As is probably obvious by now, I love me a good ol’ horror flick. It can be bloody as hell – the bloodier the better, really – or just edge-of-your-seat, pulse-racing scary, but all my favorite scary movies usually have a common denominator: I need them to make sense.
Such, for instance, is the case with the controversial Saw franchise. Although the overall quality declined over the years with each new installment, most horror fans appreciated the original movie for what it was: a very claustrophobic, intense flick which made the most of its limited budget. Even if the gore turns you off, you can’t not admit that the premise of the film is brilliant: two strangers wake up locked in a room and have to figure out why they’re there and how to get out. Whoever orchestrated this series of ‘games’ was an evil genius trying to instill in his captives, in his very twisted, sadistic way, a sense of appreciation for life.
Saw wasn’t the first of its sub-genre of movies featuring the running theme of confinement, but it was definitely the hit film that inspired several subsequent efforts to emulate this type of plot. Cube, an earlier independent production, had utilized this motif brilliantly seven years before Saw hit our screens, but it was relatively unknown at the time and didn’t enjoy the kind of worldwide success Saw amassed, even though the 1997 movie has since gained cult status among horror fans. Much like Saw, this one made sense, even though in this case we were never meant to find out who was behind the monstrous cube construct and the elaborate traps. (Also like Saw, the sequel Hypercube and prequel Cube Zero, which answered several questions about the cube, fell considerably short of the original).
The success of the Saw franchise spawned not only a string of torture porn movies, but also a number of films based loosely on the same scenario: a few people are gathered in an unknown location and end up killing each other, all for the enjoyment of a psychopath who either wants to play a cruel game, conduct a bizarre experiment or teach the unwilling participants a lesson.
The motif fits the low-budget horror category to a t, keeping production cost to a minimum. In theory, all you need for a successful movie of this particular sub-genre is a killer (excuse the pun) script, a basic 4-wall structure and some decent acting.
However, not many of these movies can boast one of these qualities, let alone all of them.
I spent some time researching lists of films supposedly similar to Saw or Cube, and several titles kept popping up; among them Exam, which includes an original twist to the generic theme by turning it into a competition for a prestigious job rather than a fight for survival; Unknown (not to be confused with the Liam Neeson movie), which has a pretty original twist ending, and Would You Rather, where the ‘players’ arrive at their place of confinement voluntarily but only realize what’s about to happen when it’s too late for any of them to leave.
Although none of these are masterpieces, all three use plot devices that build the tension and pretty much guarantee that your eyes will be glued to the screen during their entire runtime. More importantly, there’s a payoff at the end; even when it’s anticlimactic and not exactly your usual ‘happy ending’, the final scene in each movie offers an unforeseen twist, a neat conclusion, or at least some kind of explanation that won’t have you scratching your head in confusion once the titles start rolling.
In the case of the psychological thriller Exam, the viewer already knows who invited the group of people to the venue, as well as what it is they’re competing for; at the end, we get to put together the clues and figure out what the ‘one question’ posed to the candidates actually was – and with it, what it was about the sole remaining victor that provided the correct answer and ultimately landed the character the much sought-after job.
Similarly, in Unknown, we find out exactly who these people are and why they were brought together in that warehouse. The film uses the Memento-like device of memory loss for the main character to build suspense, and the ending comes with a suprising revelation.
In Would You Rather, the cruel organizer of the lethal dinner party doesn’t really need a reason to stage this elaborate game other than his own twisted sense of entertainment, but that’s perfectly okay, because we already know the participants’ motives for taking part in it. The irony at the end might be viewed as unsatisfactory, but I actually found it fitting.
(I’m purposely trying to be as vague as possible here so as to not give away any spoilers).
Again, what these movies have in common is the promise of some kind of resolution at the end, an actual reason for the violence, and, at the end of the day, the sense that you haven’t just wasted a couple of hours watching unnecessary cruelty with no payoff.
