Prior to the recent trend for escape rooms, the idea of being locked in an unfamiliar room with nothing but clues to secure your freedom definitely sounded like a trap from Saw. Within the last few years however, this idea of solving puzzles to escape a locked room has become a hit source of social bonding and entertainment, with most major cities playing host to an escape room of some form. Adam Robitel’s aptly titled latest film, Escape Room, turns that thrill into an anxiety ridden nightmare in its high concept and crazy imagining of the cultural phenomenon.
First we are introduced to Ben Miller (Logan Miller), mid-challenge, set in an old study, as walls close in around him as he desperately searches for numbers to unlock the door. Assuming that this must be a previous player and we are witnessing a prior iteration of the deadly escape room promised in the films trailer, it’s a surprising reveal that Ben is not a forgotten victim, but in fact one of the key players in the film. The story then backtracks to detail the hours that led up to this defining moment.
Alongside Ben are five other competitors: Danny (Nik Dodani), Zoey (Taylor Russell), Jason (Jay Ellis), Mike (Tyler Labine) and Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll). Friends, employers and professors have sent out mysterious puzzle-cubes to their associates that lure them to the Minos building in Chicago with the promise of a $10,000 cash prize if they successfully escape the building. They are all motivated to play for different reasons; the cash, being challenged to do something that ‘scares’ them, and even being the first to play one of the USA’s hottest new rooms (Nik Dodani’s Danny is a master escape room competitor that trails the country for kicks).
The character premises alone are expansive and feel well established. Once the game begins – to the player’s surprise it actually starts within the waiting room – small tidbits of information about each characters backstory are revealed as they work their way through different rooms, each holding clues to the escape that are somehow related to each characters tragic history. While some of the characters stories might seem slightly too crazy to be true they at least feel rich and detailed, which is more than can be said for a lot of throwaway horror characters. As the group battle their own personal demons the room designs are certainly not giving them an easy time either.
Each new room the players face is more than your standard escape room. Bordering on torture dens, the stakes are raised so that if the group don’t manage to solve the puzzles and unlock the door, they will die in increasingly creative ways. Robitel keeps his film incredibly light-handed on the gore front but ramps up the tension to eye-watering levels to satisfy horror thrill-seekers. Elevated even further by some terrific production design from Edward Thomas that fully pushes the escape room concept to its absolute extent of wackiness, there is an utterly genius and mind-bending set-piece involving an upside-down bar room where the floor falls away periodically and an even more twisted segment involving a black and white patterned room and some hallucinogens that cement themselves as real standouts.
After such high-intensity moments earlier on in the Minos building it seems that the film could not push any further, audiences will struggle to revel in the joy of figuring out clues for themselves as this opportunity is never afforded to them, and its final act moves the story out beyond the plausible realm in its hopes for a sequel.
Escape Room manages to lock into current social trends and exploits the anxiety that could potentially surround them, delivering a largely exhilarating ride that feels quite different within its genre. Despite its issues with pushing the narrative too far with its finale, it remains to be a fun Friday night horror flick that serves up its concept in the most stylish of fashions.
Dir: Adam Robitel
Scr: Bragi F. Schut, Maria Melnik
Cast: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll, Nik Dodani
Prd: Ori Marmur, Neal H. Moritz
DOP: Marc Spicer
Music: John Carey, Brian Tyler
Runtime: 99 minutes
Escape Room is in cinemas now.