On the Isle of Sheppey, birdwatcher Roy (Alex Macqueen) settles into a remote hide in the hope of spotting a rare sociable plover to add to his checklist of ornithological species recorded in the British Isles. With his buttoned-down appearance, use of a pen that was given to him by his mother, and habit of talking to a photograph of his wife, Roy does not seem like someone who is well-suited to spending time with others, but he soon has company in the hide when he reluctantly takes in the mysterious Dave (Phil Campbell) during a downpour. The two men engage in awkward exchanges, which are indicative of their opposing social backgrounds, although they eventually bond over chicken paste sandwiches. However, it soon becomes apparent that his new acquaintance may not merely be a man out for a stroll without the appropriate attire, although Roy’s own behaviour is odd enough to suggest that audience loyalty should not be too readily placed.
The concept of strangers engaging in a combative, yet subtly humorous, game of psychological cat-and-mouse in an enclosed location is by no means new, but with its barely concealed class warfare, Marek Losey’s debut feature The Hide makes for a particularly British addition to a rapidly growing sub-genre. The Hide was adapted by Tim Whitnall from his own play, and the roots of this cinematic tradition could be seen to be theatrical; Wait until Dark (1967), in which an Oscar-nominated Audrey Hepburn plays a recently blinded woman who is terrorised by a trio of crooks searching for the stash of heroin that they believe to be in her apartment, originated as a 1966 play by Frederick Knott. Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 play, was filmed by Joseph L Mankiewicz in 1972, then again by Kenneth Branagh in 2007, and revolves around the battle of wits between an ageing mystery writer and his wife’s young lover, with their psychological duel taking place around the former’s country estate. Robert Altman’s screen version of Donald Freed and Andrew M Stone’s Secret Honour (1984) concerns one man in his office, with the man being Richard Nixon (Phillip Baker Hall) and his stream-of-consciousness monologue taking in the Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation.
However, some formidable cinematic talents were exploring the cramped confines of restricted space before the aforementioned theatrical transfers. One of the earliest examples of the sub-genre is Alfred Hitchock’s Lifeboat (1944), which concerns the survivors of a ship torpedoed by a German U-boat, which has also been sunk by engaging in combat with their vessel. The survivors pull another man out of the water, but when he turns out to be the captain of the German U-boat, discussion turns from how the group will survive to what they should do with the enemy in their midst. In 1954, the Master of Suspense would deliver Rear Window, a classic thriller concerning a wheelchair-bound photographer (James Stewart), who spies on his neighbours out of boredom, only to come to suspect that the resident across the courtyard may have murdered his wife. The more socially conscious Sidney Lumet also weighed in with 12 Angry Men (1957), which takes place almost entirely in a jury room where 12 nameless men decide whether a teenage boy accused of murdering his father is guilty; Lumet employed telephoto lenses to enhance the sweaty atmosphere of the room as juror 8 (Henry Fonda) gradually persuades the others to reconsider their verdict.
The seemingly restrictive elements of films set in confined spaces (one location, small cast, emphasis on dialogue over action) has made the sub-genre extremely appealing to independent filmmakers working with limited resources. However, these films often break the unwritten rules of the sub-genre; James Wan’s Saw (2004) opens with two men waking up at opposite sides of a filthy bathroom, with a dead body between them, while Simon Brand’s comparatively little-seen Unknown (2006) begins with five men coming around in a locked-down warehouse with no memory of who they are or how they got there. However, Saw segues into flashbacks to show how the captive men came to be in their predicaments, while Unknown alternates between desperate escape attempts and the parallel FBI investigation. Even Quentin Tarantino’s legendary debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), which takes place in an abandoned warehouse where a gang of sharp-suited criminals have arranged to rendezvous following the heist, is interspersed with flashbacks to the ill-fated jewellery store robbery and the assembly of the crew.
Two independently financed examples of the sub-genre that do not play as fast and loose with its conventions are Vincenzo Natali’s ingenious Cube (1997) and David Slade’s gripping Hard Candy (2005). In Cube, six strangers wake up in a cubical maze and have to use their combined skills to defy a series of death traps in order to escape, with Natali offering ingenious science fiction on a bargain-basement budget by utilising the same set repeatedly and simply redressing it. Hard Candy opens with an establishing scene in a trendy coffee shop as 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) meets up with charming photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson) with whom she has corresponded on the internet, but soon relocates to Jeff’s suburban home, where his underage ‘admirer’ drugs and tortures him, convinced that he is a paedophile who uses internet chat rooms as a virtual hunting ground. Hard Candy flirts with the morally questionable ‘torture porn’ of the Saw franchise in a scene in which Hayley freezes Jeff’s body from the waist down in order to emasculate him but, as with The Hide, the film is more interested in toying with the sympathies of the audience, suggesting that Hayley may have accused the wrong man.
If the contemporary confined space films that have emerged from the independent sector have been conceived as vehicles for directors to prove their creativity, the major studio productions that have followed their lead have served as showcases for established stars, as with Rear Window and Wait until Dark in earlier eras. In Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2002), Colin Farrell’s slick hustler unravels due to taunts from the sniper who has him in his sights, while in 1408 (2007), John Cusack’s cynical writer spends a night in a ‘haunted’ room at a New York hotel, encountering some instances of paranormal activity before descending into madness as the décor of the room comes to reflect the demons within his own psyche. Both stars acquit themselves admirably, although the studio trappings of Phone Booth and 1408 entail that the audience never has any doubt that the trapped protagonist of either film will not fail to find a way out of their respective predicament.
As indicated, films that take place in a confined space usually find increasingly frayed tempers resulting in irrational action, with John Hughes’s high school detention drama The Breakfast Club (1985) and Kevin Smith’s convenience store comedy Clerks (1994) standing out as rare humorous entries in a sub-genre that is better exemplified by the almost unbearable claustrophobia of Wolfgang Petersen’s submarine classic Das Boot (1981), which dives ‘down below’ with the crew of a German U-boat during World War II. It is also a sub-genre that, in contrast to most other forms of cinematic escapism, is becoming logistically smaller as opposed to bigger; 2010 will also see the release of Buried, in which Ryan Reynolds wakes up to find that he has been buried alive inside a coffin with only a cell phone and a lighter to assist him. Although this thriller by Rodrigo Cortés sounds like the finale of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988) stretched to 90 minutes, it does at least promise to add a political dimension to the sub-genre in that the trapped character is an American contractor working in Iraq. The Hide also offers some social-political commentary, with Roy’s discussion of his redundancy and how it has soured his marriage, but it works primarily as a taut, low-key thriller that utilises the confined space of its titular location – not to mention the sparsely atmospheric sounds of the moor on which it is situated – to unsettling effect.