Split is director M. Night Shyamalan‘s latest film, a horror-thriller revolving around a captivity storyline in which three girls are abducted and locked in an underground holding facility. In the week of its theatrical release, we present our pick of some of the creepiest, most horrifying captivity storylines to have graced cinemas and TV screens. Just a quick warning though, there are spoilers ahead…
Of all the examples on this list, Room is arguably the closest to what we might imagine a real-life snatch scenario to be like. Most of us can’t imagine what it would actually be like to be held captive for years, but Room gives us a horrific insight. The room of the title is a shed in the captor’s garden. He’s soundproofed it as best he can, and affixed a code-operated lock to the door. There’s a skylight, which lets in daylight, but the victim, who we only know as ‘Ma’, hasn’t once in all her years under his control been outside those four walls.
We see him rape her on what appears to be a nightly basis. Maybe she used to struggle. She doesn’t any more. Those nightly visits resulted in a pregnancy, and although we only see her in the present, our minds wander to the horror she must have experienced giving birth without medical intervention.
But the most significant twist about Room that sets it apart from other captivity storylines is its willingness to show the aftermath. After she escapes with her son, their efforts to adjust to normal life and the impact on their loved ones are heartrending.
In 2007, Roland Joffé made a film called Captivity. That’s right. The veteran British director who once directed a handful of episodes of Coronation Street and is known for harrowing historical dramas The Killing Fields and The Mission, made a captivity film with torture-porn overtones.
With echoes of both Saw and Hostel, it plays like an attention-grabbing first horror from a newbie filmmaker trying to make his mark. Except Joffé was a long-in-the-tooth, period drama specialist sexagenarian. It’s the last thing you’d expect.
The film features 24 star Elisha Cuthbert as moody model, Jennifer. She’s set up in the early stages as someone unlikeable, who is about to get all she deserves. The film’s opening scene shows a man being tortured in a grimy chamber. He has a plaster cast around his head and is horrifically killed by a combination of battery acid and a hammer. The tone is set.
As the psychological torture begins, there’s an element of punishing Jennifer for being beautiful, and also for vanity. She’s forced to watch videos of previous captives being tortured – one girl is showered in acid in a particularly gory scene.
Sleazy and nasty for the sake of it, it’s got few redeeming qualities but it does have some inventive and grim torture scenes. Great, if that’s your bag.
Netflix’s recent series The OA, created by the good-at-everything Brit Marling alongside director Zal Batmanglij, was a mystery that kept growing as the series wore on. After that peculiar opening episode, which has what could be the longest cold open in history (the opening credits appear almost at the end of the hour-long episode), it morphs unexpectedly into a captivity narrative.
Told in flashback, the majority of what follows documents what happened to Marling’s character Prairie when she was imprisoned in some unhinged scientist’s basement. We soon discover she’s not the only one down there – three others are being held captive in a kind of human-sized terrarium.
The story ticks some of the standard captivity plot boxes. Victims are being held in a basement against their will, and they’re also kept in the dark about what’s going on. They’re also regularly gassed and subjected to mysterious experiments. It’s eventually revealed that what the captives have in common is near death experiences, and the guy who has kidnapped them is investigating the afterlife.
Touching a little on Stockholm syndrome, the storyline also incorporates Russian gangsters, science fantasy elements and high-school shootings. It’s a weird and VERY SERIOUS show that will leave you questioning what to make of it, and your own willingness to trust people you randomly meet.
Girl In The Box
Based on the shocking true story of Colleen Stan, a girl who was abducted while hitchhiking and held captive as a sex slave for seven years, this film doesn’t waste time in getting to the nitty gritty.
The victim is swiftly taken at knife point by the young couple, Cameron and Janice Hooker, who give her the ride. They lock her head inside a wooden box before quickly removing it and suspending her from the ceiling. The ordeal begins.
But what’s worse than all of this? Being locked inside a coffin-sized box for 23 hours a day, only to be taken out to be tortured for sport. And that’s exactly what happens – and happened in real life. Sickening.
Season 2 of The Missing features a truly distressing abduction and captivity storyline that introduces a whodunit structure into the mix, as well as deeper elements of mystery surrounding the plot.
As the series unfolds, you’re asking what happened to the abducted girls, Alice and Sophie, who both disappeared in 2003 – and whether there’s more to the story than at first appears. Which of course there is. Told across dual timelines, with two seemingly disparate plots unravelling, we’re also asking who is behind the disappearance.
A convoluted plot mapped out by the abductor is gradually revealed, designed to throw people off the scent. A third abductee is brought into the mix as part of a major twist that will leave you open-mouthed.