Sadly, not all the movies in this sub-genre meet these requirements.
(Spoiler alert for what’s coming up. Actually, consider this a public service: I’m saving you from wasting several hours of your life watching the following movies)
I’ve yet to watch Fermat’s Room (mainly because my french is rusty enough that I would need subtitles, and that takes away from my enjoyment of the movie), but I did give some of the rest a chance, starting with The Killing Room.
I have to say, I was not impressed. The premise seems interesting enough: four volunteers sign up for what they think is a paid research study, only to realize they are part of a covert government program designed not to test their knowledge, as they initially assume based on the Q&A format of the test, but some of their baser instincts. If the fact that this particular study is different isn’t made clear right from the start, it soon becomes evident when the researcher who enters the room to make the introductions promptly shoots the female participant in the head and leaves the room. Yep, definitely not worth the $250 these guys signed up for.
A military psychologist watches as the events in the room (unimaginatively dubbed the killing room by the researchers) unfold, feeling increasingly uncomfortable to be part of this cruel experiment, even as she maintains her cool exterior. Over the course of the movie it is revealed that only one of the test subjects is to make it out of there alive, and by the end we find out that this ordeal is part of a classified government mind-control program designed to find the right candidate who will be trained as a ‘civilian weapon’, much like a suicide bomber.
As the ‘researcher’ attempts to manipulate the test answers to suit his purposes and the psychologist starts questioning the ethics of the experiment (starts(!). Because shooting the first test subject point-blank right from the get go wasn’t enough, apparently) in the control room, tension is rising in the killing room when it’s clear that more test subjects will be ‘exterminated’. Although the plot seems promising at first, the sub-par direction makes it less so. Add to that the amateurish sound design, with most of the dialogue whispered too indistinctly to follow without subtitles, and I could barely finish this movie. Instead of rising tension, the only emotion it evoked was increasing irritation, and whatever answers I expected at the end were too vague to register as a proper payoff.
On to the next movie, Breathing Room. Again with the sterile environment, only this time the participants are largely unwilling and much higher in numbers. The ‘game’ begins when a fourteenth member joins the team of randomly selected people wearing lethal electronic collars, who are advised to follow the rules posted around the room and use clues and tools also hidden in their enclosed environment, to figure out why they were abducted and brought into this room, as well as a way out.
Although the story isn’t original by a longshot, it could have been a descent movie, despite the unusually large number of characters we begin with. Alas, the horrible acting is only part of the reason why I would definitely classify this as a huge fail. As the film progresses, the random hints make little sense; every now and then the lights are turned off and someone gets killed. This would have been a successful device in terms of building the tension if the filmmakers hadn’t opted for a red light scene whenever the killing occurs, which makes it easy for the viewer to see some of what’s happening, therefore easy for the characters to actually see who’s doing the killing. The fact that they remain clueless after each murder is probably the most unrealistic element of the movie – and, given the overall unrealistic premise, that’s a huge feat!
Before we even get to the end, we all have a pretty good idea of who the culprit is, so none of the events that happen when the participants are finally whittled down to 3-4 are actually suspenseful. To make matters even worse, the ‘unlikely’ killer, revealed to be the pretty blonde woman who entered the game last, emerges from the room only to scribble down a couple of notes on a select few files and then go on to another room to play the exact same game all over again. No concrete answers as to why this is going on or who is behind it; just a growing sense of why the hell did I just watch this crap? The 16% Rotten Tomatoes score should have clued me in much earlier, but I just had to have an informed opinion, didn’t I? Serves me right, I guess.
Lastly, possibly the best one out of the three: House of 9. Well, ‘best‘ doesn’t really say much in this case, as these movies range from awful to awfully mediocre, but eh, at least this one has a big name actor in it (Dennis Hopper) and better production values.
