Chamber theatre is a style of theatrical production in which there is typically little to no set (and any set pieces are moved by performers as part of the show), and the emphasis is on the text and character development rather than on theatrics and special effects. One of the best known examples is the chamber drama 12 Angry Men, in which all of the action occurs within a single room where jurors deliberate over a man’s fate. Naturally, this format evolved into film, where small-scale, low-budget films emphasized dialogue and character dynamics — usually, tension and conflict—over big and showy cinema.
Small-scale and low-budget? Sounds perfect for horror filmmakers! I jest, of course… there are some high-budget chamber horror films, as I’ll discuss below. Yet the chamber style empowers the horror genre to tap into its philosophical roots: what does it mean to be human? what does it mean to be good … or evil?
I generally avoided spoilers, but the following essay does contain spoilers for Alien.
The Devil Among Us
A particular subgenre of horror films revolves around entrapment. Although this is a major theme of chamber horror films, as I’ll discuss, there’s a particular horror that derives from the premise of being trapped—especially if you don’t know the people you’re trapped with.
Easy to dismiss as a torture porn flick, Cube has philosophical depth, as characters debate ethics and solve puzzles to escape the Cube, a massive torture chamber comprising hundreds of cube-shaped rooms. The characters realize that the unusual set of people trapped in the Cube were chosen for their respective qualities — both good and bad. This was clever screenwriting that achieved a “slice of humanity” (pun intended) dynamic that allowed for maximum tension and conflict. Ultimately, the perils of the Cube pale in comparison to the darkness that lies within human hearts.
A lesser-known film produced by M. Night Shyamalan, who also wrote the story for it, Devil isn’t a true chamber film as it has other locations, but the bulk of the action takes place in an elevator, where five people are trapped and increasingly suspicious of each other. Then, as the lights in the elevator start flickering, one by one they begin dying. The script cleverly teases each of the main characters as the potential killer, while those watching via security camera debate the existence of the Devil and wonder if he has taken human form.
The Monsters Outside
Although invasion films typically celebrate the grand scale and all the boom-boom effects the filmmakers can muster, a couple stand out as smaller-scale explorations of what people would do in the face of invasion: namely, hide.
Sorry for two Shyamalan films, but I would be remiss to not include Signs. Although it has a science fiction element, it bears more similarity to a horror film: the bulk of the action takes place within a farmhouse in which a family desperately tries to defend itself against creatures that emerge from their cornfield. Shyamalan makes great use of shadows, crevices, and reflections to add to the claustrophobic feeling of the film, and as with most chamber dramas, focuses on character dynamics and philosophical or religious musings: in this case, the tense dynamics of a grieving family and the patriarch’s struggle with faith.
A Quiet Place
A cinematic masterpiece of sound editing, A Quiet Place creates a chilling soundscape that’s so quiet, the sounds we do hear seem deafening. Like Signs, A Quiet Place makes great use of the admittedly creepy aspects of a farm, from the ever-frightening cornfields to the silo to the surrounding forests, and isn’t a true chamber film, stylistically. Its best scenes, however, play upon seclusion and entrapment as the monsters outside force their way in. Like Signs, A Quiet Place focuses on a grieving family’s struggle for cohesion and affirmation and includes a moral quandary, in this case of bringing a baby into a post-apocalyptic world.
Into the Dark
Sometimes, even if you’re caught in a game of cat-and-mouse with a monster, your friend is the one to stab you in the back.
The Descent would be a terrifying horror film even with no monsters, as its characters worm their way through an unknown cave system. The deeper and tighter the caves, the higher the hidden tensions among a group of old friends. The agonizing shots of the spelunkers’ contortion through tiny crevices will fill even non-claustrophobes with a sense of dread. Once the monsters descend, the tensions among the main characters are blown wide open, with the monsters being a mere trigger for the unleashing of the main characters’ dark sides.
Many critics have noted that despite taking place in space and featuring an extraterrestrial creature, Alien is much more of a horror film than a sci-fi one. It’s also a prime example of chamber drama. Although the ship is huge, it becomes smaller and smaller as the chestbursting alien grows larger. Like Signs and A Quiet Place, which owe much to this landmark film, Alien plays with shadows, crevices, doors, and other marks of entrapment and seclusion. It focuses on the human drama that sparks a domino effect of bad and worse decisions surrounding questions of ethics and loyalty. Notably, self-isolation is a recurring theme, culminating in Ripley’s sole survivorship.
Stay tuned for the next essay in this series, where I’ll discuss six more films!