It is the arch-dilemma of telling a horror story: if the characters know the house is haunted, then why don’t they just leave? In many stories solving it with a handwave is good enough: phones don’t work for whatever reason, the car’s tires are slashed, etc. But in the sub-genre of isolation horror, the forces preventing the protagonists from leaving become the central focus. The topic of what humans become when forced to battle for their survival in one tiny space, knowing that no help can reach them, never fails to fascinate. From classics of paranoia such as The Shining and The Thing to modern mindbenders such as Cube, it is a dark corner of the psyche that story tellers return to again and again.
The September 29th premier of Netflix’s original film Gerald’s Game will very likely bring the idea of isolation horror to a whole new audience. Based on the classic novel by The Shining author Stephen King, Gerald’s Game tells the story of an ordinary woman who finds herself in a life-or-death struggle when a night of kinky sex takes a tragic turn and leaves her handcuffed to a bed in the middle of nowhere. But if one trapped, terrified protagonist with literally nowhere to run just isn’t enough, then never fear. There are plenty of other tales of sanity versus solitude out there to help you get into the perfect mindset of lonely paranoia. Here are four greats from recent years.
In Curve we meet Mallory, a young woman whose road trip to visit her sister is fraught with insecurities. There’s her envy of her sister’s carefree lifestyle and cold feet about her own impending marriage. But when her car breaks down on a deserted stretch of mountain road her priorities change rapidly and horrifically.
Curve plays with some conventional horror movie tropes. Mallory is a Final Girl in every sense of the archetype, despite not having other protagonists around her to relate to. Her nemesis rivals any classic movie slasher in terms of physical endurance and brutal misogyny. But Curve is full of fresh and well-made scenarios that take maximum advantage of the confined space that Mallory spends much of the movie trapped in. From the taut opening act to the nail-biting final battle, to the grueling, claustrophobic ordeal in between Curve is a film that preys upon the universal fears of confinement and helplessness in interesting ways. Julianne Hough deserves special props for her turn as Mallory, a character who never becomes boring despite the prolonged confinement the audience must endure with her.
The brainchild of first-time director Leigh Janiak, Honeymoon is a stripped-down horror film where isolation and suspicion are the true villains. As the title implies, the story follows a young pair of newlyweds on their honeymoon to a remote cabin. Aside from another, local couple (and a very odd one at that,) our vacationing protagonists, Bea and Paul are the only characters we meet and their descent into darkness is all the more tragic for the genuine love and tenderness they display early on. Finding your wife lost in the woods in the middle of the night with no memory of how she got there is scary enough. But it quickly becomes apparent that something happened to Bea out there: something very, very bad, and Paul is completely in over his head with trying to deal with it. With no clue what he is truly up against, Paul must not only struggle with how to help his dysfunctional wife, but whether he can even trust her. Does she truly not know why she was outside that night, or is she hiding something?
Honeymoon traps its protagonists in the wilderness, then takes away what is most valuable to them: each other. The copious amounts of body horror that ensue visually mirror the grotesque erosion of trust between the suffering couple. Game of Thrones star Rose Leslie leads the tiny cast on a journey fraught with uncomfortable questions about romantic relationships that is not for the faint of heart.
Session 9 (2001)
Prior to its demolition, the sprawling, eerie Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, Massachussetts received the honor of starring in one of the most offbeat horror films of the new millenium, Session 9. A film that has become widely known, but perhaps poorly understood, Session 9 deserves another look for the way it enforces isolation upon its characters and the way they begin to turn on one another under its influence.
Desperate to save his failing insulation business, Gordon makes a nigh-impossible promise to clear the asbestos from a defunct psychiatric hospital in exchange for a fee that will save his family from poverty. But his employees are barely civil to one another at the best of times, and the asylum? Well, there’s just something about the place, with its derelict patient graveyard at the back of the property and its discarded instruments that hearken back to a crueler time in American medical history. But just when it seems like Gordon and his crew can’t get any more stressed a collection of tapes are discovered: records of one of the hospital’s most enigmatic, frightening patients. When one of the crew members begins delving into this bygone case of madness, that’s when things really go to Hell…
Mindscrew abounds in Session 9, but it’s the everyday stress and anxiety that actor Peter Mullan communicates through his performance of Gordon that really wear upon the viewer. Here are characters who can’t leave simply because they face poverty if they do. But in the name of simply earning a living they blunder into the clutches of forces they cannot understand. Of course, Session 9 could not have happened without the unique and unsettling locale of Danvers and it becomes its own character that enfolds both characters and viewer into its clutches, creating a story that wounds as it is told and an ending that will leave viewers talking long afterward.
Last Shift (2014)
Staying in a potentially lethal situation because you’ve been imprisoned, trapped, or manipulated is bad enough. But what if you have to stay because you’re determined to keep a promise to someone you love? Someone who’s gone? This is the cruel rub of the gorgeously filmed, creatively gory Last Shift.
A year after her police officer father was gunned down in a shootout with a violent cult, Jessica Loren has emerged as a rookie officer, ready to honor his memory. Her first assignment seems simple enough: stand guard at a decommissioned police precinct on its last night of operation. All official functions have already been taken over by the new precinct that is up and running a few blocks away, so it should be an easy job. But if the unstable, violent officer she is relieving is any indication, it’s probably going to be anything but.
Last Shift unfolds as both a stressful horror film and a compelling mystery as Jessica must determine who – or what – is harassing her on her fist night of duty, but also learn the truth of what happened to her father on that terrible night a year prior. The story of a woman held literally captive by her sense of duty to her father is only enhanced by the menacing entities who have come to prey on her… and perhaps to take revenge.
The film’s leads, Juliana Harkavy and Joshua Mikel, have since gone on to enjoy mainstream success on Arrow and The Walking Dead respectively, but this film really shows how powerful they are when they need to carry a script directly. Their intense performances combined with some skillful, lush special effects create the air of mystery for this story that is part action thriller, part haunted house story, and all about the danger of knowing too much about what brought you to where you are.