Top 10 Single-Location Films
Hello again! Well, 2020 certainly started out with a global sense of dread, didn’t it? In this unprecedented era of self-quarantine, we are all scrambling to find some semblance of normalcy, even if we know living out our once-daily regimens is impossible right now. But one of the beauties of forced simplicity, in a manner of speaking, is that we all cling to things that enrapture our imaginations and take us far away — in this case, cinema. Watching movies is one of the best ways for us to travel without moving. So, I thought it apropos to compile some of my favorite single-location films in the hopes that watching them will make people feel a bit more positive about staying home. These are films in which the majority, if not the entirety, of the runtime takes place in one primary location. You’ve seen this before with Hitchcock classics like Rope and Rear Window, Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight and a multitude of entries in the horror genre like Dawn of the Dead, Alien, The Shining and my personal favorite, John Carpenter‘s The Thing. Whether it be Ingmar Bergman‘s dismally heartbreaking Brink of Life or John Hughes‘ pubescently poignant The Breakfast Club, single-location movies span many decades and genres reminding us that there is great discovery in the minutiae of singular places. So, let’s dig in.
Chopping Mall (1986)
Dir. Jim Wynorski
LOCATION: Shopping mall
It’s always a bit risky when your local mall decides to roll out a new “state-of-the-art” security initiative. It’s even riskier when you and your friends decide to party in the mall after it locks up, and the new security robots short circuit and go on a killing rampage. Welcome to Jim Wynorski‘s Chopping Mall. While no actual “chopping” occurs in the film, it is chock full of juicy violence, lasers, goofy one-liners, delightfully campy characters, a killer electro-industrial score and pretty much as much schlocky ’80s action you’d expect from such a title. And it’s got Dick Miller, which is always a major plus. Distributed by Roger Corman‘s company, Concorde Pictures, and produced by his wife, Julie Corman, Chopping Mall is the perfect combination of horror, sci-fi and comedy. As a group of rambunctious young mall employees fight for their lives against three killer robots called “Protectors” (or “Killbots,” as the film was originally called), there’s still enough time for sex, booze, rock n’ roll and one hell of a head explosion. The movie features standout performances from genre queens, Kelli Maroney and Barbara Crampton, and it opens with one of the most bizarre and hilarious cameos I’ve ever seen in a film — Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov‘s characters from the classic 1982 cannibal comedy, Eating Raoul. It’s a great ride.
“Thank you. Have a nice day.” – the Protectors
Dir. Pete Travis
LOCATION: 200-story high-rise Mega-Block
As a kid, all I knew about Judge Dredd was that he sort of looked like Magneto from X-Men, and he frowned an awful lot. While that is true, I had no idea how rich and developed the world of Judge Dredd was in the comics of the 1970s and ’80s, and I was hoping there was at least more to the character than Stallone‘s goofy 1995 representation. Enter Pete Travis‘ Dredd from 2012. Karl Urban plays the titular Judge Dredd in charge of keeping the peace in the post-nuclear urban landscape of Mega-City One — a supercity containing the majority of the U.S. and Canada’s eastern seaboard, surrounded by irradiated wasteland. The good Judge along with his temporary new partner, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), get a called to investigate a murder in Peach Trees — a 200-story slum tower block discreetly controlled by the drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her gang. Using Dredd’s brute force and firepower and Anderson’s mutant psychic abilities, the two are forced to blast their way up the building, level by level, in order to confront Ma-Ma herself. This film is so much fun. It’s concise, uncomplicated, incredibly engaging and immensely satisfying. The look of the world is impeccably crafted, and the concept design behind every costume, weapon, vehicle and structure is pure sci-fi eye candy — taken right from the pages of the comic with modern variations. The action is exceptionally well shot, and the use of breathtaking super slow motion cameras sets this film apart from any other action film to come out in the early 2010s. Unfortunately, Dredd didn’t even make its money back at the box office, which is so upsetting considering how many avenues of this world they could’ve explored had it become a franchise. It’s an underrated gem to say the least.
