IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 101 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In Chicago, Zoey, Ben and Jason receive invitations to the Minos Escape room. The reward? – $10,000 to the person capable of solving the puzzle. Once there, they are joined by Mike, Amanda and Danny. There doesn’t seem to be a proper game master, and then they’re locked in the room they’re in without warning. It soon becomes apparent that, instead of offering a cheery time boosted by friendly competition, the building seems to be an elaborate killing machine….
When I first mentioned to my HCF colleagues that I was going to see Escape Room, I didn’t think about reviewing it because I recalled that David Smith reviewed it early last year – until he told me that this was a different Escape Room to the one he watched. And then Ross Hughes said that he’d reviewed a film of that title much earlier. I can’t say that I expected much from this new film [which was originally entitled The Maze], seeing as the concept has already been used several times, and even by looking at a brief synopsis it seemed to me to be a cross between Saw, Cube and The Belko Experiment. Well, that is pretty much the case, and you can probably throw Hostel and Final Destination in there too, though the Saw series seems to be the strongest influence. The chief aim seems to be to start a new franchise that’s modeled on the Jigsaw-featuring one, but this time rated ‘PG-13’ so that younger viewers can go to see it, replacing the gruesome kills and sadistic torture with more ‘natural’ [i.e. falling through and being frozen under ice, falling down a lift shaft] and less graphic deaths, and a greater variety of challenges. All this probably sounds rather lame, and god knows I’ve had enough of horror films being obviously watered down, sometimes in post production, so they can get a lower rating. But, against the odds, Escape Room does manage to be quite good in places. It botches its story at times, has one really stupid scene, and doesn’t seem to know how to end, but for much of its time it’s a reasonably tense, even edge of seat watch with a few genuinely good ideas thrown in among all the borrowings. After a while, it didn’t bother me at all that it offered bloodless, only partly shown deaths, because said deaths, unlike its main inspiration, are not really the main attraction.
Saying that, Escape Room does commit a major cock-up at the beginning. We see somebody rushing around a collapsing room, an ornate Victorian-style affair, desperately scanning for any information that might help open a door to safety, with a full-body crushing imminent. You’d expect the person to be killed and then the film to cut to some new characters who would be unaware of the lethal terror that was in store for them, thus providing some suspense even though this device has been done to death. It would be predictable but it would work. But no, they do something that’s been used less but which rarely works at all when it is used. The film winds back three days to explain how this character got there. I guess this was intended to pull in easily distracted audiences without hiring another cast member and shooting a whole extra scene, but it erases suspense immediately, and it makes much of this player’s journey anti-climactic because, while we don’t know whether he will survive or be killed at the end, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll be the last survivor because he’s on his own. Anyway, we now flash back to meet him again plus two others out of our six players, and character introduction is done awkwardly with half of the group introduced in their environments and receiving these mysterious boxes with invitations in them, and half of them then introduced at the building where the game is going to take place.
So who do we have here then? There’s veteran escape room player Danny who takes a while to be convinced that the people or person running the game could be trying to kill him. Brainy physics student Zoey. Burned out Ben who’s struggling to keep it together. Hot-headed high-achieving finance executive Ben. Tough, capable war veteran Amanda. And the sole much older person, likeably clueless trucker Ben. These are pretty much stock characters to be honest, and have little real depth to them. Some may dislike the way that, for example, Zoey is all but defined by her savant-like behavior which tends to exasperate the others. However, they’re well played by all the cast members [Nick Dadoki is a decent comic relief in places without it seeming forced, though probably the most visible member of the cast Tyler Labine has the least to do] and have a good dynamic together. Some of the players do most of the work, others argue, one tries to keep spirits high etc. They’re put to the test almost immediately when they realise that the room they meet in is actually the first room they have to escape from. Heat begins to be pumped in, and some intensity is created, but – well – here comes the really stupid scene I was talking about. These people are getting hotter and hotter, it’s getting like an oven in there, but only two of them take off even just their outer layer of clothing. The others are all wearing jumpers or jackets above T-shirts or shirts, yet none of them think to make things more pleasant for themselves by removing them [or god forbid even more clothing], even though they’re supposed to be suffering and finding the heat to be almost unbearable. I mean I didn’t necessarily want everyone to strip, but are we now getting to the stage where filmmakers are afraid of this kind of thing in case whingers will find it gratuitous or exploitative or something, even though plausibility can go out of the window? And they don’t even look like they’re sweating!
