Domestic Horror: Claustrophobic Films Set Inside Apartments


Next Friday at Anthology Film Archives, David Cronenberg’s Shivers is playing — a spiritual companion to J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise, which director Ben Wheatley adapted for the big screen. The film will see a limited release next Friday as well. With Ballard’s maniacal microcosm on the brain, we look back at other movies set inside the claustrophobic confines of an apartment building. These spaces of domestic horror bring to life the troubled minds of the movies’ players and make us thankful for neighbors who merely play their music too loud.


Only in David Cronenberg’s world can there be a slithering STD-transmittable creature that infects the residents of an apartment block, turning them into zombified, sex-crazed fiends.

From critic Keith Phipps:

The recently re-released Shivers (a.k.a. They Came From Within) is Cronenberg’s first film, and it can easily be seen as a more graphic examination of similar themes. Set in an isolated, ultra-modern high-rise apartment building in Cronenberg’s native Canada, Shivers concerns the aftermath of a mad scientist’s attempt to breed a helpful parasite. Designed to bring about a sexual utopia and described as a cross between an aphrodisiac and a disease, the parasite takes the form of what looks like a raw phallus and causes those it infects to couple indiscriminately, often violently. As the infection grows to epidemic proportions, an increasingly smaller number of “normal” people are left trying to fight it off or escape.


The apartment where Catherine Deneuve’s Carol seeks shelter from the world outside begins to crumble and come to life, reflecting the fissures of her own broken mind in Roman Polanski’s stunning film about female madness.

From critic Ed Gonzalez:

Outside the apartment Catherine Deneuve’s Faberge blonde shares with her older sister, Polanski reveals a smooth and jazzy world simmering with casual but richly observed behavioral and dramatic incident. Detail is no less meticulous inside, but the space is fleshier and ever-shifting, with Polanski kneading his audience and main character like lumps of Play-Doh. The feeling the film elicits is tense, totalitarian, and allusive: Polanski’s warping aesthetic is pure obstruction, and the audience’s search for significance in it becomes a means of deciphering Carole’s repulsion for men.


Even without the Nazi uniform and lipstick, Klaus Kinski is exactly the kind of creep you don’t want living in your apartment crawlspace.

From DVD Talk:

Crawlspace is a lean and efficient horror pictures which Schmoeller keeps moving at a solid pace. Set almost entirely inside the building that Gunther owns, the film makes great use of its sets with Kinski working his way through the ventilation ducts secretly spying on the bevy of beauties he sees as both tenants and, of course, likely victims. Kinski is, it should go without saying, the chief reason to sit down with this one. Though he’s not quite as manic here as he was in other, more over the top performances he definitely hits that right balance of unhinged and intense with his take on the character.

The Driller Killer

The struggle of the artist, Ferrara-style. This bleak depiction of a painter living in squalor is a fascinating portrait of ’70s New York subcultures.

From critic Sam Adams:

Abel Ferrara’s 1979 art-grindhouse hybrid The Driller Killer opens with the instruction, “This film should be played LOUD,” but it doesn’t need volume to make an impact. The story of a painter (a pseudonymous Ferrara) whose personal and private frustrations, not to mention the incessant clamor of the punk band practicing next door, drive him to savage acts of murder.

The Sentinel

A model moves into an apartment with dark secrets, and its residents are happy to welcome her to the neighborhood by revealing a gateway to hell.

From writer Brett Gallman:

One of the more unique offerings from the demonic horror cycle, The Sentinel doesn’t actually confine itself to one sub-genre. Instead, it acts as more of a grab bag of 60s and 70s American and British obsessions that makes it the successor to everything from The Exorcist to The Devil Rides Out (Sarandon even vaguely reminds me of Christopher Lee from that film). One can see all of the elements from the big American Satanic trio here: the opening with some ominously intoning Vatican priests echoes The Exorcist and The Omen, while Winner returns the sub-genre to the suffocating confines of an apartment building, à la Rosemary’s Baby. The director also successfully replicates the overbearingly ominous tones of those films as well; while its mystery is compelling, The Sentinel is fuelled by an otherworldly sinister feeling.