“Your sentence is death.” – Judge Dredd
Dir. Adam Green
LOCATION: Ski lift
My first introduction to director Adam Green was his 2006 bayou bloodfest, Hatchet. I love the Hatchet films, as well as many of Green’s Halloween shorts, but 2010’s Frozen is on another level (no, definitely not that Frozen). Three friends, played by Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers and Emma Bell, go on a ski trip only to become (due to a few very unfortunate coincidences) stranded on a ski lift 50 feet above the ground after the resort closes for the week. Massive bummer. What ensues is a terrifying series of harrowing events and emotional extremes — conveyed especially well by Bell’s performance. The main element of this film that really holds everything together are the three college students that start out as fairly hackneyed horror movie personas but soon evolve (or perhaps devolve) into deeply raw and profoundly human characters. Green wanted this film to look as real as possible, and it certainly does. It was filmed entirely on location in Utah during a particularly awful winter, and on top of that, the actors were filmed on an actual ski lift 50 feet above the ground. No warm studios or safe sound stages. Their fear was real, the weather was real and the wolves were real. That’s all I’ll say about that. Frozen is funny in moments, deeply sad and disturbing in others and generally bleak but with a positive glimmer of hope. It’s fantastic.
“DON’T YOU LET HER LOOK!” – Dan Walker
Gerald’s Game (2017)
Dir. Mike Flanagan
Whether you gravitate towards Mike Flanagan‘s films or not, it’s no doubt he has established himself as one of today’s quintessential horror auteurs. His 2017 entry, Gerald’s Game, is a remarkable film — not only because the acting and cinematography is phenomenal, but because it explores the human psyche in such a visually creative way. Flanagan favorites Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood star as Jessie and Gerald Burlingame — a married couple who vacation to a remote lake house for some much-needed R&R and marriage mending. They engage in a sexual fantasy initiated by Gerald in which Jessie’s hands are cuffed to adjacent bed posts. She is clearly uncomfortable with this, and when her husband refuses to uncuff her, she kicks him off the bed, he has a heart attack and dies. This is about 15 or so minutes into the movie. There’s no one around for miles and no phone within reach, so Jessie has to figure out how to free herself and escape her nightmarish bedroom. She starts to hallucinate versions of herself and Gerald as they influence her panic-stricken mind and uncover a horrific, traumatizing past. While I thought a couple scenes at the very end felt a bit needless, it didn’t lessen my overall enjoyment of the film. Flanagan makes some highly emotional and beautiful looking movies, and this is one of his best. Based on the 1992 Stephen King novel, Gerald’s Game perfectly illustrates why you should absolutely clear a sex scenario with your partner before diving in headfirst.
“Who knows what people see in the moment of their solitary death.” – Gerald Burlingame
The Guilty (2018)
Dir. Gustav Möller
LOCATION: Emergency call center
It’s rare to find a first-time director that completely knocks it out of the park. For every Easy Rider, there are far more Alien 3s — I know that’s divisive, I don’t hate it but it’s not great, and that’s besides the point. Young Swedish filmmaker, Gustav Möller, made a whopper of a debut with The Guilty. This film takes place entirely within the confines of a small emergency call center in Copenhagen and centers on a police officer named Asger Holm, played masterfully by Jakob Cedergren. Asger has been assigned to answer emergency calls pending an investigation surrounding some of his conduct on duty. When we meet him, he is bored, impatient and just wants to finish his nightly shift so he can rest before for his trial the following day. He soon receives a call from a woman who sounds a bit off. She cautiously alludes to the fact that she has been abducted and is currently in a van somewhere on the highway. What unfolds from that point is a series of shocking and horrifying revelations that make you shudder — conveyed simply through a sequence of phone calls. The camera fixes itself to Cedergren’s face and little else for 90 minutes, and it’s some of the most tense and compelling cinema I’ve seen in years. His performance is truly mesmerizing, and the lack of music with only very sparse, almost subconscious, sound design makes you feel like a participant in the drama. As a viewer, you can imagine every detail of what is being described as you would whilst reading a gripping novel. It’s a really unique way to use the visual medium, and it’s pretty mind-blowing that The Guilty never gets even remotely stale or repetitive. Möller is absolutely a filmmaker to watch.
