Panic Room: Why, for me, it’s one of the most chilling thrillers of all-time


Jodie Foster is at her compelling best in David Fincher’s Panic Room.

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Jodie Foster is at her compelling best in David Fincher’s Panic Room.

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Panic Room (16+, 107mins) Directed by David Fincher ****½

I’ve only had to stick someone with a needle once. It took two attempts.

The year was 2007 and my wife was pregnant with our first child. A Type 1 diabetic for more than 20 years, sharing her body with another had caused havoc with her blood sugar levels over the months prior – but this was serious.

In the middle of a catastrophic low, she was soaked in cold sweat – and fitting. It was around 4am, winter, and despite calling the ambulance straight away, I knew immediate intervention was required. Racing to the fridge, I grabbed the glucagon, prepped the syringe and vial and plunged it towards her thigh. The needle bent unsatisfyingly. Now, really panicked, I sought out a replacement and tried again – with a much more successful result.

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Panic Room is now available to stream on TVNZ+ and Netflix.

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I don’t think I could credit David Fincher’s masterful 2002 home invasion thriller for preparing me for that nightmarish moment, but whenever I hear it mentioned, see it on a schedule, or channel-surf into a scene, it reminds of that night and also how brilliantly Forest Whitaker, Kristen Stewart and Fincher evoked the emotions, tension, glistening skin and pallid complexions of it all. But really that’s just one small scene in a film full of memorable moments, magnificent set-pieces and Jodie Foster at her absolute finest.

One of the greatest single-night-setting tales of all-time, Panic Room essentially unspools in real time.

Twenty years on, mainstream Hollywood thrillers have never quite reached the compelling, creepy and claustrophobia-inducing heights of Panic Room again.

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Twenty years on, mainstream Hollywood thrillers have never quite reached the compelling, creepy and claustrophobia-inducing heights of Panic Room again.

Recently separated from her pharmaceutical entrepreneur husband, Meg Altman (Foster) and daughter Sarah (Stewart) are devouring a pizza dinner to celebrate their first evening in their new 1879-built, but recently renovated “town stone” four-floor house on New York’s Upper West Side.

With hardwood floors and six fireplaces, it is something of a fixer-upper, but it also comes with a few more unusual features. There’s a working elevator, a state-of-the-art security system, complete with weighty manual and a steel-plated “panic room” complete with its own phone-line, camera views of the entire house and a ventilation system.

Spooked more than comforted by its presence, Meg never thought she’d need it, let alone be inhabiting it by 2am the following morning. But as three intruders (Whittaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto) break their way into the property, it’s rapidly clear they are there for a reason and dismayed that the house isn’t empty (the result of confusion about the inclusion of weekends in a sale-and-purchase agreement).

Any hope Meg has of frightening them off by bluffing about calling the police though, are instantly dashed because of Whitaker’s security expert’s inside knowledge, and she can’t even persuade them to just take what they want and leave – because it is in the room with the two Altmans.

In the end, Panic Room is essentially a kind of crowd-pleasing Hitchcockian-thriller-meets-Home-Alone-for-adults.

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In the end, Panic Room is essentially a kind of crowd-pleasing Hitchcockian-thriller-meets-Home-Alone-for-adults.

What follows is a – sometime – unbearably tense game of cat-and-mouse, as the trio try to smoke out mother and daughter, while they look for ways to alert the authorities.

Initially purely defensive, David Koepp’s smart and sensorially heightening script eventually allows Meg to go on the attack, setting a series of traps that transforms Panic Room into a kind of crowd-pleasing Hitchcockian-thriller-meets-Home-Alone-for-adults. Clad in a black singlet, Foster seems to relish finally cutting loose – and the results are deeply satisfying – while not without a few reversals and twists – just to keep you on your toes.

Although the small acting ensemble all deserve credit, it is director Fincher who unforgettably sets the scene, establishes the mood and delivers the coup de grâce. His stalking, gliding camera not only makes the house itself a vital character in the movie, but draws the audience into the drama and keeps them guessing as to where the next key moment is going to take place.

Twenty years on, mainstream Hollywood thrillers have never quite reached the compelling, creepy and claustrophobia-inducing heights of Panic Room again.

Panic Room is now available to stream on TVNZ+ and Netflix.

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