Isolation movies are a simple and timeless storytelling method. Human vs. Evil. We see ourselves in the lonely protagonist as they face the world relying on themselves and whatever small group of survivors they’ve made their way with. It’s stripped down; all our complicated human emotions become irrelevant except those directly related to survival.
It’s no surprise that isolation horror movies tend to be the creepiest. They have a lot of time to slowly build suspense as we take in the desolate atmosphere our hero/es are fighting in. Whether it’s an empty hotel high up in the mountains during the off season or an underground cave cut off from civilization, it’s the isolation and the unknown we have to contend with, along with the dawning realization that horror doesn’t always come from the outside. Sometimes evil infiltrates our own ranks.
The setting: outer space. Few environments are more isolating. The skeleton crew of the spaceship Nostromo must investigate a distress call coming from the moon, where they discover alien life. A malevolent alien gains access to their ship, and the crew must fight to the death to get back to Earth alive.
Considered the greatest isolation movie of all time, The Shining tells the story of the Torrance family: Jack, Wendy, and their young son, Danny. Desperately in need of a second chance in life, Jack accepts a job as an off-season caretaker to the Overlook Hotel, which is high up in the Rockies and not used during the winter months because of the impossibility of keeping the mountain roads clear of snow for travelers. As the months go on and the family settles into isolation, paranormal entities and confinement drive Jack mad and endanger his family.
As a bonus, you may wish to also watch Room 237, a documentary full of conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick’s film.
This John Carpenter (Halloween) classic is widely considered one of the best horror movies of all time. The plot follows the workers of an American scientific research facility in Antarctica as they discover an alien entity. The crew investigates a Norwegian research facility in the area and realize they had begun excavating a 100,000-year-old alien spaceship, when “the thing” escaped. In the cold and barren Antarctic wilderness, the crew takes on the seemingly insurmountable task of fighting back against the powerful alien.
Alone on a country highway in Iowa, a couple named Burt and Vicky get into a car accident and seek help in a seemingly abandoned Iowa town surrounded by miles and miles of cornfields. Soon they encounter the town’s only inhabitants: children who worship a dark entity that lives among the corn rows. With no one to call for help from the outside world, the couple must escape from the middle of nowhere before they meet the same fate as the town’s previous residents.
Writer Paul Sheldon gets into a car accident on a remote mountain road and is taken in by a fan, Annie Wilkes. What seems at first to be a stroke of good luck turns into sheer terror as Annie reveals herself to be mentally unbalanced and obsessed with Paul’s novels. She tries to keep Paul bedridden and drugged as he desperately seeks a way to contact help from her secluded cabin.
A small group of people in a desolate town in the American Southwest deal with the sudden appearance of giant wormlike monsters that live underground and strike without warning. Led by handymen Val and Earl, the ragtag group hides out on rooftops and tries to shoot down the monsters. It’s almost like a game of lava tag with deadly stakes.
An American tourist named Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks out a remote paradise rumored to be in Thailand. Upon finding the titular beach, Richard finds both pleasure in paradise and pain in isolation with the handful of other inhabitants. After a fight with the rest of the group, Richard’s sanity unravels in the isolation.
Jim wakes in the hospital 28 days after a viral outbreak rapidly took over London and caused civilization to collapse. At first utterly alone, he wanders around the ruins of the city. Jim comes into contact with “the infected” (fast-moving zombies) and meets some other survivors. Together, they travel the countryside looking for other survivors.
A small and remote colonial village deals with daily life as they are essentially “trapped” in their community by fear of monsters who inhabit the surrounding woods. When a townsperson becomes seriously injured and in need of penicillin, our protagonist Ivy arranges to travel through the dangerous woods to get to the town on the other side. Traversing the woods, Ivy discovers the village’s secrets.
The Descent follows a group of adventurous female friends who decide to explore a closed-off cave. While spelunking, the group becomes trapped and discovers a race of humanoid cave monsters. They search for an alternate exit from the cave while trying to evade the monsters and come out alive.
A virus knocks out 90% of the human population and leaves genetically mutated zombies in its wake. In New York City, Army Dr. Robert Neville lives without any assurance there are other survivors. He ventures out daily to gather supplies, look for survivors, and work on a cure for the disease.
Fresh from a failed marriage proposal, a couple spends the night at a secluded cabin. A midnight caller at the door asks for someone who doesn’t live there. The bewildered couple turns the caller away, only to encounter three masked predators who begin to taunt them from outside the cabin. The couple is trapped with no way to contact the outside world and must work together to survive.
After the zombie apocalypse, survivors begin to go by the names of the cities they are from rather than their real first names to avoid becoming attached to each other, as survival from moment to moment is not guaranteed. Columbus and Tallahassee band together with two sisters Wichita and Little Rock to survive. The group heads west in search of Pacific Playland, a theme park that is rumored to be free of zombies.
Based on a true story, 127 Hours shows Aron Ralston hiking alone in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. He falls into a canyon and his arm is pinned to the wall by a boulder. Completely alone for five days, Aron films himself while he struggles with isolation and eventually cuts his own arm off with a multi-purpose tool.
An American remake of an Uruguayan horror film. Sarah is visiting her family’s lake home with her father John and her uncle Peter. While working on repairs, Sarah finds herself locked inside the home. Trapped and stalked by an unseen intruder, she begins to unravel.
Crispian and Erin are a couple who travel to rural Missouri to spend the weekend with Crispian’s parents and siblings at the family’s large vacation home. As the family sits down for dinner, they are besieged by a group of men wearing animal masks. With no cell service, the family must work together to fight back against the mysterious attackers.