Rosemary’s Baby

Part two of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy finds Mia Farrow’s frail Rosemary housebound and pregnant with the devil’s child in a coveted New York City apartment.

From critic Roger Ebert:

He gives the audience a great deal of information early in the story, and by the time the movie’s halfway over we’re pretty sure what’s going on in that apartment next door. When the conclusion comes, it works not because it is a surprise but because it is horrifyingly inevitable. Rosemary makes her dreadful discovery, and we are wrenched because we knew what was going to happen–and couldn’t help her. This is why the movie is so good. The characters and the story transcend the plot. In most horror films, and indeed in most suspense films of the Alfred Hitchcock tradition, the characters are at the mercy of the plot. In this one, they emerge as human beings actually doing these things.

Poltergeist III

We’re not going to try to sell you on the finesse of part three in a horror trilogy, but there’s a chilly mood in Gary Sherman’s Poltergeist III that is surprisingly effective. Supernatural forces invade a modern high-rise, transforming it into a nightmarish landscape and deceptive maze of mirrors.

From the New York Times:

Poltergeist III is made much ghostlier by the death last February of its 12-year-old star, Heather O’Rourke, than by anything that happens on the screen. The setting this time is an impersonally modern high-rise building complex in Chicago, where little Carol Anne (Miss O’Rourke) has been packed off to live with her Uncle Bruce (Tom Skerritt) and Aunt Patricia (Nancy Allen). Poltergeist III is made much ghostlier by the death last February of its 12-year-old star, Heather O’Rourke, than by anything that happens on the screen. The setting this time is an impersonally modern high-rise building complex in Chicago, where little Carol Anne (Miss O’Rourke) has been packed off to live with her Uncle Bruce (Tom Skerritt) and Aunt Patricia (Nancy Allen). Carol Anne, who cried out the famous ”They’re he-eere!” that earned the first ”Poltergeist” its place in history, is still being hotly pursued by whatever it is that blamed her family for building houses on a favorite graveyard.

The Shining

The Overlook Hotel is a showstopper in Stanley Kubrick’s dread-filled horror tale. It also acts as a series of apartments for the occasional longterm guest, including newly hired caretaker Jack Torrance and his troubled family. The labyrinthine setting and Kubrick’s bravura camerawork is a masterclass in suspense.

From critic Jeffrey M. Anderson:

Kubrick embraces the hotel’s giant, brightly lit hallways, rather than the genre’s usual gloomy corridors, as a potential source of horror. After all, the scariest things on earth exist only in our imagination and our nightmares, so who’s to say what’s around that next corner, brightly lit or not? For the movie, Kubrick employed a relatively new invention, the Steadicam, which mounts onto an operator’s body and is secured with an elaborate series of balances and counterbalances, so that the operator can walk freely down the hallways without the camera registering the up and down movement of his gait. Though Kubrick occasionally cuts to shots following Jack and the other characters down the hallways, he also provides first-person POV shots, which plunk the viewer right into the horror.


Witches dwell in a New York City apartment, but their evil can never be fully vanquished in Dario Argento’s visually shocking Inferno.

From writer James Gracey:

Inferno is a somewhat convoluted and wispy story structured around numerous set pieces. It takes its time to unfold and does so in the most languid manner – which only adds to its sinister otherworldliness. Boasting an incredible neo-Gothic look, the film drips with vivid colours and lurid lighting. The look of the film really enhances the dreamlike quality of the story and the complete lack of logic as events unfold. Everything is bathed in warm ambers, stark blues and blood-kissed reds. Characters wander around the vast interior of the creepy house in a somnambulistic state: all wide-eyed and aghast. Rooms exist where they logically speaking should not.