny Boyle)
The story of Aron Ralston was widely told in the media in 2003. This movie takes some dramatic license but does a good job of telling a compelling narrative about survival. Ralston is hiking by himself in Bluejohn Canyon in Utah when he slips and falls, shifting a boulder and pinning his right hand against the canyon wall. The movie stays locked on Ralston’s experience in that space and what went through his mind, the rise and fall of his sanity. I’m not a massive fan of director Danny Boyle or actor James Franco, but I give them extreme props for making such a harrowing film. The moment when Ralston must make a life alerting, and a mind-shattering decision is one of the most visceral scenes I’ve seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie.
Coherence (2013, directed by James Ward Byrkit)
The most drama you’d expect at a dinner party between old friends is the dredging up of old grudges. But this isn’t like most dinner parties. Emily is nervous about seeing her former boyfriend and not concerned with the comet passing closely by the Earth, a topic that others at the party are interested in. The power goes out during dinner, and the group ventures outside, noticing only one house in the distance has a light on. They return inside and find a broken glass that wasn’t there before. Things only get stranger as we continue. Coherence is a surprising science fiction/horror flick that will bend your mind in all sorts of fun and creepy ways. It also showcases how one location can become an infinitesimal number of places.
Locke (2013, directed by Steven Knight)
Ivan Locke is making the drive of his life one night after work. He’s meant to supervise a concrete pour in Birmingham, England, to begin laying the foundations for a major new building. Locke has put everything in order, hops in his car, and heads down the highway, ready to implode his personal life. Through a series of phone calls, we discover what this man has done and who he will hurt. Tom Hardy is the only actor to appear on the screen and reminds us of what an immensely talented actor he is. He doesn’t get to move around, just remain seated in the driver’s side of his car and deliver some wonderful monologues and back and forths with the people he calls. I am sure you have never seen a picture quite like Locke, and it would be in your favor to do so. It’s a beautiful example of the varied structures and forms films can give us.
The Invitation (2015, directed by Karyn Kusama)
Will is driving his girlfriend Kira to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband (yes, another dinner party). No one is really sure why they have been invited, and it’s a group of friends who haven’t seen each other since Will’s split. Through dialogue and flashbacks, we learn about Will’s late son and his tragic death. Their hosts behave strangely, and Will is seen as paranoid for suspecting a more sinister element behind this gathering. Karyn Kusama does a fantastic job directing this tense thriller, helped by a beautiful score by Theodore Shapiro. The sound of plucked violins is so simple yet adds a perfect amount of tension to the conversations. By the end, you’ll know the real purpose of this party, and I suspect you’ll be thoroughly disturbed.
Green Room (2016, directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
Director Jeremy Saulnier begins his movie with an ambient mood, a hazy Northwest Pacific fog over a traveling band of punk musicians. Pat, the bassist, is our central character who sees his group end up at a shady neo-Nazi skinhead bar in Oregon. They plan to just play the show and leave but witness a horrific act in the green room backstage. This leads to the group locking themselves up in the bar as they are surrounded by skinheads outside wanting to cover up the crime. Saulnier gives us a brutal, visceral experience. Green Room is not for the weak of heart or people who hate gore. I would argue it’s a very thoughtful film that uses its violence in meaningful ways. Patrick Stewart stars as the malicious patriarch of this hateful clan of Nazis.