Canadian horror films have a longstanding tradition of being innovative, operating within a small budget to achieve great effects. Cube – which premiered 20 years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival – took a simple concept with a simpler set design and created a cult classic.
Director Vincenzo Natali kept the costumes to a basic uniform to allow viewers to learn about each character by their actions, not by their appearance. Starting with a blank slate, we’re drawn in to the story to understand who these people are and what they’re capable of.
We rely on the script to communicate their personal history as well as their flaws, which in turn gives more opportunity for each character to hide behind their relative anonymity. The stranded strangers have no option but to trust each other, but really, what do they know about one another? What secrets could they be hiding?
The whole film focuses on the unknown dangers of the situation. Our group is trapped with no understanding of why they’re there or how they got there. Their only hope is a rough theory about the numbers branded on each new room. Each room is identical (aside from the colored panels), giving no indication of what horrors lie within. Tensions run high as the group grows anxious and tired, clashing at every turn.
It is revealed that each person present holds some knowledge that will assist in the group’s escape, but not everyone in the group is suited to the necessary teamwork. Cube quickly turns into a character study that observes how each personality handles the pressure. While some are predisposed to help one another, providing support and comfort when needed, others have a more selfish approach.
It’s – again – a simple concept, but with expert execution. We have the prevailing mystery of the cube mixed with unavoidable personal conflict. All we’re presented with is what’s in the script and what the actors are able to communicate. There’s no flashy set, no distracting costumes, just the story and the constant danger.
Cube was actually just shot in one room, with a partial cube built for when the cast was shown to be looking through from another side. By using lighting panels to change the color of the cube, they were given the flexibility to re-use the set over and over, but still change up the look so it didn’t grow stale. It’s a brilliant use of a limited budget (the 90 minute film only cost $365,000 to make).
Each creative trap presents a different challenge; while it’s possible to navigate through some rooms, others only offer an unavoidable and gruesome death. The opening sequence is particularly thorough in killing off its victim.
Cube has spawned a series of sequels and there’s talks of a reboot – though, like the characters in each film, it seems to be trapped in development Hell. While I don’t anticipate seeing a remake of the cult classic anytime soon, today is as good a day as any to revisit the film that started it all.