Directed by Peter Dukes
Ever wanted to get locked in a room, with some friends, and spend an hour solving fiendish puzzles to get out? Well many people do, and they pay a lot for the privilege. Across the globe they’re all the rage, so it’s not surprise to see a horror film respond to the trend – particularly given the dual ‘no way out’ and against the clock narratives the genre often works with. Indeed, this is not even the only film with this name and rough concept that came out last year, so audiences can expect many more yet. Plus, given the small cast in a single location setup inherent to the premise, they can be made on the cheap.
That being said, it’s a surprisingly long time before we get in the room (ok, about 15 minutes). First there’s an exposition heavy opener, that lasts way longer than it should, that sets up the vague mythology: an enchanted ‘Skull Box’ containing a demonic force. During this 19th century set scene two men bury it in the Arabian desert hoping nobody will ever find it again. But skip to the present, via a Saw style opener with fragmented shots of generic spooky imagery, and it’s found its way to an antique shop in America. The owner (Young) talks at length about how dangerous it is, and how she would never sell it, whilst having it on full display (in a satisfying in-joke, she also deals in Mogwai). Nearby, Bruce (Ulrich) runs a once successful escape room now struggling – perhaps the town’s short on stag dos and work days out. And with Halloween fast approaching he’s got to get himself a new attraction. Luckily he stumbles across this spooky looking McGuffin and steals it – hey, he’s got horror journalist Jeff (Wayne) to impress, so he’s got to pull out all the stops. Joining Jeff are girlfriend Angie (Gallegos), who he’s less interested in than his gaming, and couple friends Ben (McVay) and Jess (Donlon). At first it goes how you’d expect, with clues popping up all over the place and a silent masked man on a chain, which starts to get a little longer as the clock runs down. Then they open the cursed box!
So far this combo of Saw meets Hellraiser maybe doesn’t sound like the most original movie you’ve never heard of. And as much as I’d like to say there’s some big twists in acts two and three there really isn’t. Rather the plot goes where you’d expect it to, save for an ending so anticlimactic it surpasses any reasonable expectations. To an extent the predictability is ok, in as much I expect a lot of people would gladly watch a film about people caught in an escape room with a killer – provided it’s enjoyable. But with boring puzzles, an uninspired framing device and underdeveloped characters Escape Room just isn’t. Moreover, with the greatly misleading box showing buzzsaws aplenty, giving a real sense of peril, it’s not tough to see how this could have been made better. The lack of danger is anchored by the dull, bargain basement villain who simultaneously has too much and too little left to the imagination.
Despite all this, there were some things I enjoyed, although mostly in the first half when there’s some genuine tension before the first kill. Whilst neither Jeff nor Ben had much to them, it was fun to see them riff on horror culture including Halloween sequels and The Thing – even if this self-awareness draws attention to what the current film isn’t. It’s also good to see Skeet Ulrich, who you may remember as creepy boyfriend Billy from Scream, do horror again. But sadly Bruce is kept out of the action for the most part, reduced to trying to find out what’s wrong with his camera and ranting about the market. Despite how the film depicts being a film journalist, it’s isn’t all thrills and being pampered by people after a good review – sometimes it sucks. And often the least enjoyable reviews to write are the negative ones, like here where I’m largely tearing apart a feature length directorial/ screenwriting debut and obvious passion project. To be fair, the ticking clock gives some urgency, and there’s some fun to be had – but its not enough to keep your attention captured. Still, given the subject’s prominence on the high street, at least it won’t be long ‘til a bigger and better one comes along.