This refers to thrillers in which an individual or individuals are held prisoner by a captor. The drama of the story centers around a rollercoaster ride of their attempts to escape with possibilities of doing so being built up and the disappointment as hopes are dashed. Other imprisonment thrillers focus on the perverse relationship that may grow between captor and captive, or else focus on the torture and degradations inflicted on captives.
A variant on the imprisonment thriller is the survival thriller where an individual or individuals is trapped in a locale (sometimes by circumstances or an individual) and struggles to escape. The survival thriller also encompasses stories set in the wilderness but that falls beyond this theme’s purview of being considered imprisonment.
Also included is what this site calls the Conceptual Containment Thriller, a series of thrillers from the 2010s that seems to take up the challenge to imprison individuals in as small a place as possible and keep them there for the duration.
For films concerning penal institutions where individuals are imprisoned by the state after being deemed guilty of crimes see Prisons.
There is another whole body of films about criminals breaking into people’s homes and imprisoning them and inflicting brutalities. These are more situational imprisonment thrillers than fulll genre examples and are dealt with under their own topic Home Invasion Thrillers
The Abduction and Imprisonment Thriller
The two formative works in the genre are The Collector (1965) and Hammer Films’ The Fanatic/Die, Die, My Darling (1965). In the former, shy Terence Stamp wins the lottery and buys a house where he imprisons object of his desire Samantha Eggar to make her love him. The film is centred in the quirky relationship that plays out between them. In The Fanatic, Stefanie Powers goes to visit her late fiance’s mother, a religious fanatic, only to be made a prisoner by her. The film is centred around her various attempts to escape. The two of these films formed the tropes that make up the abduction and imprisonment thriller.
There have been numerous variants on the two of these since then with the likes of The Devil’s Honey (1986), Scissors (1991), The Maddening (1995), Paranoid (2000), Bad Guy (2001), The Keeper (2004), Marian, Again (2005), Puppy (2005), Captivity (2007), P2 (2007), Rogue River (2012), Estranged (2015), Road Games (2015), The Follower (2016), Hollow Creek (2016), Berlin Syndrome (2017), A Room to Die For (2017) and Stay (2017).
One of the best of these was Pete Walker’s House of Whipcord (1974) in which a woman is imprisoned in a private prison set up by a former judge to punish lax morality. Another fine work was the Stephen King adaptation Misery (1990) in which romance writer James Caan is imprisoned by psychopathic fan Kathy Bates and forced to write a happy ending to his book.
Some of the films like Mum & Dad (2008), The Loved Ones (2009), Hounds of Love (2016) and Pet (2016) move out beyond imprisonment to explore the perverse relationship between captor and captive. In Perfect Skin (2018), the captor even turns his captive into a canvas for his tattoo art.
Boxing Helena (1993) has surgeon Julian Sands become obsessed with Sherilyn Fenn whereupon he abducts her and amputates her arms and legs in an effort to make her love him. The wildest example was Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) with Antonio Banderas as a surgeon who imprisons his daughter’s would-be rapist and surgically transforms him into a beautiful woman and then romances her.
The Factory (2012) and The Womb (2014) both feature women imprisoned and forced to bear children. In Demon Seed (1977), a super-computer decides to keep its creator’s wife a prisoner in order to impregnate her, while in Anything for Jackson (2020) a pregnant woman is imprisoned by Satanists who want to incarnate the soul of their late grandson in her child. On the other side of the coin was Amnesiac (2014) where an amnesiac Wes Bentley is held prisoner by Kate Bosworth who claims to be his wife and demands he give her a child.
Flowers in the Attic (1987) and Flowers in the Attic (2014) concern children who are made prisoners in an attic by their mother, resulting in an incestuous love affair between them. The Seasoning House (2012) concerned a teenage girl trying to escape from East European sex trafficking operation. Both Michael (2011) and Chained (2012) are disturbing works that focus on a young boy held prisoner by respectively a paedophile and a serial killer.