As the details of the girls’ disappearance become clearer, a disturbed individual emerges – one who has always had a penchant for young girls. The Missing leaves a lot to the imagination but that’s where the damage is done in our heads. Grimy basement cells, the threat of violence, murder, and the daughter our culprit shares with Sophie provide enough fodder for our minds to run riot.
Jennifer Lynch is a cult figure and not only because of dad David. She’s directed episodes of The Walking Dead, Finding Carter, Wayward Pines and American Horror Story. But her cult status really stems from Boxing Helena, her debut feature from 1993. It’s a film that’s been called the worst film ever made. But that makes it kinda cool.
It’s definitely something of a cinematic artifact today. And the premise is truly alarming. A story of obsession, Helena is monstrous – nasty, mean-spirited and selfish. She is herself obsessed with sex, while her eventual captor, a surgeon played by Julian Sands, is obsessed with possessing her. He is, by contrast, obsessed with his own skewed idea of romantic love. Messed up by his relationship with his mother, he fixates on Helena.
When Helena – played by a fresh-from-Twin Peaks Sherilyn Fenn, capitalizing on her sex siren persona – is involved in a car accident outside his home, he brings her inside. He decides he’ll care for her – at first amputating her legs. They were damaged in the collision so there’s an argument that it could be necessary.
When she fails to fall in line with his idea of happy-ever-after, he amputates her arms too and keeps her in a box. From this vantage point, she enjoys a spot of voyeurism. She actually seems to be the most content she’s appeared in the entire film up to this point.
Other points to note about Boxing Helena include an incongruous appearance from Art Garfunkel as well as Bill Paxton’s (intentionally?) hilarious performance as Helena’s lover. There’s also a guilty-pleasures soundtrack to date it – elevate it, even – with songs including ‘Woman in Chains’ by Tears For Fears and ‘Sadness’ by Enigma. Funny, maybe, but also messed up.
It’s also worth seeking out Chained, an alternative take by Lynch on the captivity plot.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Sex slavery is often the order of the day in captivity films. In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial film, Salò, they order up a whole batch of youngsters to enslave. Rounded up by a bunch of fascist Italian politicians, the group of teenagers are taken to a palace out in the sticks and subjected to increasingly debauched acts. They’re even forced to eat faeces, served up at a silver service dinner before they’re all eventually executed for the pleasure of the guests. The film was banned in several countries.
Although captivity plots are usually about locking up women, it isn’t always the case. In Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King novel Misery, Kathy Bates’s psycho superfan Annie Wilkes brings James Caan’s author into her ‘care’ when he suffers a car accident outside her house.
Snowbound, he’s thankful for her help – at first. That’s before she decides to ‘hobble’ him using a wedge of wood and a sledgehammer to break his ankles and prevent him from leaving. It’s for his own good, don’t you know? He’s got a novel to finish, featuring Annie herself.
It’s the film’s most memorable scene – if you can watch it!
Another one involving a male captive, Chan-wook Park’s cult favourite Oldboy is a freaky revenge thriller in which the captor has the last laugh.
Kept for 15 years in a room without any explanation before one day being released, our hero is tasked with tracking down his kidnapper in five days. If having your freedom taken away for that length of time isn’t enough, his grim discovery at the end is truly appalling.
Last year’s Don’t Breathe was warmly received. Director Fede Alvarez’s second full-length feature was an original addition to the horror genre. It effectively riffed on the home invasion film, turning the tables on the intruders by making them the victims. Trapped inside, they’re hunted down by the blind owner. But what people didn’t see coming was that twist.
Locked in his labyrinthine basement, there’s a woman chained up, and pregnant. Turns out, she’s the woman who killed his daughter in a car accident and he’s keeping her until she’s provided him with another child.
When she dies during an escape attempt, the blind man – played by Stephen Lang – attempts to make girl intruder Rocky take her place. He winches her up in a coarse pulley system he’s constructed and, insisting he’s no rapist, prepares a turkey baster for insemination. What follows is the film’s standout moment – as she’s freed from the device, she rams the semen-filled implement down his throat.
Mum and Dad
This 2008 horror from British director Steven Sheil gained quite a lot of attention on its release. Mainly because it’s so disturbing. A whole heap of horror and gore is unleashed after Polish airport cleaner Lena is lured into a terrifying scenario when she accepts a lift home from a slightly odd but very friendly colleague and her brother.
She’s taken into the family home, and there she’s met by fellow cleaner Birdie’s sadistic parents who proceed to imprison her and torture her for kicks.
This deranged family has a history of this kind of behaviour: Lena’s not the only one they’ve previously kidnapped and tortured. Indeed, at one point, she’s forced to kiss a severed head.