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Horror and suspense flicks are often hit or miss. Since the ‘50s, it has proven a challenge to create a truly scary movie without sacrificing the integrity of the plotline. Films like “The Exorcist” and “The Shining” have withstood the test of time because they bridged the gap between being classically scary and having dynamic execution.
“Escape Room,” directed by seasoned horror filmmaker Adam Robitel, made its debut last Friday, Jan. 4. The film hits on some really integral aspects of how strangers relate to each other when in a life or death situation. Some moments in the film are relatable due to a handful of captivating performances from a select few actors, yet there are still many scenes and lines that fall short of their intention.
These shortcomings can be attributed primarily to the writing and scenarios presented. It was obvious that this film was scripted, and it often felt like many of the actors were simply delivering their lines to get it over with. If the actors want the audience to be immersed in the plot, they can’t let them know that it’s just a story.
That’s not to say “Escape Room” wasn’t enjoyable. In fact it was one of the more original and untapped ideas in the suspense genre. It has the ability to ruin escape rooms for everyone.
Conceptually, “Escape Room” nestles itself in the same subgenre of horror as the “Saw” franchise, where there are a number of contestants competing for survival against a common evil. The characters in “Escape Room,” with interesting backgrounds and complementary characteristics, are led unsuspectingly into a series of chambers each themed and rigged to create a life-or-death situation. The team is pitted against freezing cold, searing heat and poisonous gas amongst other intricate plots to kill them, and along the way the contestants are taken down one by one.
The film makes a fantastic first impression in a scene without context which delivers arguably the best example of the knee-grabbing, toe-flinching terror present in the entire movie. The centerpiece character, Ben, portrayed by Logan Miller, scrambles to find the clues necessary to make his way out of a study which is quickly collapsing in on itself in classic “Star Wars”-garbage-compactor fashion.
Miller has plenty of experience acting in roles where the characters are placed in odd situations (“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “Love Simon”). The lovably sarcastic yet sad stoner archetype, which comes so naturally to Miller, provides comic relief and a breath of fresh air.
There are plenty of wonderfully trite movie cliches scattered throughout the film. When Zoey, played by Taylor Russell, is introduced, she is attending an incredibly complicated physics lecture where an unnecessarily attractive professor asks the class an impossible question and Zoey is the only one who knows the answer. Five minutes after starting the topic, the bell rings. Sounds like something you might see in an ‘80s B horror flick like “C.H.U.D.”
The final half hour of the flick is a dizzying maze of plot twists. From the moment it’s apparent what the reason behind the murderous madness is, the audience is left confused and bewildered as every three minutes holds a turn of events that drastically changes the plot. If you blink, you’ll miss something.
“Escape Room” serves its intended purpose. It’s an engaging and unpredictable suspense film with playful twists at the end and fun, thought-provoking themes. It may not be relevant in fifty years like “Carrie” or “Psycho,” but it certainly has the nerve to give you a flinch or two.
In retrospect, it’s actually kind of surprising that there hasn’t been an escape room-themed horror movie until now. The popular interactive mystery games are kind of mini films. There’s a built-in set, stakes, opportunities for conflict and teamwork and a logical start and finish. It’s certainly a more obvious fit for a movie than a board game or theme park ride.
So, from the imaginations of “Fast & Furious” producer Neal H. Moritz and “Insidious: The Last Key” director Adam Robitel comes “Escape Room,” where the characters are as random as an audience-chosen improv group (Investment banker! Soldier! Miner! Smart teen! Grocer!); the rooms look like discarded Nine Inch Nails music video sets (not exactly a criticism); the stakes are $10,000 or death, which seem far too low and too high; and everyone agrees that Petula Clark’s “Downtown” is a bad song (which is both incorrect and a strange, rude hill to die on).
As if the film is concerned that the audience will lose interest immediately, “Escape Room” starts at the end, as a lone man, Ben (Logan Miller), desperately tries to figure out the clues in a room that is quickly closing in on itself, “Star Wars” trash compactor-style. It’s certainly a jolt of energy upfront, but right as things are looking really bleak for Ben, it cuts to “three days earlier.”
It’s cheap and a little insulting to have to reassure viewers that there is some exciting and harrowing stuff to come as long as they get through all the boring introductory stuff. At least it doesn’t resort to the old record-scratch, freeze-frame, “you’re probably wondering how I got here” standby.
The thing is, “Escape Room” isn’t actually all that bad, just kind of silly, but it takes a moment to readjust your expectations after that condescending beginning, and a very phoned-in introduction to the unlucky six Chicago strangers who all receive a mysterious box and decide, what the heck, let’s check out this escape room. There’s the skittish but brilliant college student, Zoey (Taylor Russell); the ruthless finance guy, Jason (Jay Ellis); the veteran who hates heat, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll); the regular joe, Mike (Tyler Labine); and the escape room obsessive who honestly never does all that much to help, Danny (Nik Dodani).
Curiously, no one seems all that concerned about the odd premise that this team activity could have a single winner at all, or perhaps they think they’ll all win $10,000. I guess it becomes clearer when people start dying in the rooms. And, boy, are they put through the wringer. The have to brave extreme heat, extreme cold, poison, drugs, rising tensions and body counts while trying to figure out how to get out of each puzzle room, a few of which are pretty interesting. It’s like a “Final Destination” spinoff where each character is haunted by past traumas. Mercifully, all the carnage is kept to tolerable PG-13 levels.
The filmmakers haven’t gone so far as to put you in the game, too. A lot of it is watching all the characters find keys and have their own revelations, so by the time you get to the fifth room, it’s understandable if interest is starting to wane a bit even with the addition of a link between the six people.
The third act really kind of blows it though, and the movie essentially ends with a shrug and the possibility for a sequel. You could do worse in January. And anyone already interested in the idea of an escape room that tries to kill you probably isn’t expecting all that much out of this anyway.