An ingenious variant was The Beguiled (1971) in which Clint Eastwood is a wounded Union soldier during the American Civil War taken in by a Southern girls’ boarding school where he ends up sexually manipulating all of them while confined to a bed. This was less effectively remade as The Beguiled (2017). On the other side of the coin was Antebellum (2020) where successful present-day African-Americans are abducted and imprisoned as slaves in a simulated recreation of the pre-Civil War South.
One notable variant was Bound to Vengeance (2015) concerning a girl escaped from confinement and going on a revenge trail against her captors where the expectations of such the genre were twisted on their head.
The Lesson (2015) concerns a mild-mannered teacher who snaps and imprisons two unruly pupils, torturing them into learning a lesson. St Agatha (2018) features girls imprisoned and tortured at a Catholic convent. In Bitter Feast (2010), a celebrity chef abducts and tortures a food blogger who wrote a blistering review of his restaurant.
In Excess Flesh (2015), a downtrodden roommate snaps after ill treatment by her bitchy, self-absorbed flatmate and imprisons her. In Run. (2020), a wheelchair-ridden daughter is imprisoned by a psycho mother where her imprisonment comes as much by her mobility issues as anything else. Books of Blood (2020) features a house where people are imprisoned in the walls of a house with tongues removed and eyes sewn shut.
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) concerned a man’s escape from years of captivity only to be sent on an existential quest that forces him to question the reasons why he was imprisoned. The English-language remake Oldboy (2013) lacks any of the original’s effect.
Psychos and Serial Killers
Imprisonment and with it a variety of degradations and tortures is a frequent habit of Psychos and Serial Killers as in the likes of the Ideology episode of The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968), It’s Alive! (1969), Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1969), Singapore Sling (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Kiss the Girls (1997), The Cell (2000), Cassadaga (2011), The Meat Puppet (2012), Repentance (2014), The Eyes of My Mother (2016) and Split (2017).
The Backwoods Brutality film frequently features innocent city types being imprisoned and brutalised by backwoods hicks and in-bred hillbillies. The classic works here were Deliverance (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Other have included almost all of the Texas Chainsaw sequels, House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Ordeal (2004), Storm Warning (2007), Timber Falls (2007), Pig (2010) and Bloody Hell (2020), among others. Purposes for imprisonment in these frequently involve cannibalism or breeding material.
Particularly brutal among these were The Great American Snuff Film (2003), Wolf Creek (2005) and sequel, Broken (2006) and Sick Girl (2007), which push the degradations and tortures inflicted on the imprisoned to an extreme. Martyrs (2008) pushes the imprisonment genre to a grim extreme where the captured are tortured to become said martyrs to prove the existence of an afterlife.
The People Under the Stairs (1991) concerned a house burglar discovering children imprisoned in a labyrinthine house by a sinister couple. Since then there has been a spate of films about house burglars breaking into homes to find finding something far more sinister – a serial killer or people imprisoned – or where they themselves are captured as in the likes of Don’t Breathe (2016), Bad Samaritan (2018), Monster Party (2018), Villains (2019) and The Owners (2020).
The Torture Porn Film and After
Torture Porn was the nickname given to a new genre of films that emerged in the mid-2000s that placed an emphasis on torture and sadism carried to extremes. For more detail concerning these see Torture Porn Films.
One of the influential hits of the Torture Porn fad was James Wan’s Saw (2004). The surprise success of the film led to a series of sequels – Saw II (2005), Saw III (2006), Saw IV (2007), Saw V (2008), Saw VI (2009), Saw 3D (2010), Jigsaw (2017) and Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021). These concern the serial killer Jigsaw who places victims in elaborate traps where they are required to make extreme choices to save their own lives – the climax of the first film, for instance, required Cary Elwes having to make a decision about whether to saw off his own foot to escape. The sequels place an emphasis on extreme gore but the first Saw is a harrowing locked room thriller.
