In what has become an annual tradition at the movie theaters in early January, a PG-13 horror film has slipped in and threatened to soft-peddle largely bloodless scares in the direction of teenagers while their parents go see the R-rated stuff that might win awards. So imagine my surprise when I saw Escape Room, a somewhat creative play on the popular trend in which a group of people get locked in a themed room and have to look for clues in order to get out. And as you might expect in a scary film, things are taken to an extreme and lives are actually at stake.
If the whole thing sounds like a play on the Saw franchise, well, neither you nor I would be the first to think so. That being said, there’s something a bit more elaborate and a lot less torture-porn-ish going on with Escape Room which brings six invited, seemingly unconnected strangers together to move through a series of rooms, each one of which seems to have some uniquely personal ties to the players. I’ve never been bored enough to take part in an escape room, but thanks to director Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan) and writers Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik, the film seems to have a handle on some fairly detail-oriented settings that include clues that aren’t impossibly difficult to solve (they aren’t exactly easy either).
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that some of those playing don’t make it to the end alive, and in most cases, I was actually sad to see some of them go. Although we get backstories on all six players, the two the film seems to focus on are super-smart, antisocial college student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and lovable loser Ben (Logan Miller), who is clearly just back on his feet after a traumatic event. Also playing are cocky business type Jason (Jay Ellis from HBO’s “Insecure”), military vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), expert gamer Danny (Nik Dodani), and the oldest of the bunch, truck driver Mike (Tyler Labine). And unlike many other horror works where we’re just waiting for victims to get picked off, I actually enjoyed spending time with these characters. Each one gets a chance to be selfish, but they eventually learn that if they combine their strength and knowledge, the room becomes easier to figure out.
The building in which the rooms are located is in Chicago, but other than a few establishing shots, I’m guessing none of it was actually filmed here. The conspiracy theories about how they all landed in the room start flying, and by the time we get to the big reveal (or partial reveal, at least), I was on the verge of losing interest. Not that any of the film feels real, but by the end, things have swung so far away from reality that it’s hard to feel invested. The rooms themselves are pretty great, from one that turns into a giant oven to another that places the players on a barely frozen lake. I’m guessing the favorite among audiences will be the bar that is turned upside down with the floor disappearing in sections at regular intervals, complete with a long drop underneath.
Escape Room is in no way a great movie, but it does certainly qualify as a solid effort, and I say that as someone who is rarely forgiving of lazy or idiotic horror efforts. There are interesting, underlying themes about guilt and blame that are unexpected, adding a layer of depth to the proceedings. And other than a soft landing (followed by a ludicrous sequel set up), I was on bored most of the way with this one.
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