Escape Room is the latest in the horror/thriller genre’s long line of “we took that thing you all like and imagined how it might kill you” movies. In this case, a group of strangers are invited to a top secret escape room experience via Hellraiser-esque puzzle boxes which mysteriously show up in their offices and direct them where to go. Weird, obviously, but the prize is $10,000. So, weird away. Once at the actual escape room, though, they all realize not only are their lives in imminent danger but also whoever designed the escape room – er, rooms really – knows everything about them.
Basically, congratulations anyone who’s ever been to a real escape room and thought “Needs more Saw, The Game, and Cabin in the Woods.”
But is Escape Room good? Kind of need to know since it is literally the only new wide release in theaters this weekend.
Here’s the thing: remember what it felt like back in the day when you’d go to see a superhero movie that wasn’t Spider-Man or X-Men? That might be a big ask because I’m talking like at least three Spider-Man actors ago and a whole confusing X-Men continuity to cut through, but once upon a time Sony’s Spider-Man and Fox’s X-Men movies were the 100% obvious best thing going in superhero cinema. Didn’t stop other companies and producers from trying to join in, though. So there’d you be in the theater watching Daredevil, Hulk, or The Fantastic Four, thinking, “I guess this is ok, but it’s no Spider-Man 2 or X2.”
That’s Escape Room right now. It is the bargain basement Daredevil or The Fantastic Four to Blumhouse and WB’s Spider-Man and X-Men. It is the thing that exists because a particular genre, horror, happens to be really hot right now, but it hasn’t been made by the people who do the genre best.
Blumhouse can completely nail horror comedy (Happy Death Day), slasher (Halloween), social commentary (Get Out) or haunted whatever (Insidious, Paranormal Activity, Ouija: Origin of Evil), and then anything they miss on just gets dumped on Netflix, bypassing theaters entirely. WB, meanwhile, has It and the various Conjuring universe titles, all released under the New Line label.
Those two, and maybe also A24 if art-horror is your thing, are the industry leaders in horror right now. Sony’s Screen Gems, a label the studio has used for genre fare since 1998, is way, way, way down the list. They haven’t had a horror hit since 2016’s Don’t Breathe and had their output severely slashed by cost-cutting Sony boss Tom Rothman. The Screen Gems name has been so tainted by too many Resident Evil and Underworld sequels that Rothman opted to officially release Escape Room as a Sony/Columbia title, which might explain why it is PG-13 and not R, but it still smacks of a Screen Gems product.
Luckily, in terms of recent Screen Gems releases Escape Room is far closer to Don’t Breathe than it is to The Possession of Hannah Grace in terms of quality. There’s a quick and dirty feel to it, with director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) getting us and the characters into that escape room as fast as possible.
The three main characters at least get pre-escape room introductions. Zoey’s (Taylor Russell) a college student genius, but she’s too shy to show it. Ben (Logan Miller) is a grocery store employee and a self-destructive loser in serious need of a friend. Jason’s (Jay Ellis) an alpha male peacocking like crazy inside his corner office with a view at a finance firm.
They meet Deborah Ann Woll’s Iraq veteran, Tyler Labine’s gregarious long haul trucker, and Nik Dondani’s enthusiastic gamer in the escape room lobby, which quickly turns into a giant pressure cooker and will roast them alive if they can’t find a way out. Once they do, they end up in another room entirely with a completely different design and puzzle to solve. They keep going through this same process, and each new room causes one of the characters to very briefly flashback to their tragic backstory.
Sounds like a perfectly efficient B-movie set-up, and it absolutely is. The actors are all enjoyable enough, particularly Labine as the funny older man of the group and Woll completely sells her character’s PTSD. The dialogue, at times, feels oddly behind the times (“Yeah, keep holding your knob” is used as a put-down/obvious masturbation joke), but never drags. The actual escape rooms look daunting enough (I was partial to the upside down room) and the puzzles aren’t so easy that you’ll be able to solve them well before the characters.
The hiccup, however, is Escape Room actually starts with a cold open showing Ben by himself at clearly the tail end of the escape room experience, struggling to figure out a puzzle and put in the right password needed to escape before the room slowly pushing in around him turns him into a pancake. It perfectly establishes the deadly stakes of the situation, and then cuts to three days earlier to show us how Ben got there.
I can see why they did it, but it totally messes with the tension for the rest of the movie. Before the escape room even begins with the full cast, we know Ben is either the last boy standing or that they all somehow get separated. Once the others inevitably start dying off since each new room is deadlier than the last, you’re left wondering if there’s going to be any kind of big twist or if that cold open really did spoil the ending.
I won’t spoil any more other than to say this simple little thing – a here’s-the-ending cold open – weakens the entire film. It would have worked better if the person in the opening wasn’t one of the main characters and instead a victim of an earlier version of the escape room, thus giving the audience more information than the characters, an always useful go-to way to create tension.
Oh, well. That’s just not Escape Room’s jam, but we really shouldn’t expect too much from a PG-13 Sony horror movie released in the first week of January. If you go in with lowered expectations, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a rather efficient thriller which, granted, does eventually end up over-explaining everything and isn’t especially scary but is a capable time-filler until the next really good Blumhouse or WB horror movie comes along.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- The power of PG-13: There were so many tweens, teenagers and a couple of legit little kids at my screening last night.
- Sorta Spoiler for One of the Deaths: Well, Adam Robitel has clearly seen Damien: Omen Il.
- Literally five minutes after I finished writing this review I saw the following headline:
So, if you live in Poland maybe don’t see this movie this weekend.