This article contains spoilers for just about every film on its list.
I don’t know when it started exactly.
When I was very young, it was fine. I maybe even enjoyed getting on an elevator and being whisked off, but somewhere in the timeline of my life, something changed. I began to dread stepping onto one. My heart would pound, a cold sweat would creep down my neck and my breath would quicken.
“What’s wrong?” a bemused acquaintance would ask as we were about to embark.
“Oh! Nothing, really,” I’d respond as casually as I could for someone suddenly about to lose control of their bowels. “I just thought I might take the stairs. Bit of exercise, you know.”
“But it…it’s 18 flights,” they’d try to shoot back as the elevator doors closed.
Phew. Nailed it. “You won’t get me this time, demon,” I’d think triumphantly as I sobbed my way up those final five flights, my thighs burning with agony.
Later, as the full truth about my nonsense emerged, I’d get gently blasted with a few standard questions.
“Is it claustrophobia?” they’d ask.
“No,” I’d reply, as I’m not bothered by other enclosed spaces.
“So, it’s agoraphobia? The fear of being trapped in a situation that’s hard to escape?”
Well, no. It wasn’t that either, really. It was just elevators. And aeroplanes. Basically, anything where I was trapped in something high up, although I’m not scared of heights. It was hard to explain without looking like a complete and utter melon, either way.
Of course, films haven’t helped, because terrible things are always happening on elevators in films, to the point where they’ve often become malevolent themselves, possessed by the idea that throwing around their cargo – or not arriving at all, leaving a waiting passenger to simply step off the precipice and fall straight down the long shaft (behave) to their doom – might be a jolly good laugh.
Here’s a list of some of the worst of them. Chances are, if a character found themselves in or near one of these bad boys, they were about to have a pretty ghastly time…
21. The Shining (1980)
I’ve not put the elevator from The Shining up here first to knock you off balance, although the iconic slow-motion scene – which depicts the lift at the Overlook Hotel releasing the kind of preposterous wave of blood that [insert menstrual joke that crosses the line of decency] – has seen this easily become one of the most classically evil cinematic elevators that’ll spring to mind. It’d certainly be the answer to get a Family Fortunes EH URH and force the contestant to guess again after the first guy breezed through it.
No, the reason the elevator from The Shining got stranded all the way down at number 21 is because it’s really not all that scary, when you think about it – a bottle of bleach, a mop and bucket, a tub of Vanish Gold and a spot of elbow grease would clear that whole situation up toot sweet.
20. Speed (1994)
It’s a tense opening for SWAT officers Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels), as they attempt to rescue a whole elevator full of people about to take a one-way ticket to the bottom of the shaft, thanks to bomber Dennis Hopper.
The pair thwart his dastardly plans, but surely this is just more proof that you should definitely take the stairs when you’re leaving work – as long as you’re not taking the bus home…
19. Drive (2011)
The elevator in Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir synthwave masterpiece marks something of a turning point for its main character, and its narrative. By the time the violent events have finished unfolding inside its four walls, this is a place where the fragile Irene (Carey Mulligan) will have witnessed way too much head-stampy gore to protect the dreamy bubble that she and the quiet-but-devastatingly-attractive Ryan Gosling have been floating along inside.
She’s about to see a whole new side of him. He kisses her passionately, once, and then he pops that bubble for good. As those elevator doors close, we know that he’s almost certainly completely screwed.
18. Live Free Or Die Hard/Die Hard 4.0 (2007)
In John McClane’s disappointing fourth outing, the female villain of the piece is disposed of when he grabs an elevator cable and the car she’s trapped in falls, exploding on impact.
Yes, a car gets jammed in an elevator shaft somehow. This movie is ludicrous. The elevator itself doesn’t make an appearance, however. Even elevators know better than to fuck with John McClane, ho ho ho.
It’s left to sidekick Justin Long, in one of the most thankless roles of all time, to deliver the scene’s triumphant one-liner: “did you see that?”
Unfortunately, Justin, yes.
17. Deep Red (1975)
This mid-70s giallo dishes up a gruesome death for its killer, as musician Marcus (David Hemmings) gets a meat cleaver to the shoulder and responds appropriately: by kicking the killer toward an elevator (Beelzebub’s established instrument of evil).
As the elevator ascends, the killer’s necklace becomes caught in the bars of the shaft, slicing her head off.
Sometimes, the enemy of your enemy is your friend.
16. Dark Water (2002)
Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) finds herself at the centre of some spooky goings-on when she and her daughter move into a clearly-haunted apartment block.
