Smallest Casts

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A Top Ten List

While huge casts are nightmarish to collect and wrangle, impressing filmgoers with the biggest casts in history is easy. Whether you're filming the chariot race in 1959's Ben-Hur (15,000 extras), Cleopatra's arrival in Rome in 1963's Cleopatra (several thousand) or the funeral scene in 1982's Gandhi (a mind-bending 300,000), such figures will inevitably form part of the buzz about your movie and do your marketing about the size and scope for you.

On the other hand if you only have a handful of people, there's nothing distinguishing you from a group of bozo friends playing with a camcorder apart from two essential elements – characters and a plot. So whether it's for budgetary, narrative or staging reasons, it's time to celebrate some movies with casts that ensured much shorter end credits.

1 Alien (1979)

The template for a million clones from Deep Star Six to Leviathan and Tremors to The Relic. But together with from H R Giger's nightmarish visual design and those screams that went unheard in space, Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett's script gave us something else rarely bettered since – a group of people in a desperate situation whose personalities drive the plot.

2 The Blue Lagoon (1982)

Apart from small ship's crews at the beginning and end of the film, a barely legal Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins as Emmeline and Richard have the screen entirely to themselves. Were they talented enough at such tender years to sustain over 90 minutes of screen time alone? Not really, but they were the Edward and Bella of their day and you don't see today's Twi-hard tween deconstructing the nuances of performance.

3 The Quiet Earth (1985)

A 50s science fiction movie trope updated in modern times before the flashy remakes of War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still . Zac (Bruno Lawrence) is a scientist who was involved in mysterious experiments. He wakes up one day to find his home city of Auckland, New Zealand, deserted. While he goes slowly and slightly crazy with loneliness Zac tries to figure out if it was his work that caused the mass disappearance and why he was left behind. Lawrence wasn't as handsome or action packed as Will Smith in I Am Legend but it's worth it just to see scenes of unnerving urban desertion long before CGI made it so easy.

4 The Strangers (2008)

Two people at home, three trying to get in and terrorise, torture and kill them. Even though it's a remote house in the country there might as well be nobody else in the world in Bryan Bertino's slow burning, nerve-sawing home invasion thriller. No explanation is given for the cruelty so they're inhuman enough, but the creepy sack and doll masks they wear renders them even more so. It seems to leave poor Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) as stranded as if they were on a hostile alien planet.

5 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

After sharing the screen on the biggest, glossiest, most expensive film in Hollywood history for 20th Century Fox (Cleopatra), husband and wife team Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton flexed their thesping muscles for Mike (The Graduate) Nichols. It was based on Edward Albee's play, had a restricted setting of only two or three sets and had a cast of only four (two of them mere supports), and Burton and Taylor owned the movie. It wasn't the first time a play had been put on screen almost verbatim, but it cemented the craze for screen actors to tap into the emotional urgency of the stage with no effects, elaborate sets or hordes of unwashed extras. See Richard Linklater's Tape (2001), Three Girls and a Guy (1997) and a host of others.

6 Antichrist (2009)

Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier takes the screen-as-stage paradigm one step further, by giving the whole movie to just two actors and then doing things to them you could never do on stage - not even pretend. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe aren't even given names as the grieving husband and wife who go to a remote cabin in the forest to deal with the death of their son. He, a psychiatrist, thinks he'll be able to give his wife the therapy she needs. Bad idea. Wild foxes talk and she develops a morbid fear of the grass, goes crazy and attaches a metal wheel to his leg via an iron bar driven through his flesh. And if you haven't seen it, you don't want to know what she does with the kitchen scissors.

7 Gerry (2002)

Gus van Sant cast two actors in a movie with little dialogue, the most (and longest) gaps between action you've ever seen and a landscape that turns as bleak as the mood as the film goes on. After Gerry (Casey Affleck) and Gerry (Matt Damon) say hi to a few people returning from a hiking trail in the desert, they'll never see another human again. Soon lost and with no food or water, the pair walk towards an ever flatter horizon with contours and colours leaching out of their world as surely as their strength. Rather than confine actors to a stage and let them do their thing, van Sant seemed to be asking exactly what we were expecting – car chases? Giant robots? Dying is lonely, quiet and at times even boring.

8 Cube (1997)

You know those action movies where a crack team of specialists is assembled to bring down the terrorists/aliens/corrupt former agency boss/etc? There's an explosives expert, martial arts expert, computer hacker, former wrestler, hot chick who only ever wears torn tank tops... Vincenzo Natali's high concept debut took the idea to extremes. Somebody somewhere with infinite funds and a wicked mean streak puts a group of strangers deep inside a huge, multi-room machine full of booby traps. It soon emerges that the sort of people they'll need to work out the puzzle are a cop, a maths prodigy, an inside man – the precise skills they collectively possess.

9 Give 'Em Hell, Harry (1975)

The director of the short-lived The Chevy Chase Show gave us this movie featuring James Whitmore (Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Shawshank Redemption) as World War Two president Harry S Truman. Whitmore single-handedly carries the biopic of Truman's residency, literally – he's the sole cast member. Along with Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and 1972's Sleuth it's the only film where every billed cast member was nominated for an Oscar.

Addendum – In 2010's Buried, Ryan Reynolds is a truck driver who wakes up to find himself buried in a coffin somewhere in Iraq. He's not only the only cast member on screen, we spend the entire film with him inside (other cast members are heard during conversations he has over a mobile phone).

10 The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The beautiful crossroads where budget restrictions and great story meet. Filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick didn't even have a script – they just told actors Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard and Mike Williams they'd be menaced by a witch in the middle of the night while camping in the Maryland woods and to just go with it. Kick starting more crazes than a focus group full of futurists (camcorder footage, online buzz), it proves every cliché about less being more and good things coming in small packages.

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