Movies Like Fall That Aren’t for Acrophobes, From Free Solo to Cliffhanger


Picture yourself thousands of feet off the ground, standing on a surface just long and wide enough to accommodate your feet. There’s nothing to grab onto, nothing surrounding you to keep you safe. When you look around, you’re up so high, you can practically see the horizon’s curvature. When you look down, all you see is a straight drop to the ground below, far, far away from where you’re positioned. Are your palms sweating? Is your pulse racing? Is your stomach turning like a washing machine on the rinse cycle? Then writer director Scott Mann‘s new action thriller, fall, hitting theaters on Friday, August 12th, might not be your cup of tea. On the other hand, if adrenaline is your addiction and you get higher as you go higher, this may be the movie of the summer for you.

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Grace Caroline Currey (2019’s Shazam! and the upcoming Shazam! Fury of the Gods) plays a young woman dealing with acrophobia following a tragic mountain climbing incident. Virginia Gardener is the friend who decides that ascending a 2,000-foot television tower is just what her buddy needs to conquer her fear. The brave pair finds themselves trapped at the top of the tower after part of its stair apparatus collapses, leaving them to figure out how to get themselves safely back on terra firma. The film’s trailer alone is enough to cause anxiety in the height-averse and to get the endorphins kicking into overdrive for the thrill seekers among us. So if you’re looking forward to seeing fall and want to watch other movies about high places to get you in the mood, or if you want to make sure you avoid any film where the action takes place hundreds of feet off solid ground, here are some suggestions.


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Vertigo (1958)

Few directors were better at tapping into moviegoers’ deepest fears, paranoia, and anxiety than Alfred Hitchcock. 1954’s rear window had audiences drawing their blinds and closing their curtains when they got home, and 1960’s Psycho prompted more than a few people to lock the bathroom door before getting into the shower. Leave it to the portly purveyor of panic to make acrophobia the key plot point of the 1958 classic vertigo. Jimmy Stewart plays San Francisco detective Scottie Ferguson, a man obsessed with a woman (Kim Novak) he’s been hired to follow. Scottie’s been battling a crippling fear of heights since his involvement in a rooftop chase in which a fellow cop plunged to his death. Unfortunately, Novak’s Judy Barton has a thing for climbing bell towers, which causes a bit of a predicament for Scottie. In the movie’s tense finale, Scottie and Judy navigate the steep, thin, rickety stairs of the Mission San Juan Batista tower. Hitchcock’s magnificent cinematography, where the camera zooms in while simultaneously moving away, creates a dizzying, disorienting effect, letting viewers experience Scottie’s intense fear each time he looks down. By the time Scottie and Judy get to the top, anyone with anxiety over heights would likely be madly perspiring, assuming they’ve managed to keep their eyes open throughout the scene. Hitchcock so successfully captured that woozy, wobbly feeling that his camera work in the film came to be known as “the Vertigo effect.”


Cat’s Eye – “The Ledge” (1985)

Stephen King wrote the screenplay for this film that’s actually three short stories linked together by a stray cat appearing in each vignette. It’s the second segment, “The Ledge,” that will give acrophobes an acute case of the heebie-jeebies. Everyone’s favorite pilot with a drinking problem, Airplane!‘s Robert Haysis tennis instructor Johnny Norris, a playboy who’s sleeping with the wife of a corrupt and sadistic millionaire named Cressner (Kenneth McMillan). When Cressner finds out about the affair, he has his thugs bring Johnny to his penthouse suite that sits atop a 300-story building. Cressner tells Johnny that if he walks the 5-inch ledge of the building’s exterior and makes it around the entire perimeter, he can have Cressner’s wife. If he refuses, Cressner will have Johnny arrested for drugs that have been planted in his car. Johnny agrees to make the journey around the building, and what follows are 15 minutes of sheer terror, angst, and disorientation. On his way around the edge of the skyscraper, Johnny battles sudden gusts of wind, Cressner’s taunts (including a honking horn and water from a fire hose), and a nasty little pigeon that keeps pecking at Johnny’s ankle. director Lewis Teague expertly sustains the tension and anxiety as Johnny gingerly snakes his way around the concrete structure, alternating the cameras perspective from below Johnny’s feet as his toes hang over the thin ledge to above Johnny’s head, as the cars on the street hundreds of feet below zoom by . By the time it’s all over, anyone with the slightest fear of heights would feel like they need a shower, not to mention a Valium or two.


The Ledge (2022)

When it comes to movies about high places, ledges seem to be popular. This 2022 release, like fall, features two best girlfriends who are also climbing aficionados. They meet up with four shady guys, one of the girls is murdered, and the other one scales the side of a mountain to try and save her own life. Ash Kelly (Brittany Ashworth) ascends the near vertical rock wall, the killers aren’t far behind. Kelly eventually finds herself trapped on the side of the mountain, just 20 feet below her pursuers. What makes this movie unique is how most of the action occurs in just one place rather than all over the mountain, which makes it a particularly intense nail biter. director Howard J. Ford knows how to create action in a limited space as Kelly does her best to outwit the assassins coming at her from all directions. A scene in which the evil boys throw a duffel bag filled with camping equipment down the mountain to try and knock Kelly out of the cliffside tent she’s pitched is especially nerve-wracking and certain to prompt height-phobic viewers to place their palms firmly over their face. While actual mountain climbers will no doubt scoff at the plausibility of some of the action scenes, The Ledge is nevertheless an uneasy – and sometimes nausea-inducing – thriller that will make you glad you’re watching it on solid ground.