They all survive this one but things don’t turn out too well with the next room, where they have to deal with another potentially dangerous element, and so forth. Meanwhile we begin to get brief flashbacks to some traumatic events. Could the fact that everybody seems to have experienced something terrible in the past be important? There’s certainly some predictability, and too much of the dialogue is made up of exposition about what’s happening at any given moment. Yes, folks we can see what’s going on, we don’t need characters to repeatedly tell us! Sometimes people seem to be even narrating their thoughts. It’s as if they were worried that more than ten seconds without some words coming out of somebody’s mouth would lose viewers, even if its unnecessary. Some of this material seems deliberately added later rather than being an organic part of Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik’s original script, though I could be wrong. However, by contrast, there’s a real sense of fear and panic in some places not undone by the heavy metal guitars screaming on the soundtrack, and the order of deaths surprised me a bit. A whole load of thrills and even some cleverness takes place as floors can break away, frozen surfaces may crumble, a single door knob is able to trigger terrible effects. These rooms can change and almost seem alive. One room is even upside down. It’s almost surreal, and it never becomes tiresome because each room has a different aesthetic, though they all have potential clues everywhere and the players all react and contribute [or not] in a fashion appropriate to their characters except for one who seems to unbelievably undergo a total transformation in a couple of minutes. Maybe some footage was missing here? And you also get one of those sudden resurrections by a character who seemed to previously die before your very eyes -and they don’t even bother with an explanation for this one!
But it all still works well enough until the final act which seems to end several times before it actually does. At one point it suggests an interesting interpretation of what’s been happening before then ignoring this and certain evidence that we’ve been told about that seems to corroborate this theory. The reason for all those cameras in the rooms is quite obvious, and we’ve certainly been here before. I was kind of hoping that this film would go one better than the Saw films and not cause us to ask the same big question concerning those movies which is one of several things that weakens that franchise for me – how the hell would somebody have the wherewithal to construct and stage all these elaborate, no doubt expensive death traps? But it fails to do so, while there’s also one of the most ridiculous versions of a particular scene [I’m not going to mention it, but will say that it was probably first seen in the 1935 version of The Thirty-Nine Steps] familiar from lots and lots of movies designed to make our hero or heroine look stupid that I’ve ever seen. And if you think about it, the reason for why these people were invited is rather poor lame really. There must also have been a more concise way to set things up for a sequel, even if I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel at all. While hardly a huge hit, Escape Room seems to have surpassed box office expectations so it could happen.
Director Adam Robitel previously made the rather frightening found footage flick The Taking Of Deborah Logan as well as the decent fourth Insidious entry, so he certainly knows that he’s doing, and is very good at provided frantic energy to scenes without making them incoherent, though at times it’s cinematographer Mark Spicer who should be praised more due to the way he shoots many of the rooms with odd angles, enhancing their weirdness. There’s one truly haunting high angle shot of somebody drowning under ice on the right hand side of the screen while everyone else is far away on the left hand side of the screen, unable to see the death even if we can, though more will probably remember the trippy fight in a rotating black and white checkered lounge, while you’ll probably never hear Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ the same way again. Devoid of depth or meaning except for some predictable ‘survival of the fittest stuff’, though a touch of Final Destination’s cheating death stuff does add a bit of morbid weight, Escape Room still offers far more than it probably should considering its plot and story telling flaws.