Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Walk, Don’t Run to ‘Escape Room’

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Escape Room is an enjoyable, if at times quite effective, horror film. If you liked Saw or the Final Destination movies you will more than likely enjoy this. Both of these franchises have built a successful formula out of sitting in the dark watching people die in varying elaborate Rube Goldberg fashion.

The difference is that the Saw movies try to behave as if they have some deeper moralistic or philosophical meaning to it all. The Final Destination movies, however, never pretend to be anything other than what they are. For the record, I enjoy the latter over the former.

Your enjoyment of Escape Room will largely depend on how much gore versus how much riddle and puzzle solving you like in your horror. Either way, the movie is competent enough and slick enough to make the tension work. Adam Robitel, the director, has given us a relatively decent horror movie for January.

My tepid response comes not from my bias towards Final Destination over Saw. Rather it”s my own personal taste. Quite frankly this is not the type of movie that I particularly enjoy. To be clear neither is Final Destination. Horror movies are my least favorite genre. Sometimes I enjoy them. But most of the time I am unable to overcome my initial unease at watching them.

Escape Room follows six seemingly unconnected characters as they make their way through one elaborate booby trap after another. Because of the modern cinematic landscape, these six strangers will all have something in common. God forbid six strangers actually turn out to be six strangers with nothing in common. The thread that ties the characters together is revealed as the movie goes along.

The structure of the movie tips its hand slightly. Escape Room is designed for fans of the genre but its surprises will be easily spotted. For example of the six characters only Zoe (Taylor Russell), Ben (Logan Miller), and Jason (Jay Ellis) are given any kind of backstory. We see each of them receive an elaborate puzzle box which contains an invitation. The other three, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), Mike (Tyler Labine), and Danny (Nik Dodani), we meet at the escape room itself. Since they have no backstory, and we have no connection to them, they will be the first to die.

To give Escape Room credit it’s never really obvious which of the three will die. The movie begins with the last scene. Knowing this tells us more than the last three we met will die. The suspense becomes who and in what order. Of course, all of this is predicated on the notion that Escape Room is playing fair with us. Meaning if the beginning is really the end, then everything I’ve just said is correct. Except since this is a horror movie, the notion that it would be playing fair is naive.

The script written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik is inventive in how the rooms are designed and plotted out to relate to each of the characters. The problem is that as fun as Escape Room is it begins to wobble by the end. The cracks begin to show towards the end. For much it’s runtime Escape Room is grounded to some degree in reality. By the end it has lept off the rails and into an over the top Illuminati inspired ending.

While Escape Room at times feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone it never feels over the top. Robitel manages to make the improbability and most convoluted coincidences and designs seem believable. But the ending verges into television, “I’ll get you next time!” territory. It feels hokey and overdone. 

Up until the end though it’s a perfectly serviceable horror movie. Taylor Russell as the shy and introverted Zoey is a lovely presence. Her character adds a layer of tension. She’s so likable and endearing you begin to feel bad for her even before people start dying. Russell has a thankless job of turning her character from shy savant to embracing being the smartest one in the room.

Deborah Ann Woll is the other bright spot. An ex Iraq veteran she is the pragmatic voice of the group as well as the unspoken leader. Of all the cast members she has the most physically challenging role. In a movie where characters must out run, out think, and out guess a faceless menace, her Amanda has to outdo them all.

The most effective scene involves a room designed like a honky-tonk pool room. Russell’s Zoey realizes the records on the wall are a picture puzzle while Woll’s Amanda figures out the clue must be in a lockbox. The room is upside down. The timer is the floor giving way in sections revealing a massive elevator shaft beneath.

Despite my initial boredom, I was curled into a tight ball watching the group try and work through the room. Whatever predictability Escape Room has Robitol and his writers seem aware of it and either lean into it or tease you with enough information for us to know we don’t have everything.

Marc Spicer, the cinematographer, and editor Steve Mirkovich work together to make a cohesive horror thriller. Despite its shortcomings, I found myself cringing from the intensity of the atmosphere. Spicer and Mirkovich cleverly play with the boundaries of PG-13 rating. Utilizing the constraints they are able to create a very specific atmosphere of dread despite the ludicrousness of the plot.

The rising popularity of escape rooms only made the inevitability of a horror movie about them all the more likely. The element of some far-seeing shadowy billionaire oligarch behind it all is merely a sign of our ever-increasing class-conscious times. Escape Room does what it promises to do, but trips over itself trying to set up a future franchise deal. All in all not bad for a January horror film.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

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