This is the third horror film released in the last two years using this title and approximate premise. Some ideas are too obvious not to be used, evidently – but it is entirely appropriate that the ‘escape room’ craze should inspire filmmakers since it was itself influenced by movies like Cube and Saw in which folks are trapped in confined spaces and have to solve puzzles to get out. Among many, many films on that pattern – ranging in scale from The Maze Runner to Buried – are a few that could easily be adapted into escape room attractions – Fermat’s Room, Breathing Room, etc. Of course, the feature of horror films not carried over by real escape rooms is the Raft of the Medusa game whereby the trappees spend at least as much time screwing each other over as they do working together to figure out an exit – among the smartest moments in this perhaps surprisingly well-thought-out formula picture comes when one character reasons that the masterminds of the diabolical trap want the group to turn on each other and insists they share resources and collaborate rather than compete. It doesn’t work out perfectly – yes, one character does turn out to be an irredeemable asshole – but it makes a refreshing change from the modish misanthropy that’s been hardwired into this segment of horror since the torture porn craze.
It opens with a suspense sequence very reminiscent of Fermat’s Room as random dude Ben (Logan Miller) drops into a cosy, cluttered room full of antiques and has to solve maths problems as the walls close in … then flashes back to much earlier in the game, as six folks are lured by puzzle boxes sent by trusted associates (a trick that goes back to Agatha Christie’s original ‘escape room’ premise And Then There Were None) to an office building in downtown Chicago on the promise of a big money prize if they get out of a new attraction which is being beta-tested. Our players either get intro scenes sketching their characters or flashbacks establishing prior traumas – all have survived real-life death traps previously – and jittery supermarket worker Ben joins scarred veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), friendly blue-collar Mike (Tyler Labine), financial advisor Jason (Jay Ellis), shy student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and escape room addict Danny (Nik Dodani).
These representative flawed folk sit about a bland reception room getting to know each other, then heating elements come on in the walls and they realise this is the first of a series of traps … as if Escape Room were a Cube redo with budget for more than one reusable set, offering a range of milieux (an upside-down bar, a frozen lake, etc). An early death (which mimics one of the most memorable moments of Omen 2) convinces everyone this isn’t just a game, and we get decently-written and –acted character interplay between horror and suspense moments. As usual, it seems the villains are ‘rich sickos’ – with a shadowy organisation represented by the anagrammatical Dr WooTan Yu (Yorick von Wageningen) staging these snuff gameshows for an even more shadowy audience. As usual, there’s a tension between indicting us as the sort of folks who pay to watch others suffer and the basic appeal of drama as we identify with the players. Mostly, it’s clever, twist-ridden stuff and the solid cast is a nicely balanced mix of not-yet-star names and recognisable friendly faces who keep us off-balance … we know Ben will make it at least to near the end, but everyone else is in peril and the body count isn’t quite in the expected order.
Written by Bragi F. Schut (remember the Nicolas Cage medieval horror Season of the Witch?) and Maria Melnik (staff writer on Black Sails and American Gods), this is directed by Adam Robitel, who has already gone from striking standalone low-budget debut (The Taking of Deborah Logan) to dues-paying franchise entry (Insidious The Last Key) and is likely to be in on the ground floor of a new franchise with this sequel-friendly effort. A coda and a tag suggest that escaping from here just leads to a bigger trap, but also that if this clicks we’ll be back for more. Like Final Destination, Saw and Paranormal Activity, the basic idea offers so many permuatations and the working-out begs so many questions that it’ll be easy to do one of these every year or so for a long haul.