Dark: Chamber Films of the Horror Genre — Part 2

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

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.

Try not to jump when you see it…

The Strangers

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

Honorable Mention: They Come Knocking

There’s Someone Inside

The Thing’s suffocating, chilling shots lend itself to the paranoia.

The Thing (From Another World) (1951, 1982, 2011)

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.

Rosemary’s youthful appearance contrasts with the dark curtains, as the light beckons from outside.

Rosemary’s Baby

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

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.

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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