The other successful hit of the Torture Porn fad was Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) about a trio of tourists in Slovakia who are abducted as victims in an illicit operation that offers murder and torture to paying customers. This led to two sequels with Hostel Part II (2007) and Hostel Part III (2011).
The success of Saw and Hostel produced a substantial number of similar horror films that conduct variants on the set-up of individuals locked in rooms and forced into sadistic games and/or to kill one another to survive. These include Death Tunnel (2005), Broken (2006), The Collector (2009) and sequel, Dread (2009), Kill Theory (2009), The Steam Experiment (2009), Die (2010), Vile (2011), Awaiting (2015), Red Room (2017), Headgame (2018), The Dare (2019) and Anonymous Killers (2020).
A number of films feature people imprisoned and forced to take part in brutal survival games as in Raze (2013), Headgame and Escape Room (2019). In Spare Parts (2020), abducted girls have their arms surgically fitted with weapons and are placed in an arena to fight. The Belko Experiment (2016) has the workers at an office building required to slaughter each other as part of an experiment, while in To Your Last Death (2019) a family is forced to survive tortures in an office building as part of an alien game. (These are covered in more depth under Films About Human Bloodsports and Death Games).
The strange Australian The Clinic (2010) features pregnant women abducted and placed in a maze where they must kill each other to get their babies back. Territories (2010), Undocumented (2010) and Beneath Us (2019) feature the torture and brutalisation of illegal immigrants to the USA.
Await Further Instructions (2018) features a family trapped in a house and being given increasingly more extreme orders via messages from their tv set. 1BR (2019) is about an apartment complex where the heroine is tortured and forcibly inducted into a society where all the other tenants follow a book that provides a strict moral code to become better people. Held (2020) concerns a house where married couples are imprisoned and forced to conform to a marital ideal.
One particularly good variant that took a more existential and less visceral approach was Exam (2009) where a group of job applicants are locked in a room and given a question to answer, resulting in brutality and murder between them. Fermat’s Room (2007) featured mathematicians locked in a room and forced to solve mathematical puzzles to avoid being killed.
The Conceptual Containment Thriller
The Conceptual Containment Thriller is a term that this site has devised to refer to works that imprison their protagonists inside a small confined space for the duration of the film. This began with Phone Booth (2002) where Colin Farrell was trapped inside a phone booth by a sniper and forced to revaluate his self-centred life. You could probably point to earlier works like Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), a thriller that takes pace entirely among shipwreck survivors in the titular boat.
The influential standout in the genre was Buried (2010), which was based around Ryan Reynolds trapped inside a coffin for the duration of the film, reacting only to others via a cellphone, with the film’s camera staying inside the enclosed space with him. This idea of conceptual containment seems to have issued a challenge to subsequent films.
A number of other works followed Phone Booth and Buried, taking up the challenge of imprisoning their cast in as a small a location as possible. The Australian Black Water (2007) took place with the cast imprisoned in a tree by a crocodile in the water below, while Serpent (2017) has a couple trapped in a tent with a deadly snake. Two particularly good variants on this was Burning Bright (2010) concerning two children trapped inside a house with a tiger and Thai-made The Pool (2018) about a couple trapped in an empty pool with a crocodile. .
In Beneath (2013), teens are trapped aboard a canoe on a lake by a monster lurking in the water. In The Shallows (2016), Blake Lively is stranded on a tiny rock by the tide as she is menaced by a lurking shark. This was pushed to a claustrophobic extreme in 47 Meters Down (2017) with two girls trapped in a shark cage surrounded by sharks and with a limited supply of air.
In 247oF (2011), a group of friends are trapped inside a sauna slowly being baked to death, while in 200 Degrees (2017), Eric Balfour is trapped inside a heat kiln and forced to find a million dollars before the temperature rises to the title level. At the opposite extreme, Frozen (2010) had three characters trapped in mid-air aboard a ski chairlift.