The Walk (2015)

In August 1974, aerialist Philippe Petit performed a high wire act between the still under construction World Trade Center towers in Manhattan, performing for 50 minutes at a height of 1,350 feet, making eight passes between the towers and sometimes sitting and lying down on the one -inch-thick wire suspended between the two buildings. If just reading about Petit’s stunt increases your heart and breathing rates, the movie that dramatizes Petit’s adventure, The Walk, may require you to inhale and exhale into a paper bag. While the film focuses largely on how Petit and his crew planned the stunt, director Robert Zemeckis, no slouch when it comes to creating spectacular imagery, includes more than enough shots of the view downward from the top throughout the movie. Then there’s the moment when Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, steps out onto the wire for the first time. As if the visual of New York City appearing out of clearing cloud cover beneath Petit’s ballet slipper isn’t disquieting enough, there’s the sound of the wire creaking and moaning and the wind whistling to add to the tension. Zemeckis manages to immerse viewers in the experience so completely that it’s difficult for audiences to not feel like they’re right up there with Petit, walking on that tiny, bobbing cable. The film was shown in IMAX theaters upon its release – a big “hell, no!” for the severely acrophobic viewer.


Vertical Limit (2000)

If there’s one thing director Martin Campbell does particularly well in his movies, it’s taking the action and adding extra layers to it. And Campbell’s Vertical Limit has layer after layer – death defying mountain climbing, rope dangling, murders, avalanches, and…wait for it…nitroglycerine! In this adventure movie that’s sure to give acrophobes the shakes, Robin Tunney and Chris O’Donnell play Annie and Peter Garrett, siblings who have lost their father in a tragic climbing accident (gee, there seems to be a pattern with these movies about climbing). Peter, traumatized by the incident, no longer climbs, but Annie can’t be tamed and is on her way up K2, the second-highest mountain on the planet. Of course, things go horribly wrong when Annie and other members of her climbing team are plunged into a deep crevasse which ends up buried by a tremendous avalanche. It’s up to Peter to climb the mountain, nitro in tow, to blast open the crevasse and save his sister. think The Wages of Fear, but with snow, ice, and dizzying heights. There’s a scene where Peter’s rescue team must jump from a disabled helicopter hovering thousands of feet in the air onto an icy cliff. As if preying on viewers’ fear of heights isn’t enough, director Campbell decides to throw in a little fear of flying, too. Vertical Limit is a true action movie lover’s action movie, because the thrills never stop. Neither do the jitters.


Free Solo (2018)

This incredible documentary about Alex Honnold, the first person to climb Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot El Capitan without ropes, harnesses, or other life-saving equipment, is probably a great big “nope” for anyone with an acute fear of heights. While it has some of the most breathtaking cinematography in modern filmmaking, it’s practically impossible for an acrophobe to watch this man clinging to the side of a mountain of sheer, slippery granite by nothing but his hands and feet without suffering a full-on panic attack . It doesn’t help that Alex’s friend Jimmy Chino, the camera guy who accompanies Alex on his climb and films his ascent, keeps saying, “I worry that he’ll fall while I’m filming him.” Thanks Jimmy, that’s a source of great comfort! Then there’s Alex’s girlfriend, who, through a river of tears, wails, “What if I don’t see him again?” Okay, you’re not helping, either! Alex’s Herculean efforts are truly astounding, and Free Solo can accurately be described as awe-inspiring and inspirational, but for those who aren’t good with elevation, be warned. It’s anything but an easy watch.


Cliffhanger (1993)

The opening scene of this Sylvester Stallone high elevation thriller is every acrophobe’s worst nightmare. Rescue ranger Gabe Walker (Stallone) is helping an injured buddy and his girlfriend cross between two mountain peaks via a cable line suspended 4,000 feet in the air. As the nervous girlfriend (Michelle Joyner) starts pulling herself across, her harness buckle breaks, leaving her hanging by a strap. Gabe traverses the cable to try and pull her up, but her hand slips from her glove and she plummets to her death (as acrophobes head for the theater exits). Things don’t get any easier from there, as Gabe and his buddy (Michael Rooker) end up scaling the Rocky Mountains as unwitting assistants to evil ex-military operative Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), who’s searching for a series of suitcases holding vast sums of cash. director Renny Harlin keeps the adrenaline pumping for the next two hours, with deadly plunges, mountainside explosions, torrents of falling snow and ice, and even an impalement by stalactite. But it’s the final fight between Lithgow and Stallone atop a helicopter tethered to a steel ladder dangling off a sheer precipice that’s the true pièce de résistance. There’s not a lot of doubt about who wins this battle, but it’s a thrill to watch nonetheless, provided your nerves can handle it.


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