I have a strange fascination for "Locked in a Box" horror movies. Or thriller movies, more correctly. In my personal definition, thrillers are movies where deaths and terror are happening due to someone having a diabolical plan. There's a brain behind the horror, and the smarter the brain, the better the movie is, for me.
This is especially true for "Locked in a Box" movies. The typical pattern involves a group of strangers waking up in a room together (or finding each other in a series of rooms), and realizing that they need to figure out a way to escape.
(Some spoilers follow, but odds are, they're none you really care about.)
The various Saw movies all work on this essential idea, but I've found them somewhat dissatisfying. Usually because the solutions to the "puzzles" have less to do with using one's brains, and more to do with having the intestinal fortitude to muscle through whatever pain Jigsaw's traps are causing in order to escape. They are more about gore than cleverness. (The one possible exception, in my opinion, was in Saw V, where the main group of trapped people each act selfishly to get past each trap-- one dying in each trap-- only for the final two to realize at the end that it would have been possible for everyone to cooperate and survive.)
Possibly one of the most interesting of these is Cube. At least, it's interesting to me, since all the puzzlies that the people inside need to solve are math-based. It's fairly clever along those lines. However, while I appreciate the level of mystery behind the situation-- the characters never discover why they've been put in the Cube, or who put them in there-- on some level it feels like a cop-out. It feels like the filmmakers themselves never figured out the answer, and decided an open mystery was better than a lame answer.
Speaking of lame answers, Shadow Puppets has it in spades. Despite boasting a decent cast of recognizable genre actors (Jolene Blalock, James Marsters and Tony Todd), and a decently spooky first hour. It starts out with Blalock and Marsters waking up in cells of a sanitarium of some sort, with no memory in their underwear. As they search around they find a handful of others in the same condition. And there's a shadow creature killing people off. Neat. But it falls completely off the rails in the last third. This hospital was doing memory-erasing experiments, and tried it on a guy who was brain-dead. Apparently this is like xeroxing a mirror or something, and it creates a shadow monster that eats people. Or, SOME people-- apparently if you are in bright light, it leaves you alone, OR if you have no strong identity (like being mind-wiped and in your underwear). Leaving alone the ludicrousness of the shadow monster randomly eating whoever, cheesy effects, and James Marsters suddenly becoming the Secret Bad Guy... I'm just trying to wrap my head around logistics. See, the braindead guy was the third person mindwiped, creating the shadow monster... but then why was he still hooked up to the memory-erasing machine when five other people were erased after that? How did those five people get erased and put in their various cells to wake up in while the Shadow Monster Apocalypse was apparently already underway? Why, if two of them were legitimate patients who got mind wiped, and the rest were employees mindwiped against their will, is there a single locker room that has eight lockers with everyone’s files and everyone’s clothes, as if the eight of them had come in together? Who set that room up and why? Why does James Marsters mindwipe five people so they won’t, apparently, complain to HR or something about his mindwipe of the braindead guy, when his entire facility is already some bizarre nightmare. Seriously, the place is an underground bunker with only one entrance/exit, which is hidden in the middle of the woods. I can’t imagine anyone going into work there and thinking, “You know, up until this point I thought things were on the up and up, but now that I see them using the mind erasing machine on a guy already in a coma and accidently making a shadow monster of doom, clearly I need to go and file a report with my union rep or something.” I'm wondering if there was some sudden funding pullout or something that forced them to throw together a nonsense ending.
That, at least, had some degree of high concept. Far less successful is the clearly no-budget affair Breathing Room. There, it seems like the filmmakers felt the raw tension of "fourteen strangers trapped in a room for a deadly game" was all they needed, even though there's pretty much no script or story there at all. There is no game, just a handful of arbitrary rules (though the fact that one person is killed for breaking the rule "players must wash their hands" was mildly amusing, showing that all the rules are equally enforced despite their arbitrariness.) Players are picked off one by one, for no real reason, as there is no reason why these people are chosen. There's a bit of a hint that a couple of them "deserve it", in that there are a pedophile, rapist and murderer in the mix, but this never pays off. There is a mildly clever idea that #14, the character set-up as the obvious "Final Girl" IS the Final Girl, but that's because she's actually the killer behind it all. Why? To what end? The movie doesn't know.
All this is why I actually found Nine Dead relatively refreshing. I'm not going to lie to you, it's not brilliant or anything, but there actually is a certain degree of point to the whole proceeding. Nine people find themselves trapped together in a room, and a masked man tells them he'll kill one of them every ten minutes until they figure out what their connection is and why they've been brought together. It's a decent script, and is worth checking out, even if most of the performances in it are a bit one note.
Another winner is the stylish Exam, which wins out because it's not a deadly trap, but things get tense and deadly because the people trapped in the room (but they aren't trapped, they could choose to walk out at any time) are just that cutthroat about winning the job promised to the successful candidate. It's not completely satisfying (I wasn't crazy about how none of the candidates knew what the job they were competing for actually was, or for whom), but the strong filmmaking craft in play here more than makes up for it.
Any other favorites in this subgenre?