Indie filmmakers are often advised to limit films to the minimum number of sets, and I can personally vouch for this: moving from place to place and setting up over and over again in new locations wears everyone out and eats up valuable slate time.
Some films make a virtue out of this minimalist approach: Exam (review to follow) and the Cube series are all based around ingeniously designed one-room sets, while Buried goes even further and sets all the action in a coffin. Other variations include 127 Hours featuring a protagonist trapped on a mountain, while the two swimmers in Open Water spend the entire movie treading water and avoiding sharks.
This inventiveness also extends to other minimalist films like Phone Booth which is based around one location although the action does cut away sometimes, or The Hole (2001, starring Thora Birch, not the many other films with the same name) with a single location for about two-thirds of the film.
This is not a new phenomenon and there are some classic one-room films: Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men is superb and influential (leading into, for example, several of Tony Hancock’s television plays.) Several people also recommended Hitchcock’s Rear Window to me, a classic film I have yet to see.
There are also plenty of films that are limited to a single building or suite of rooms such as 1408 or Paranormal Activity. Films set inside aeroplanes also have a similar feel – Flightplan, Snakes On A Plane, Airplane! A group of people trapped in a house is a trope of the whodunnit genre, from Agatha Christie’s novels and their adaptations to another classic Sleuth: as with Cube, Exam and Paranormal Activity, the limitations are part of the puzzle which has to be solved if we are to escape.
One-location films subvert the potential scope of cinema – the freedom of the camera, and therefore the narrative, to go anywhere. It’s closer to theatre where, with exceptions, a small number of locations is the rule. These films also create an intense experience by playing on common fears of confinement. There may be a metaphorical explanation for many of these locations: life itself, or the Earth, is limited in all sorts of ways, and ultimately there is only one escape from it although we may dream of others.
With thanks to all the blogcatalog members who helped me research this article.