Rich On Film Lists: Ten Interesting Thrillers Set In A Single Location

When filmmakers decide to confine themselves to a single location for their entire film the results can often be underwhelming to say the least. It takes a great deal of skill to make a single location film cinematic. For the purposes of this list I am avoiding what I will call "theatrical" films, or films that are either literally based on a stage play or simple single room dramas. While there is nothing wrong with a good chamber piece (Glengarry Glen Ross or 12 Angry Men come immediately to mind) they are not what I am interested in here. I'm more interested in filmmakers who set their films in unlikely, unconventional and often claustrophobic spaces. The challenge is not only how to sustain interest in 90 minutes of running time but also how to actually maintain visual dynamism and not simply repeat the same two shots over and over. Three of the films listed are unseen by me as they are yet to be released.
(I'm listing in chronological order)
10: LIFEBOAT (1944)
Location: A lifeboat.
Does it cheat: Not at all. Literally the whole film takes place on a single lifeboat.
Any good?: One of my own personal favourite Hitchcock films is also one of his most experimental. For 97 minutes we never leave that lifeboat and the drama is brilliantly sustained. The film also contains no score music (apart from opening and closing credits) which was reasonably ground breaking in its time. Hitchcock never shied away from the odd concept over the course of his career (including several other single location films; Rope, Rear Window, Dial M For Murder) but with Lifeboat he essentially established the ground rules for how to do single location thrillers. See it!
9: CUBE (1997)
Location: A cube.
Does it cheat?: Not in my opinion. While the characters move through 6 cubes over the course of the film it still is a completely cinematic and claustrophobic conceit (and if I was to pull production trivia on you I would point out that they actually only constructed one cube which they redressed 6 times).
Any good?: As an example of low-budget creativity it is a complete success. A great idea that is well executed. The characters are a little thinly drawn and the dialogue has that clunky ring that comes from B grade actors but the film overcomes those elements with an immensely unsettling idea that is perfectly realised. Vincenzo Natali is still making really interesting films too, recently hitting a more mainstream level of success with Splice but his real masterpieces are Nothing and Cypher.
8: PHONE BOOTH (2002)
Location: A phone booth
Does it cheat?: Not exactly. While the film does have an intro and outro the majority of the film does take place with our central character stuck in the phone booth.
Any good?: Not bad. Originally conceived by B-movie king Larry Cohen in the 60s for Hitchcock (who knocked it back when they couldn't figure out a plausible way to keep a character in a phone booth for 90 minutes) it was rejuvenated in the late 90s by eternal hit and miss director Joel Schumacher. Keifer Sutherland plays an ominous voice better than anyone (except maybe his dad, Donald) and cinematographer Matthew Libatique has fun with the scenario. A fun, pulpy, time passer.
7: OPEN WATER (2003)
Location: Ummm, floating in open water.
Does it cheat?: Surprisingly not. After some opening sequences that could've been a little briefer we end up floating in the middle of nowhere with our central couple for the rest of the film.
Any good?: Yes, but only really as a cinematic exercise. While the low budget shines through in the acting quality what really ends up frustrating is the dialogue. After spending time with this couple who seem to bicker incessantly even while stranded in the middle of the ocean, I really didn't care if they got eaten by sharks. The nightmarish nature of the situation does resonate with some and the film is under 80 minutes so one can't really argue that it's over-long.
Location: A elevator... on acid.
Does it cheat?: Apart from the usual flourishes, not really.
Any good?: Yep. Really good actually. Set in the near future where everybody lives in giant high rise buildings and travels between floors on elevators this inventive low-budget Japanese film is probably the most insane film on this list. The film is cheap but so jam-packed with creative perversity and impactful violence that it becomes a classic single location thriller.
5: LEBANON (2010)
Location: A military tank
Does it cheat?: Nope. We are in that tank all the way, observing the outer world through the tank gun turret.
Any Good?: Brilliant actually. Described in some circles as Das Boot in a tank, I think it eclipses that film in its own grubby, claustrophobic way. One of the strongest war films made in recent years, Lebanon is tough cinema but also revelatory. The skill displayed by director Samuel Maoz is mindblowing. This is how you make real cinema. Vital viewing.
4: FROZEN (2010)
(This trailer makes me giggle)
Location: A ski lift.
Does it cheat?: Nope! After the obligatory introduction sequence showing our threesome bribing a lift operator to get one last ride before the night is out the film stays on the ski lift for over an hour.
Any good?: Yes and no. As an exercise in narrative economy it is brilliant. What would happen if you got stuck on a ski lift on Sunday night and the resort was not to reopen until next Friday? All logical options are explored with some gruesomely squirm inducing results. The final act slows down a little as you would imagine but for the most part it is a tight horrific little experiment.
3: DEVIL (2010)
Location: An elevator.
Does it cheat?: Apparently quite a bit sadly. Jumping outside the elevator to other people in the building.
Any good?: Reviews have been mixed but I'm a sucker for a tight little genre movie that has no pretence other than to entertain. Veteran cinematographer Taj Fukimoto is behind the lens which means that at the very least you are gonna have 80 minutes of lovely pictures.
2: BURIED (2010)
Location: A coffin.
Does it cheat?: Not one bit and that is amazing! 90 minutes from beginning to end inside a coffin with a man who has been buried alive!
Any good?: According to some of the critics that I tend to trust, this is quite an amazing film. Bleak, tense and unrelenting. Ryan Reynolds (yep its Van Wilder in a coffin) is the only actor seen on screen although he has a mobile phone and the plot is propelled through that. If you are gonna question whether or not you get reception in a coffin buried underground then this isn't the film for you. I'm unfamiliar with previous films from Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes but from all reports he approached this concept in a skilful and cinematic way. I'm excited.
1: 127 HOURS (2010)
Location: Down a ravine, under a boulder.
Does it cheat?: Not exactly. While about three-quarters of the film does take place with our central character stuck in a ravine, director Danny Boyle finds ingenious ways to depict flashbacks and hallucinations. Never betraying the claustrophobic feeling of the situation though.
Any good?: Apparently it is brilliant. Chameleon and master of all genres Boyle, makes a simultaneously traumatic, kinetic and feel-good film out of the most unlikely material. The true story of hiker Aron Ralston is told unflinchingly and those familiar with the story will shudder when I say that Boyle pulls no punches in showing what happens. There have been multiple cases of audience members fainting at screenings recently. This is a highly anticipated film which may appear in some form at the Oscars next year.