An Austrian horror film with subtitles. Elias and Lukas live at a rural lake home with their mother, who is recovering from facial surgery and whose face is still bandaged. Completely isolated from anyone but their distant mother, the boys become paranoid that their mother has been replaced during her operation. Tensions rise between the family as the boy’s suspicion and their mother’s anger escalate.
After hearing about a mysterious series of blackouts on the radio, Michelle is rendered unconscious by a car accident. She wakes in an underground bunker with another survivor, Emmett, and Howard, the bunker’s owner. Howard insists he saved her life and that she cannot leave the bunker because of aliens and the chemical warfare they are using outside. Michelle must figure out what to believe and decide if life is safer in or outside the bunker.
Maddie is a deaf-mute woman who lives alone in an isolated cabin in the woods while pursuing her career as an author. A masked killer stumbles upon her home and decides to prey on her. Realizing Maddie is deaf, the killer must think of creative ways to stalk her in to instill fear in her as he is used to doing with his victims. Hush was released as a Netflix movie in 2016 and is available on the streaming platform.
Following her mother’s death, Nancy explores an isolated beach in Mexico where her mother had traveled while pregnant with her. At first enjoying the solitude of the out-of-the-way beach, Nancy is attacked by a great white shark who bites her leg and strands her on a rock outcropping in the water. Several other beachgoers visit the beach but are out of range for Nancy to warn them, and they are also attacked by the shark. Using her medical knowledge and will to survive, Nancy has to outsmart the shark to get to shore and get medical help.
A couple whose relationship is on the rocks, Jessie and Gerald decide to spend the weekend at a remote cabin working on their marriage. Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bed frame and begins a nonconsensual rape roleplay. After the couple argues, Gerald has a heart attack and dies, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed and completely alone. Jessie must survive both a feral dog and her own paranoia as she figures out how to escape before she is killed or dies of dehydration. Gerald’s Game was released on Netflix in 2017 and is available on the streaming platform.
After a viral outbreak overcomes civilization, a family secludes themselves at a cabin deep in the woods. As time goes on, they discover another family that claims to be free of the virus and allow them to stay at their home. Tensions rise as the families struggle to coexist in isolation and in fear of what lies outside.
A race of armored but blind aliens with super-sensitive hearing decimates the planet’s population. One family — Lee and Evelyn and their children Regan (who is deaf), Marcus, and Beau — survive alone on their farmland. When a mistake leads to Beau’s death, the family becomes fractured. With Evelyn now pregnant, the parents try to help their children adjust to a new world where noise of any kind is unsafe.
Richard tells his children Aiden and Mia that they will all spend the Christmas holiday at an isolated lodge in rural Massachusetts along with Richard’s new girlfriend Grace. Grace spent her youth in an extremist Christian cult, of which she is the only living survivor after a mass suicide organized by her father. Upon arrival, Richard realizes that he must return to work for a few days, leaving his children alone with Grace.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the character Tobias Ellis, a pilot, in this extremely intense airplane highjacking movie where terrorists raid the cockpit. Levitt’s character is basically in every scene of this film and when it was made the filmmaker, Patrick Vollrath, made Levitt play out the scenes for 20 minutes, sometimes longer, without cutting, which makes the isolation, suffering and fear of the film at times inexhaustibly intense. It’s a single-set movie, which also adds to the isolation and disconnection of the film. So too does the soundtrack, which is more or less non-existent in a very creepy way. This movie streams for free if you have Amazon Prime and it was released direct to video because it was released during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other Isolation Horror Films
- The Collector (1965) an obsessive stalker kidnaps a pretty Mod girl and keeps her trapped in his basement.
- The Waterdance (1992) a hiking accident leads to a physical disability and a young man must learn how to deal with the loss of human connection and his disabled body.
- Red Room (1999) four people are stuck in a room competing for a giant cash prize that will be awarded to the person who leaves last.
- The Hole (2001) a group of students find themselves locked in a bomb shelter with no way out.
- Dog Soldiers (2002) an actual camping experience isolation horror movie, lost in the wilderness of Scotland.
- Aquarium (2004) six people find themselves trapped in a room and at the mercy of an evil mastermind who is toying with them.
- House of 9 (2005) a group of nine strangers are kidnapped and drugged, then placed inside a locked house. Whoever lives the longest will receive their freedom as well as a cash prize.
- Breathing Room (2007) people are trapped inside a warehouse wearing electronic neck collars. They are forced to either follow orders or die.
- The Killing Room (2009) all sorts of sick government experiments take place in an isolated building.
- Hunger (2009) five people are locked inside a torture chamber and have their survival skills put to the ultimate test.
- Gravity (2013) a powerful movie that won 7 Oscars and tells the story of an astronaut lost in space.
- Locke (2013) a British horror movie with only one character. This threatening tale happens mostly on the phone, making it feel digitally claustrophobic.
- Wild (2014) heroin withdrawal, drives Reese Witherspoon’s character into the wilderness, completely alone and on a journey of self-discovery. It’s based on a true story.
- The Martian (2015) astronaut Mark Watney is stuck on Mars all by himself and must learn to survive. Watch this film, or read the book by Andy Weir, and feel what it feels like to be stranded on Mars. This film also great Hollywood special effects.
- Hank (2021) a horror movie about a group of friends on a camping experience that goes terribly wrong. We don’t know the release date yet.