With the start of the new year, the month of January in theaters is an interesting mixed bag of oscar hopefuls, horror flicks, low-budget sci-fi, and bland family films. Seen as the dead zone of the movie calendar, only Glass (January 18th) seems primed to breakout as a blockbuster. That context provides the clear reasoning why Sony Pictures would use the month to drop Escape Room, a horror/thriller based on no recognizable IP, and seemingly desperate to prove itself as the best horror film of 2003. It’s a schlocky, ridiculous film, but with a surprising amount of charm. But is that enough to establish a new horror franchise? If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s to not underestimate Sony’s ability to draw up interest in what is seemingly low-brow entertainment.
The film, partially inspired by the likes of Final Destination and Saw, is as straight-forward as it gets. Six unsuspecting strangers are invited to participate in an escape room. Each participant receives a physical invitation, and are told within that invitation that the prize for winning the game is $10,000. The six participants are as follows: Zoey (Taylor Russell), a meek but insanely bright college student played by an actor that actually looks like a college student, all while sporting the most convincing shy voice you’ve ever heard on film. There’s Jason (Jay Ellis), a douchy trader because these films always need a jackass. A stock boy with a dark past in Ben (Logan Miller), military veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), as well as gamer and escape room veteran Danny (Nik Dodani). There’s also Tyler Labine playing a middle-aged family man named.. um, well, we’ll just call him Dad Jokes®.
As we’re introduced to our main protagonists, I have to compliment the film on two things that seem like they should be a pre-requisite of any film of this type, but so many get wrong. The first, is the pacing; we’re quickly introduced to these characters, what they’re signifying personality traits are supposed to be, and it isn’t long before the action actually gets going. The characters are painted in broad strokes, but it’s forgivable in this sort of genre fare. Secondly, the characters here, even if they don’t have the most depth, are actually likeable and memorable. If we’re paying to see a horror film where a group of people are facing life-threatening obstacles, it’s much easier to engage with the fun if the characters aren’t boring avatars. The characters here, while clear archetypes of characters you’ve seen in other horror/thriller films, have enough charm for us to actually be invested in their dilemma. In addition, there’s genuine chemistry within the group. In the same vein that the newest Jumanji film was a success because the group dynamic made the journey of the film enjoyable, this group of misfits are also entertaining due to their constant bickering, rare acts of teamwork and even rarer acts of friendship.
Soon after arriving at our central location, the group gathers in the waiting room. Danny displays the most excitement, as he’s participated in countless escape rooms, but none like this as the group soon finds out that their game is not a simulation but a literal survival of the fittest. The game is essentially a series of rooms that the group must figure out how to exit. This often involves some type of puzzle that varies from mildly stimulating to easy mode on a Jeopardy quiz game app. Each level, unsurprisingly, reminds one of our protagonists of a dark, traumatic experience from their past. The rooms are also ripe with such specific details of each traumatic event that the detective skills needed to obtain them would make Batman blush.
While the premise has only a loose relationship with logic, the actual escape rooms are thrilling and well-realized. For a movie made on a $9 million budget, the set pieces don’t look cheap. Two set pieces in particular, an upside down bar room and a final level that should probably warrant an epilepsy warning, are the visual highlights of the film. As we pass through each level, the group is withered until we encounter the mastermind of this entire death trap – and you’ll probably meet this reveal with an unenthusiastic ‘meh’. It’s not that the reveal can’t lead to some interesting avenues in subsequent films, so much that it’s an uninteresting reveal for what is supposed to be mystery of the entire film and the villain(s) leave no lasting impression. If you can imagine the laziest explanation for who has planned these events, the film is more than prepared to meet your tepid imagination. Despite this, there is great potential in the premise, and the filmmakers certainly agree given all the unabashed sequel teasing.
In spite of the film’s fairly weak plot, I actually hope that we do get more of these – if only for the chance to improve on the premise, and make entires that are as exciting as this film teases being. One can easily point to the already mentioned Final Destination and Saw franchises, which took absurd but entertaining premises, and basically spent their sequels trying to one-up the absurdity. Final Destination 2 (2003), in particular, is one of the most fun horror films we have and it was made possible by the groundwork laid in the original film.
There’s a skeleton of a burgeoning horror franchise here. If any subsequent films can continue the trend of establishing likable characters tackling increasingly elaborate set pieces, this could easily become a new horror franchise. I just hope that if the filmmakers are lucky enough to be granted a sequel, that the central storyline undergoes great improvement. If our villain(s) aren’t made more interesting, a potential sequel could be DOA.