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By Dave Best

Cube (1997, Dir. Vincenzo Natali) is the sort of film that you don’t watch unless you accidentally stumble across it on late night TV or have a geeky friend who badgers you relentlessly to watch it. Several years ago, after returning home in the early hours of the morning, I put it on for a few minutes to fill the void while I drunkenly demolished my fried chicken, and I have been hassling friends to watch it ever since. “Oh you like horror? You should check out Cube.”,  “You love independent cinema? Have you seen Cube?”,  “You’re feeling paranoid and insecure? Well, you should definitely watch Cube!”

As you can see, not only am I a crappy friend but Cube is, ironically, not a film that fits neatly into a box. Apart from the genres mentioned above it also contains elements of sci-fi, mystery and psychological thriller but it shouldn’t be classified solely as any of those individual things. It probably falls closest to independent horror though. In a similar vein to the seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or Blair Witch Project (1999), it was made on a shoestring budget  (almost literally in this case as shoe laces become a pivotal plot device) which forced the filmmakers to rely on ingenuity and resourcefulness in order to create an effective and chilling piece of cinema. 

Cube has a deceptively simple narrative which follows seven people who all wake up to find themselves in a sterile, futuristic maze comprised of identical cubic rooms joined to each other via a hatch on each wall, floor and ceiling. The characters have no idea where they are, why they are there or who has put them there. Nor do they have any prior connection to one another. They soon discover that some of the rooms are booby-trapped with lethal mechanisms and the rest of the film revolves around their attempts to escape the maze whilst also chewing over the bigger question of “what the hell is going on?”.

Sleepovers at Bill Gates' house - not as fun as you would imagine
The entire film is shot on one 14’ x 14’ set, reused to represent each new room they enter and altered in only very slight ways. It is a massive credit to the team behind the film that this never once becomes boring or repetitive. In the true spirit of independent cinema they utilise the limited facilities they have available in such a manner that rather than being detrimental to the film, it becomes one of its biggest strengths. It is no insult to the cast to say that - for the first half of the film at least - the set is the star of the piece. It quickly becomes claustrophobic and cloying not only for the characters but also for the audience. 

The fact that the audience are in almost the exact same position as the characters themselves is one of the reasons this is such an effective film. We essentially become an extra (albeit mute and passive) character. The camera never leaves the labyrinth and we don’t have any more information than the characters themselves. When they relate their back stories to one another we feel the same doubts and paranoia they do about whether the truth is being told. When a character starts to mentally unravel or become increasingly irritating we are equally as affected as the other characters because we are stuck in that same confined space, unable to distance ourselves from them.

Mechagodzilla's prostate exam is a five man job
This is a film of two halves in that the first half of the film focuses on the cube being the driving force of the narrative, and the second half turns into more of a character study of the human condition. Elements of "Lord of the Flies" come to the surface as the characters, exposed to such a stressful and incomprehensible situation, start to turn on each other and crumble mentally.  By the end of the film it is hard to place who the true "villain" of the piece is: the cube or human nature. This is not a film that will spoon feed you, nor will it resolve every question which it poses and because of this it can be quite frustrating at times but in a positive and engaging way. It’s the sort of film that has you on the internet thirty seconds after the credits roll trying to unravel certain plot points.  

I’m not going to pretend that this is a film without faults. Although the overall concept and story are inspired, the actual dialogue is often clunky and clich├ęd to the point of being unintentionally funny. This is not helped by the fact that at times some of the performers themselves seem more suited to background roles in TV movies rather than starring roles in a feature. However, this is part and parcel of independent cinema and rather than slating it for these reasons I prefer to celebrate it. Embrace the fact that it is funny when these cheesy lines of dialogue come up, and if a character is really getting on your nerves then hold on to the possibility that they may come to a horrific end in the next room they enter. This film is almost nihilistic in its method and it could even be argued that it is best enjoyed if you are in a bit of a bad mood.

Spoiler - Ice Cube does not appear in this film
Cube is a film which proves that a big concept can often be worth a lot more than a big budget. The bare-bones production techniques, unhindered by scene stealing superstars or over the top special effects, produce genuine chills and scares. Despite utilising only a fourteen foot square set, often clunky dialogue and actors that reflect the limited budget, it still manages to have you in the nervous, clammy palm of its hand from start to finish; give it a try!   

For further information visit Cube's IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0123755/

Suggested further viewing: Alien (1979), Hellraiser (1987), Dogville (2003)