Movies with big budgets tend to do a lot of globe-hopping to exotic locations; others create tension or drama by restricting their characters to one room or location. Check out eight great films that kept it simple.
1. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Nearly two decades after 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet directed this oddball drama, based on a true story, about a pair of inept bank robbers who mount a confrontation with the authorities after their half-baked plans fall apart. Featuring Al Pacino and John Cazale as the crooks and Charles Durning as the cop assigned to negotiate with these increasingly feckless criminals, Lumet captures the strange, amusing, and oddly relatable relationships that evolve throughout the film—first as motives to put the plot in motion, but eventually they underscore the choices, paths taken and abandoned, that lead us all to inevitable crossroads in our lives.
Where to watch it: HBO Max
2. Clue (1985)
As the first-ever movie based on a board game, Clue takes all the classic tropes of the one it’s based on and scrambles them up into a delightful romp that has since become a cult classic. Set in a secluded New England mansion, the film features an all-star cast including Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Michael McKean as characters who all have a reason to kill, an instrument to do it, and an alibi when they become the prime suspect. Three different endings were created to keep audiences in the dark (and offer different options for multiple viewings), but the big thrill is getting locked inside that creaky mansion and trying to figure out the mystery.
Where to watch it: Amazon Prime via IMDb TV
3. Phone Booth (2003)
Colin Farrell makes the mistake of picking up a public pay phone and getting caught in the crosshairs of a killer in this tense thriller from director Joel Schumacher.
Where to watch it: Amazon Prime
4. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut was a bracing blast of cold water to Hollywood, a riveting, character-rich drama about a group of thieves assembled for a heist that devolved into violence and infighting. Taking place almost exclusively inside a warehouse, the various members of this motley crew exchange profane barbs as they attempt to work out what happened during the job, and what to do now that it’s over. Featuring one of the most gruesome scenes Tarantino ever wrote (which, notably, you actually don’t ever see), the film feels as powerful and revelatory now as it did back in 1992, as you’re trapped inside that room while the dogs turn on each other.
Where to watch it: HBO Max
5. Clerks (1994)
Shot for a little over $25,000 at a pivotal moment in the growth of independent cinema, Kevin Smith launched his career with this film, which is set inside the convenience store where he used to work. Featuring two twenty-something nobodies musing about romance, adulthood, and pop culture, Smith captured the voice of a generation even as he conceived an escalating series of side-splitting scenarios and created his own C-3PO and R2D2, Jay and Silent Bob, who became the eventual observers and connective tissue of the View Askewniverse.
Where to watch it: HBO Max
6. Pontypool (2008)
Directed by Bruce McDonald from an adaptation of Tony Burgess’s novel written by the author himself, Pontypool conceives a uniquely fascinating idea: what if an infection or virus could be caused not by blood or bacteria but the human voice? Stephen McHattie plays a shock jock trapped inside his radio station after people in his audience—and the outside world—begin succumbing to this unknown, unexplainable phenomenon. A zombie movie that takes that familiar epidemic from a uniquely intellectual perspective, McDonald’s film creates both visceral tension and the unique existential terror of an unseen, detectable, and yet impossible-to-pin-down threat.
Where to watch it: Amazon Prime via AMC+
7. Dredd (2012)
Before moving on to direct Ex Machina and Annihilation and create FX’s Devs, Alex Garland wrote this franchise reboot for Judge Dredd in which the comic character (played here by Karl Urban) gets locked inside a high-rise run by crime lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, as ruthless as she was playing Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones). Brutally violent but visually gorgeous, Garland and director Pete Travis reinvent the character for a new generation in a decidedly more serious and imposing way, but it’s the looming building containing all the characters that creates a pressure cooker that cannot help but explode in the biggest, most glorious way possible.
Where to watch it: Hulu
8. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Mike Flanagan is easily one of the great journeymen of the modern era of horror, and his adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game expertly captures the feverish, hallucinatory uncertainty of a woman left to fend for herself—and figure out a way to survive—when her husband dies of a heart attack after handcuffing her to a bedpost. Carla Gugino gives a showstopping performance as Jessie, stuck in frantic circumstances that propel her through some particularly unhappy reflections, repressed memories, and (possibly?) real visions as she attempts to escape the prison of a beach-house bedroom.
Where to watch it: Netflix
An earlier version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2021.