This is part two of a series on chamber horror. A link to the first part of the series is at the end of this piece.
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?
The following essay avoids spoilers.
There’s Someone Outside
Naturally, one of the easiest settings for chamber horror is a home. It can also be the most frightening, as it’s somewhere we all spend time, unlike an elevator or a cave, as featured in the films I talked about previously. It’s a place we consider safe, yet these films play on that assumption.
Of course, there are countless horror films set in a house, apartment, or trailer, but some films particularly highlight the tension between the interior and exterior or feature entrapment, whether self-inflicted or not. As well, chamber horror features low-budget scares, especially those wrought through clever editing rather than special effects or more, and features tense relationships and paranoia among the protagonists.
The Strangers (2008) is a highly choreographed series of knocks and bangs, as masked strangers play a game with broken-up couple James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler), gradually working their way into a farmhouse. This film keeps the tormentors frighteningly vague, giving them no identity beyond their masks and a few lines.
As in classic slasher films, the villains have no motive for terrorizing their victim. Yet unlike in the classics, the action is largely confined to a house that the killers seem supernaturally able to invade. I agree with some critics who have mused that the film seems to be commenting on the tension between urban and rural environments, as I expand upon below, but I also believe that The Strangers is pointing out the fears that we have about our own identity and that our choices might cause us to lose everything. And that’s scary.
Honorable Mention: Them
The Strangers was likely inspired by Them (2006), which similarly features a couple terrorized by a group of mysterious people. Them does include locations other than the house, but still demonstrates classic chamber horror elements, such as a contrast between a small interior and expansive exterior, low-budget scares, class commentary, and a sense of existential dread. However, it lacks a tense relationship among the protagonists, which is a key feature of chamber horror.
Honorable Mention: They Come Knocking
As we’ve established, strangers knocking on doors and begging to come in is scary. They Come Knocking, part of Blumhouse’s Into the Dark series, plays on vampire tropes as a grieving family locks themselves into their camper against childlike creatures who slowly manipulate them into coming out. Set in a desert, They Come Knocking is extremely well edited and shot, but it doesn’t quite qualify as chamber horror because some of its most frightening scenes take place in the open desert. However, the film does feature familial tension, which drives the narrative, providing a compelling character study and a heartbreaking portrait of grief.
There’s Someone Inside
Eventually, the strangers come inside. But what’s scarier than that is to discover that the monster has been there the whole time.
The Thing (From Another World) (1951, 1982, 2011)
Nothing will keep you inside like blistering Antarctic winds. Although many films have played upon Cold War-era fears of monsters among us, the extreme setting of The Thing most effectively creates a sense of doom. The literal cold prevents any plausible escape from the titular monster while symbolizing the chilling effect of paranoia on human interaction. As things catch fire both literally and figuratively, the film explores the depths of humanity’s darkness and suggests that everyone, not just our enemies, has the capacity for evildoing.
By trapping its characters in a remote location surrounded by deadly weather, The Thing forces its characters to not only be cooped up together, but also to reach peak paranoia. The 1982 film in particular plays well on these tensions, using shadowy, cramped cinematography that contrasts with the oppressive expanse of ice outside. That’s something lost in the sleek, explosive 2011 “preq-make.” Ultimately, The Thing suggests that anyone is capable of becoming a monster, and that’s a gritty and disgusting revelation that deserves an aesthetic to match.
For a film that truly bakes paranoia into every element, look no further than Rosemary’s Baby. The bulk of the action takes place in the creepy apartment that Rosemary (Mia Farrow) apartment shares with her husband, Guy. As Rosemary ails throughout her pregnancy, she’s confined to her home — but it’s also clear to the viewer that she’s been imprisoned there by husband and neighbors. As Rosemary grows increasingly suspicious of their behavior, strange things start to happen, and she slowly realizes that the apartment has served as the venue for some horrific events.
Rosemary’s Baby hits all the hallmarks of chamber horror: a trapped protagonist, a sense of dread and futility, high tensions among its characters, a stark contrast with the outside world, supernatural elements, class commentary, and low-budget horror. Based on an excellent novel written by Ira Levin, who also wrote The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby is also a terrifying portrait of commodification and abuse of women.
Honorable Mention: Identity
Identity is a slasher film set in a hotel that no one seems able to escape. As the guests, who come from all walks of life, become increasingly paranoid that the killer is one of them, the ferocious storm outside becomes a metaphor for the anxiety brewing among its characters and the increasingly brutal slaughter. As it turns out, these chamber elements have a very specific purpose, revealed in the twist ending. However, Identity does lose some of its chamber horror points for relying upon gore as a source of scares.
In all these films, much of the paranoia and other tension among the protagonists revolves around class differences. If you’ve noticed that these films are primarily set in very rural or very wealthy homes, there’s a reason why: Chamber horror is particularly good at exploring class conflict, because it relies upon violating a sense of security that characters would reasonably expect in either situation, while highlighting the contrast between the rural and the urban. Moreover, chamber-style character dynamics work best when characters are very different from each other, and so chamber horror is more likely to draw those differences from class divisions.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series, in which I shift from chamber horror to body horror to explore how and why we’re fascinated with stories of humans’ transformation into monsters.