During the film’s climactic scenes, Yoshimi attempts to escape the ghost that has been hounding her by picking up her daughter and running into a nearby elevator, where she discovers that unfortunately she has rescued the angry spirit of a drowned child instead, who utters an inhuman howl and reaches out to her new mummy for a nice wee cuddle.
15. Dressed To Kill (1980)
Frustrated housewife Angie Dickinson has one last sexual encounter and goes on one final elevator ride before she’s summarily slashed to death in Brian De Palma’s loving homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Hitch himself wasn’t too impressed, calling it a “fromage”, but the film itself still manages to stand on its own quite well, unlike poor Ange, who bleeds to death in an elevator.
That’s your typical brand of punishment in horror movies for women who try and find a bit of sexual fulfilment right there. Boo.
14. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?”
13. The Cabin In The Woods (2012)
Hopefully you’ll have had chance to catch Drew Goddard’s abundantly meta directorial debut by now, the script of which – penned by Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon in just three days – calls for its heroine (Kirsten Connolly) and its comic relief (Fran Kranz) to head toward the climax by peeking behind the curtain to discover just what other options were available when they unwittingly chose the form of their destructor earlier in the film.
Cube after transparent cube appear to the pair as their own translucent elevator moves around this storage space for nightmares, including ones that house a hungry werewolf and a delicate ballerina with a face full of teeth.
Pass. No. No thank you. I’d choose to be the first one to die over this horrific exploration any day of the week.
12. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
This is one of those sequences that director James Cameron does so very, very well. It’s a piece of relentless action that starts with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) finally attempting to escape the psychiatric hospital that’s been holding her hostage and feeding her frustration for years, and continues until that final piece of the T-1000 is thrown from the back of the escape car, glooping into the Terminator’s waiting foot as he gives up the chase (for a while, at least).
But before that, Connor, Arnie and little John (Edward Furlong) try to escape the hospital via the elevator, which goes about as well as you might expect when your antagonist has gigantic knives for hands pretty much any time he fancies it. Slicing and screeching through the elevator doors like a kid poking holes in a tin can with a screwdriver, the heart-pounding struggle only lasts a few seconds, but it feels like a lot longer…
11. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
The abominable Dr. Lecter fools an entire SWAT team as he calmly takes an elevator to freedom wearing someone else’s face in this Oscar-winning masterpiece.
While the skilled agents concentrate on securing Lecter, who they think is lying on top of the elevator, an ambulance whisks the iconic serial killer away. The team are simply left with mouths agape at the swinging, bloodied corpse of the unfortunate police officer Lecter used as a decoy, and who happens to now be missing his entire face.
10. Crimson Peak (2015)
A rather old school elevator becomes a vital means of escape in one of 2015’s best films, Crimson Peak.
There are certainly supernatural scares aplenty for young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in the first two acts of Guillermo del Toro’s sumptuous gothic romance, but when the real violence comes for her in the final third, it’s absolutely brutal.
The sudden assault on Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) and the stabbing of the repentant Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) are bad enough, but the savage attack poor Edith suffers through as she tries to slip the clutches of the bloodthirsty Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in the house’s rattling old iron elevator is unbearable to watch. It’s almost impossible not to flinch when Edith hacks at Lucille’s hand while simultaneously trying to jimmy the elevator door closed.
Nevermind the ghosts, the real fear is alive and kicking at Allerdale Hall – and she’s wearing a nightgown.
9. Final Destination 2 (2003)
After her son becomes Death’s latest victim, Final Destination 2’s Nora (Lynda Boyd) discovers she’s next on his list whilst leaving an apartment full of other survivors.
On hearing that the man stood behind her in the elevator holding a basket full of hooks is somehow involved in the sequence of events that lead to her impending death, Nora panics and desperately tries to escape, only to get trapped with her head in-between the doors as the elevator ascends, decapitating her.
8. Deep Rising (1998)
The terrifying elevator sequence in director Stephen Sommers’ fourth (and arguably best) film acts as a sort of comedic relief for the gang of kinda-good guys and mercenaries who find themselves trapped together on a stranded cruise ship in this underrated monster flick.
As the elevator violently jerks between several flights of pure hell in the form of half-digested corpses and giant, angry, spike-covered tentacle monsters, the howls of these previously-undiscovered sea creatures grow louder, hungrier and ever more impatient, all while stars Treat Williams, Famke Janssen et al are treated to some light musak to pass the quieter moments with.
Wherever their ride ends up, they know it’ll be nowhere good.
7. Poseidon (2006)
I’ve picked the remake of Poseidon here, mainly because I find a situation is rendered entirely more tense by the possibility that Hollywood treasure Kurt Russell might die, but also because the video was easily accessible on YouTube. For someone who takes the stairs a lot, I can be pretty goddamn lazy.