I would have had Dogville but from the perspecitive of an entire story taking part across a whole town which was in fact just the one location. Haven't seen a umber of those films and Lebannon sounds quite interesting.

Ok, so I saw Lebanon and was sorely disappointed. It's more "Borer" than "Thriller". The story is only 1/3 there, the characters are one dimensional, there's no tension, and the director successfully made a supposedly-claustrophobic tank look like a roomy 2 bedroom apartment.

I loved Frozen! Found it a bit stomach-churning :P

Another one is Exam - worth a look-see I reckon.

A great list but strangely I have only seen two films on it (LEBANON and PHONE BOOTH). Will need to hunt the rest down, and I can't wait for BURIED (127 HOURS? Love Franco... not big on Boyle. We'll see who wins out).
Anyway, I thought I'd share this link from The A.V. Club. For those who think truly great TV can be on par with truly great Film (like I do), here they've assembled a list of 19 TV episodes set in a single location. Not all are thrillers mind you, but the majority (HOMICIDE, THE SOPRANOS, X-FILES etc.) certainly are:,42284/

Cheers for that link!! Brings back some great memories and reminds me that I am missing some great TV shows (I still havent seen Breaking Bad!! How shit is that?? I know I am gonna love it so I keep procrastinating and not watching it).
I always have faith in Boyle. He is such a kinetic and interesting filmmaker even when he misfires but holy crap I cant go passed BURIED for bull shit crazy concept...

Really dug this. One of my favourite things you've put on the page :-) I remember 12 angry men really engaged me when I first saw it in high school, and I was amazed a film could sustain my interest in just one location.

Keen to check out Buried, Lebanon and maybe the ski lift one hehehe.l

Ah, this sub-genre of film making is a favourite of mine, having spent many nights as a film student pondering the idea of how to make a cheap, engaging film set in one location! I've only seen 3 of these films, but plan on catching another 3 as their released. Lebanon sounds like the most interesting one for me as I love the scene from Buffalo Soldiers when they're in the tank!

Also I think Phone Booth is a cheat. It's more a film set on a street corner than a film confined to a phone booth.

What about Barbershop? ;)

Next list: Comedies set in a single location! Numbers 1 to 5 will all be BIODOME!!!

Very nice list, although I think you're far too easy on films that may or may not have cheated. It's been a while since I've seen Phone Booth, but isn't there an absolute ton of material away from the phone booth? And surely flashbacks and the like count as cheating, no?

Films based on plays should count, simply because the temptation is there for the filmmaker to get away from the location. Both Glengarry Glen Ross and 12 Angry Men actually do include scenes outside of their location (courthouse steps, or a bar, for instance). Hitchcock's Rope avoided this temptation, that was one that should have been in there!

Speaking of single take films, I'm going to throw my vote up for the underrated Russian Ark.

True, I was kinda easy on a few of the films (it's funny that you picked up on Phone Booth as that was the one that I almost dropped and replaced with a single take film. Not Russian Ark though, I was gonna put in Adam Mason's Pig). Depending on how the extraneous material is handled I can sometimes accept flashbacks and hallucinations as not cheating. Sometimes the films that do stick to their guns lose my interest.

The reason why I'm not interested in films based on plays is that I find the potential for a pure form of cinema to come out of scenarios that are more compressed than a mere theatrical set. The creativity of the director can really shine through. Apart from one or two in the list I think every one of those films above could never be stage plays. They are intrinsically cinematic. Lebanon is a perfect example.

Cheers for the comment man!