Nine strangers wake up in a perfectly intimidating, albeit very scarcely decorated, house; they are told that they weren’t selected because of who but, rather, what they are. What they are, in this case, is a bunch of stereotypical characters: a priest, a young dancer, a designer, a wannabe rapper, a former tennis pro, a girl on probation, a composer and his wife, and a cop. They are monitored by dozens of hidden cameras and they will have to – you guessed it – kill each other because only one can make it out of there alive. At least this time there’s a hefty reward for the last man standing: a $5 million payout to keep quiet. Definitely a step up from the $250 compensation in The Killing Room.
Aside from the exaggerated acting and horrible accents, the real letdown in the movie is the uneven pacing, and, once again, the crappy ending. Slow to build tension in the first half, the characters predictably act exactly as each stereotype would dictate, with the cop trying to take control of the situation, the priest being all about peace and love, the spoiled tennis player-turned-party girl hitting the booze and behaving like a snotty bitch and the awful rapper acting belligerent towards just about everyone, especially the authority figure in the room.
When things finally start to unfold and we have our first casualty, the rest of the group are rewarded for the kill by being offered extra portions of food to encourage their violent behavior. Contrary to most of the other movies of the sub-genre, the large house offers more opportunity for private conversations between some of the characters, as well as more hiding space when the sh*t really hits the fan. Unfortunately, none of it is utilized effectively, and nothing that happens consequently comes as any surprise, especially when the token black guy attacks the cop, or when the french asshole turns out to be a crazy psychopath.
More infuriating, however, is the unsatisfying ending. After a prolonged scene where the pretty young dancer, the only remaining participant aside from the french wackjob, is frantically running around the house to escape him, screaming and gasping and generally doing nothing to defend herself against the deranged twat (who’s already gravely wounded in both the abdomen and the leg but somehow keeps up right until the end), she emerges the winner with a duffel bag full of cash… only to find herself locked in a different room, full of other $5 million winners.
Even though the rules of the game stated that one of the 9 people would make it out alive, it clearly isn’t meant to be. There is also no clue as to who’s behind everything, or why they’re doing it, for that matter. So basically, once again, no real payoff. It’s not like I expect a happy ending after all the horror; a good twist would have done just as well. Unfortunately, this twist ending wasn’t exactly cinematic gold.
What the first few movies I mentioned have in common is horribly lacking in these last three: the endless series of riddles and traps in Cube, the twisted moralistic teachings of Jigsaw in Saw, the plight of the participants in Would You Rather and so on… they all make some sort of (cruel, demented) sense. The premise is simple, the rules are clear and it’s up to the characters to basically decide their fates.
In the case of Breathing Room, House of 9 and The Killing Room, it’s just a jumble of ideas with limited character exploration; the violence is usually superfluous and at the end of the day, nothing really makes us actually care what happens to the victims of these cruelly designed games.
As simple as the premise of this type of movies may be, it’s no excuse for shoddy screenplays and subpar acting; if anything, the uncomplicated sets and confined spaces should make the characters shine.
Give them a story, a personality trait other than the ability to scream in terror or act like an alpha-male caricature.
Even outside the horror genre, there are brilliant examples of movies where the plot involves only a handful of people in a room, just talking (my personal favorite being the very under-appreciated The Man From Earth). If just a few characters sitting around voluntarily can make a story captivating, there’s no excuse for less intriguing plot lines when there’s the threat of violence and death involved, or even the possibility of a reward.
Just because you know you’re going to be killing your characters off one by one doesn’t mean they need to be two-dimensional clichés; on the contrary, it’s having the viewer connect with them that makes their demise all the more impactful, and their salvation all the more satisfying.
For all its growing popularity in recent years, it seems that the confinement motif is only effective in a handful of movies. When treated as a ‘gimmick’, it’s simply not enough to turn a bad movie into a good one, especially now that the novelty has worn off. At the end of the day, a good movie needs a good story, and the idea of a few people inside four walls just isn’t enough on its own.