Starring: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller & Deborah Ann Woll
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Release Date: January 2019
Running Time: 99 mins
Synopsis: Six strangers find themselves in a maze of deadly mystery rooms and must use their wits to escape and survive.
I love Escape Rooms, and have participated in over a dozen different rooms over the past five years or so. Done correctly, they can be immersive experiences that encourage players to search for clues and solve puzzles in order to escape from themed rooms. Reminiscent of point-and-click videogames of the past, Escape Rooms have massively grown in popularity over the last decade and offer an exciting physical real-world activity ideal for small groups. Twisting the concept for the horror genre and making a film about a deadly Escape Room seemed like a no-brainer idea and when researching for this review, I discovered there were actually multiple films already out there with the same name. Released in January 2019, this particular Escape Room features a bigger budget than the others I’ve seen online, although it has a cast of relative unknowns. The most recognisable name here is Deborah Ann Woll, who played Karen Page in the Daredevil TV series.
The film opens up with a flash-forward to a sequence near the end of the movie which immediately undercuts the dramatic tension because it reveals the fate of one of the six protagonists. I understand that the sequence was designed to inject some action into the first fifteen minutes of the film to balance out the slow build-up, but it might have been better if we’d seen the fate of a previous batch of contestants rather than a sneak peek of what was to come. After this odd directorial choice, the film spends the rest of its opening act developing the backstories of half of its protagonists with the other half just arriving at the Escape Room as the action begins in earnest. Straight away, this decision seems to split out the main protagonists from the “cannon fodder”, although I must admit that the film does a great job at maintaining the tension.
With deadly puzzles and death-traps at the heart of the action, it is natural for horror fans to draw comparisons to both the Saw and Cube franchises. However, Escape Room is much less visceral and most of the violence is either implied or off-screen. I was actually quite relieved that the film wasn’t a total gore-fest and that the focus was more on solving clues and avoiding traps instead of “torture porn” and grim choices. Fans of the Saw series might see this as a diluted alternative, but I actually enjoyed this more restrained approach. At some points, the film actually reminded me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as each of the six contestants were picked off one-by-one in each of the rooms. Given how some of the deaths were obscure, it also had me doubting the reality of the situation and whether, like in Roald Dahl’s classic, they would all be okay in the end and waving happily at the winner. I won’t ruin the ending here, but I had a number of theories throughout the film as to whether it was real, fake or even, the afterlife.
The design of the Escape Rooms was very impressive and it really captured the spirit of an actual Escape Room experience, especially when the secret exits were revealed. The first room was the most ingenious as it began to transition into an oven as the contestants blundered their way through a number of clues. I also enjoyed the upside billiard room which began to fall apart to reveal a steep drop down an elevator shaft for anyone unlucky enough to be on the floor when the buzzer sounded. Each of the rooms was customised based upon the entrant’s fears and memories and while it made for an interesting mystery surrounding the connection shared by the strangers, some of the details were far too specific to be known by anyone aside from the people who experienced them. The ultimate reveal of the purpose of the Escape Rooms and the reason that these six people were chosen was ultimately anti-climactic and some of my theories would have worked a lot better and covered up some of the plot holes.
The ending also suffered greatly from the need to set up a sequel, rather than closing this particular story out. The horror genre is well known for its abundance of sequels, but Escape Room feels incomplete as a result of it using the ending to set up a second instalment. It was so heavy-handed that it might as well have said “To be Continued” on the end credits – in fact, it might have done, I didn’t stick around to find out. Despite some flaws with the film, I really did enjoy the concept and characters and would happily watch the sequel when it comes out. Hopefully, the franchise doesn’t feel the need to raise the stakes in subsequent films because I liked the more restrained feel to this movie. It managed to maintain a degree of tension throughout without an excessively high body count or gruesome demises.
With multiple films released in recent years sharing the same title, Escape Room is clearly dealing with a competitive landscape and it manages to stand out from the crowd through its imaginative set design and its focus on characters over gory set-pieces. More of a thriller than a full-blown horror, Escape Room nails that “edge of the seat” terror and has armchair detectives trying to figure out the clues alongside the audience. I was doubtful whether the filmmakers would be able to effectively communicate the experience of an Escape Room, but they did a phenomenal job at recreating that sensation of searching for clues amongst the mundane and the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. While the plot is never brave enough to deviate from the trappings of the genre, it remains enjoyable and action-packed throughout. Ideal for streaming platforms, Escape Room is a film that you’ll want to unlock for yourself.