“Would you like to come…to The Blue Planet?” – Iben
It’s a Disaster (2012)
Dir. Todd Berger
LOCATION: Suburban home
It helps to dabble in the absurd when you’re stuck at home with few cures for the doldrums. Finding humor in isolation is important — illustrated beautifully by Todd Berger‘s It’s a Disaster. The film follows a group of friends in a suburb of Los Angeles getting together at one of their homes for brunch, when, unbeknownst to them, a number of dirty bombs are detonated in the city. As they eventually come to the realization that all communications are down and the air outside the house is toxic, their psyches begin to break down into unfiltered panic, depression, anger and lust. It’s apparent how insular and co-dependent this group of friends is, almost to an incestuous degree, which makes following David Cross‘ character highly entertaining since he’s just meeting these people for the first time along with us. The cast is hilarious — particularly Cross, Julia Stiles and America Ferrera — as they play off each other becoming more and more wrapped up in the odd and sudden intensity of the situation. It’s a Disaster shows the lighter side of how each of us vary in dealing with imminent death, and every character has an amusing, sometimes out-of-left-field, turning point that’s very fun to watch. It’s a solid comedy.
“So what you’re saying is that when we die we’re going to a place where 106 billion people are sitting around playing the harp. That would be really fucking annoying.” – Hedy
The Old Dark House (1932)
Dir. James Whale
LOCATION: Old dark house (naturally)
If you enjoy spooky trapped-in-a-house movies, you gotta give it up for the James Whale original classic, The Old Dark House. This film is a personal favorite of mine — typically making its way onto my yearly Halloween movie rotation. With a runtime of only 72 minutes, it packs in everything you need from a pre-Code B&W horror movie: a “dark and stormy night,” a creepy old house with faulty lighting, a violent disfigured butler (Boris Karloff), a twitchy old alcoholic, an ancient bed-ridden man slowly decaying upstairs, a secretly deranged pyromaniac and a beautiful young heroine. That beautiful young heroine, by the way, is played by the late, great Gloria Stuart — perhaps best remembered by today’s audiences for playing the elderly version of Rose in James Cameron‘s Titanic. Whale’s film tells the age-old story of a group of unwitting travelers seeking shelter from a nasty storm. They settle upon the nearest abode for refuge — the only problem being it’s occupied by a very oddly natured and potentially dangerous family. The main concern of the story quickly becomes: Will our weary companions survive the night? Masterfully photographed by Hollywood legend, Arthur Edeson, and featuring charmingly idiosyncratic performances from Ernest Thesiger and Charles Laughton, The Old Dark House is eerie, demented and very funny — the perfect film to watch late at night, under a blanket accompanied by a cup of something warm.
“It’s only gin, you know. Only gin. I like gin.” – Horace Femm
Open Water (2003)
Dir. Chris Kentis
LOCATION: Middle of the Atlantic
Out of all the possible places in which to get stranded, the middle of the ocean has to be one of the all-time worst. You can of course drown, get horribly sunburned, drain a massive amount of body heat, lose feeling in the extremities, get severely dehydrated and scream towards the heavens at the cruel irony of that situation — and let’s not forget, you are far from alone in the ocean. Unfortunately, all of these elements and more plague the two protagonists of Chris Kentis‘ Open Water. The film is based on the real life story of a married couple, played by Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan, who decide to go on a scuba diving trip to help reinvigorate their floundering relationship. As part of a group of 20 people, they boat out to the designated dive site, and everybody begins exploring underwater. When it’s time to go, the dive master unfortunately counts two other divers twice while our duo is still underwater, and the boat starts heading back to faraway shores. After surfacing, there is much confusion before they realize they were left stranded in deep, dark waters with no land in sight. The couple floats together for multiple days and has to contend with, among many other things, a frenzy of sharks (real sharks were used while filming). It’s horrifying. Aside from being a really well-executed and brutal film, the characters feel very much true to life — down to the dissection of their relationship issues and bottled-up resentment of one another. Open Water was shot on handheld digital cameras and has a very low-budget aesthetic, which I think only enhances the reality of the film. It’s one that will stick with you and make you feel thankful you’re on dry land.
