*This review contains spoilers*
The cash-grab conversation at Sony that sparked Escape Room almost writes itself (“hey, my kid had a lot of fun at one of these places…”), but the popular activity of locking you and your friends inside a room and working together to get out is just the latest cultural phenomenon to be fed into the horror genre’s long-running, money-making scheme. Normally, a film like this is simply marked off as part of the January plague and tossed aside, but there are just enough moments to enjoy here that the viewing experience doesn’t fully drown in disappointment.
With that said, Escape Room is simply not good, despite the occasional redeeming moment. A sort-of-horror, sort-of-thriller flick, director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) and writer Bragi Schut take an obvious nod to the Saw franchise’s “torture porn” formula, with disposable characters and expansive death traps, but the result is far less intriguing. Maybe this film’s comparably weak PG-13 rating is to blame, but the lackluster protagonists and deplorably campy dialogue are worth mentioning as well.
The movie opens with a quick hook that gives audiences a run-through of what they’ll be seeing for the next 100 minutes (piece of advice: use this time to determine whether or not to get your refund): a man drops from the ceiling and into what looks like an eloquent study. Without knocking the dust off his pants, he begins scrambling around the room and making ridiculous, Holmes-esque deductions. Then the walls start closing in…and they don’t stop.
This somewhat tense opener becomes condescending once we’re tossed three days into the past and learn that he’s actually one of the film’s main characters. His name is Ben (Logan Miller), and he’s sort of a loser, quickly established as an alcoholic by the flask sitting on his desk (blatant, but effective). His introduction follows that of two others: Zoey (Taylor Russell), a shy, but brilliant college student, and Jason (Jay Ellis), a cocky businessman whose lone characteristic is that he’s cocky.
One day, they all receive a puzzle box which acts as an invitation to an especially difficult escape room; the appeal is the $10,000 sitting on the other side. Once they get arrive in, the 6-person team is solidified. With them are also three, previously un-introduced characters including a video game nerd (Nik Dodani), a female war veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), and a rather normal guy named Mike (Tyler Labine).
From there, Escape Room follows a basic, lackadaisical horror path, sticking its characters with their one-dimensional trails, and picking them off one-by-one in a far too expected order – made all the more expected once you remember that the first thing you saw was Ben in a room by himself.
For the most part, the puzzles themselves are interesting, and the lack of gore actually serves this film well, allowing Robitel to showcase the mechanics of the puzzle, rather than the repercussions of not solving them. That well-suited waiting room, for example, soon becomes a human-cooking oven (turned on after the group thought a copy of Fahrenheit 451 was a clue). The rest are either interesting (one is an upside down billiards bar where the ceiling/floor begins to fall apart), or idiotic (a Christmas themed one reveals, through some obnoxiously ridiculous problem solving, that Ben had killed his friends drunk driving and singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”).
One character pretty much sums up Escape Room when he says that he’s “playing the world’s funnest game, with the world’s meanest people.” Though I don’t know how much fun it is for the audience, given that the characters all sort of work through the puzzles on their own, this really is a nasty group of people.
In the end, the only thing Escape Room is worth is the time it takes to look up its puzzles online, certainly not the price of admission.
There’s just enough cleverness in Escape Room to enjoy that this bad-horror-movie experience becomes more discouraging than droll.