In this section of the classic film’s remake, Planet Terror’s Freddy Rodriguez and Jaws’ Richard Dreyfuss argue about which one of them will carefully climb through the elevator doors to safety first on their perilous trip through the inevitably disastrous Poseidon, which is full-to-bursting with unique hazards.
As they “you first!” each other, the elevator shaft on board gets more and more deadly, forcing Dreyfuss to kick the hanging Rodriguez off. He not only falls to the bottom, but then gets crushed by the falling elevator, which explodes, decimating half the ship.
Did I mention I can’t swim either?
6. Devil (2010)
Having sprung from the (what a)twisted mind of M. Night Shyalaman, Devil received mixed reviews on release, but it’s one of my favourite horror films of the last decade, for obvious reasons: a group of people get stuck in an elevator, and one of them is the Devil – who couldn’t love a high concept pitch like that?
A suffocating atmosphere, crisp running time and very decent performances also make this 80-minute horror flick worth a watch, especially if the idea of being stuck in an enclosed space (with or without Satan for company) sends you into a wild panic.
5. I Origins (2014)
After Mike Cahill picked up an award at Sundance for the Brit Marling-starring indie sci-fi Another Earth, he returned to the festival three years later and picked up the same prize for his follow-up I Origins, which features Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire) as Ian Gray, a grad student investigating the evolution of the human eye.
The least superstitious person you could hope to meet, Gray soon finds himself trying to prove that reincarnation is actually kind of a Thing after the love of his life is tragically killed in an elevator accident. Stuck with her crushed body on the landing near her apartment, we experience just a small amount of his grief as her blood congeals beside him.
There’s a more uplifting elevator scene later on in the film, but that doesn’t quite fit my narrative of ‘all elevators are evil and must be stopped’, so let’s pretend the moral of the story is ‘take the stairs, or you’ll die and won’t marry Michael Pitt.’
4. House On Haunted Hill (1999)
The best part of the film by a country mile, the elevator scene in the House On Haunted Hill remake is unusual in that it prefaces yet another brown trousers moment on a rollercoaster.
We watch helplessly as amusement park mogul Geoffrey Rush snarks his way through a TV interview about a new ride he’s had installed, while James Marsters from Buffy holds the camera and 90s pop sensation Lisa Loeb proffers a microphone. They’re dubious that the new rollercoaster is even safe, but he assures them that it is.
As the elevator ascends, things appear to go wrong as the cables snap and they start to fall back down the shaft…but, it’s all a trick. All part of the ride. Smoke and mirrors. Rush smiles smugly at the satisfying results of the terror he’s bestowed.
I remember feeling personally attacked by his duplicity, and I’m still mad at him.
3. Fifty Shades Of Grey (2015)
“What is it about elevators?” Jamie Dornan’s impeccably bland Christian Grey asks his rabbit-in-the-headlights-faced companion Anastasia Steele in this erotically discharged scene from the big screen adaptation of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades Of Grey.
Well, it appears you’re suggesting that elevators are sexy and romantic, but I can tell you categorically that they are not. They are terrifying and the worst and how dare you suggest otherwise, sir? How dare you.
Write this into my sexy contract immediately: we will take the stairs to any and all mundanely scheduled spankings from hence forth. Good day.
2. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Joe Dante’s wilfully bonkers monster sequel definitely leans more toward comedy than its predecessor, but the film still has its fair share of unsettling sequences.
In the standout one (for me) the earnest Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) chooses to take the elevator on her mission to help stop the rise of those little critters that spoiled yet another Christmas for her, and ends up tortured by them instead.
The gremlins keep her trapped for ages, taunting her and pulling out her hair through the gaps. Eventually, the elevator falls, squishing them into a gloopy cushion for her to land on, but the fact that it falls at all with her inside has landed it squarely near the top of this list of actively terrible lifts.
1. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
So here we have it: a transparent combination of my two worst fears – aeroplanes and elevators.
When Charlie Bucket pushed that button and launched the great glass elevator through the roof of the chocolate factory and into the clouds, many children were positively delighted by the sight of a young boy finally achieving his dreams and leaving behind a world of frustration and financial hard times.
I was horrified. Roald Dahl had sought to imagine a claustrophobic flight scenario so colossally terrifying that surely even Clive Barker, possessed by the angular spirit of Necessary Evil, might have taken a step back and said “no mate, please.”
Forget those online conspiracy theories about the insidious Grandpa Joe, the real evil is the partially translucent box holding Wonka and his new protégé prisoner during those final moments.
Until next time.
Main image by Alex Jefferies