“I wanted to go skiing!” – Susan Watkins
Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
LOCATION: Country manor
Prolific American director Joseph L. Mankiewicz knew the onscreen gold he was going to capture by pitting an old legend against a hot younger lead when he made Sleuth. The film stars Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as two impossibly British gentlemen from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Olivier plays a man named Andrew Wyke — a highly successful author of mystery and crime fiction who invites his wife’s Italian hairdresser lover, Milo Tindle (Caine), to his home to discuss the infidelity. Wyke and Tindle start out very cordially with a few drinks and a dry, dispassionate back and forth regarding love and marriage. Over the next two hours, however, the two play a series of role-reversing cat and mouse games as each man peels back more layers which reveal one another’s true intentions for meeting. The tone of the movie is largely playful and full of sharp, quippy dialogue, but there are moments that turn sinister — many times accompanied by hauntingly psychedelic sounds and images of Wyke’s many talking toys. The manic 1970s-style editing of the film can certainly throw you for a loop, but it keeps the viewing experience interesting as the entirety of the runtime takes place within the grounds of the country estate. Based on a play by Anthony Shaffer (who also wrote the screenplay), Sleuth is a uniquely interesting look at classism, racism, masculinity and ’70s British cinema in general.
“I am pretty much of an Olympic sexual athlete.” – Andrew Wyke
Dir. Joe Begos
LOCATION: VFW hall
What do you get when you mix a bunch of grizzled old veterans, drug-addled mutant punks and a shitload of firepower? You get director Joe Begos‘ newest and most badass film to date, VFW. This movie rules — it combines the world-building weirdness of Escape from New York, the third act tension of Assault on Precinct 13 and the blood-soaked buffoonery of ’80s gore fests like Evil Dead II and Demons. The film stars veteran character actors Stephen Lang, William Sadler, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, George Wendt and David Patrick Kelly as six geezers who spend most of their days drinking and reminiscing at the local VFW hall on the outskirts of a torn up drug-war zone crawling with hopeless junkies and a mutant punk gang that controls the illegal drug trade. Generally, the rule is: As long as the vets don’t bother the punks, the punks won’t bother the vets. But when a girl named Lizard (Sierra McCormick) steals the gang’s stash and ducks into the VFW bar for sanctuary, the punks come a-knocking. Needless to say, tensions rise, and Lizard and her newfound veteran buddies are forced to protect the bar at all costs. This movie is throwback exploitation at its finest. The action is great, the pacing is perfect and the fat synth score makes you melt right into the grimy, neon-drenched canvas. I will say, the only problem I have with this film is that it looks very dark — there are times when some of the action is difficult to make out, even with a high-quality digital copy (the Blu-ray looks fantastic though). However, the lighting didn’t detract from my overall experience. If you turn off your lights and crank up the sound, VFW is gonna blow your brains out.
“We leave at twenty-three hundred hours, or whenever I finish urinating. Whichever comes first.” – Walter Reed
Well, there you go — 10 single-location films to watch while you’re stuck at home. I hope each of you stays safe, healthy and sane for the remainder of this quarantine. And if you do start to feel that gnawing restlessness creep in, remember — you can always pop in a movie, and let your surroundings dissolve for a little while. It feels good.
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