Far more uniquely, The Night Chronicles 1: Devil (2010) concerned five people imprisoned in an elevator with The Devil. Gerald’s Game (2017) is a Stephen King adaptation with a wife trapped handcuffed to a bed after a bondage game goes wrong, while Till Death (2021) features a wife handcuffed to her husband’s corpse as she tries to escape hired killers.
A popular variant on the imprisonment thriller is the trope in which a family keep a deformed and/or deranged member of the family locked in the cellar as can be seen in work such as The Black Torment (1964), The Shuttered Room (1967), The Beast in the Cellar (1970) and The Unseen (1981).
There is a number of films about people trapped inside mysterious or alien labyrinths amid death traps as in the likes of Cube (1997) and sequels, Shadow Puppets (2007), Andron (2015) and the incredibly claustrophobic Meander (2020). (These are covered in more detail under Labyrinths). The Stephen King adaptation In the Tall Grass (2019) features people trapped in an endless field of grass that is temporally and topographically shifting.
The recent popularity of real world escape rooms – where people are locked in a room and have to decipher cryptic clues in order to get free – have seen several horror films set around the phenomenon with Escape Room (2017), Escape Room (2017), No Escape Room (2018) and Escape Room (2019) in which the escape rooms variously contain death traps or supernatural threats.
There has been a certain number of films fascinated with people being buried alive as in the Edgar Allan Poe-based Premature Burial (1962), Buried Alive (1990), the abovementioned Buried and the ending of The Vanishing (1988). The Autopsy Room Four episode of Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (2006) featured a paralysed Richard Thomas on a morgue table trying to alert people before morticians cut him open.
There have been several films set around people confined at home on detention bracelets, the most notable being 100 Feet (2008) about a woman trapped in a haunted apartment.
One should also include here survival shelter dramas such as Xavier Gens’ explosive The Divide (2011) about the brutal tensions that emerge between a group of people trapped in a cellar following a nuclear explosion and the similar 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016).
In the arena of the bizarre would be:-
– Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) in which people at a dinner party find they are inexplicably unable to leave
– The strangest among the survival thrillers was Stuck (2007) in which Mena Suvari is impaled inside Stephen Rea’s windscreen in a hit and run whereupon he drives home leaving her there
– The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009) and sequels, which concern a surgeon obsessed with connecting bodies into a single digestive system, a ring of imprisoned people with mouths connected to each other’s anuses
– The Korean Moksha – Or The World and I, How Does That Work? (2012) is an existential parable about a man who wakes up to find himself chained to a pole in a park
– Kevin Smith’s Tusk (2014) in which Michael Parks abducts Justin Long and surgically transforms him into a walrus
– Tau (2018) about a woman imprisoned in a hi-tech apartment where she must bargain with an A.I. to escape
– Vivarium (2019) in which a couple end up in a suburb and find they are unable to leave and are then forced to raise a strangely alien child
- The Fanatic/Die, Die, My Darling (1965)
- The Beguiled (1971)
- House of Whipcord (1974)
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
- Misery (1990)
- The People Under the Stairs (1991)
- Boxing Helena (1993)
- Cube (1997)
- Oldboy (2003)
- The Ordeal (2004)
- Saw (2004)
- Broken (2006)
- Black Water (2007)
- Mum & Dad (2008)
- Martyrs (2008)
- Exam (2009)
- The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)
- Buried (2010)
- Burning Bright (2010)
- Frozen (2010)
- Territories (2010)
- The Divide (2011)
- The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011)
- The Skin I Live In (2011)
- The Woman (2011)
- Chained (2012)
- Amnesiac (2014)
- The Lesson (2015)
- The Belko Experiment (2016)
- The Shallows (2016)
- Await Further Instructions (2018)
- The Pool (2018)
- Beneath Us (2019)
- Meander (2020)
A full list of titles can be found here Imprisonment Thrillers