Escape Room: The Party’s Starting Now…, by David Bax
It’s kind of impressive, actually, the breadth of what we’ll allow to be called a horror movie. From ghosts to home invasions to serial killers to monsters from other worlds, we’re fine with putting them all in the same box. They don’t even really have to be scary. Take Adam Robitel’s Escape Room. It’s really more of a tense, high-concept thriller that happens to feature some pretty inventive and disturbing character deaths. There’s hardly a true fright in the whole thing. That’s okay, though, because, horror or not, this movie is a total blast.
I’m being a bit unfair here, actually. Escape Room bears more horror DNA than occasionally playing on phobias of drowning, falling or flying in airplanes. The story’s kicking off point, actually, is pure House on Haunted Hill. Six strangers—Zoey (Taylor Russell), a reserved but brilliant college student; Jason (Jay Ellis), an ambitious and cocky finance bro; Ben (Logan Miller), a burnout grocery store stocker; Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), an Iraq war veteran; Danny (Nik Dodani), an excitable gamer; and Mike (Tyler Labine), a gruff truck driver—all receive anonymous invitations to participate in an exclusive escape room experience that promises to net them $10,000 if they win.
Of course, they’ll soon find out the stakes are higher than that. The six of them will also learn that they have more in common than they think. In one of the movie’s creakier scenes, they take turns explaining the events in their lives that brought them to this point. First off, Final Destination 2 pretty effectively took the piss out of this kind of horror movie scene more than fifteen years ago. And second, the results here are probably kind of insultingly reductive about post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you wanted to pick nits, though, you could do it all day. Did Escape Room really need to be the ten millionth movie with an in media res intro before flashing back to the beginning? Does the denouement really need the perfunctory sequel setup? Well, on that second point, actually, there’s little room for complaint. As obvious as it is, another entry in this franchise would be welcome if it’s half as fun as this one.
To some extent, Escape Room’s success can be attributed to its cast. By finding the humanity in each of their stock roles, they also find the comedy. And, once we’ve laughed with them, their deaths become more deeply felt. Ellis even brings an almost relatably consistent philosophy of life to Jason, the requisite asshole whose demise you’re actively rooting for. Labine, though, is the standout. The vulnerability and moral sturdiness behind his dad jokes turns what could be a blue collar oaf into a tragic figure.
Still, Escape Room lives and dies on its ability to execute its own conceit, which is does more or less flawlessly. As the (ever dwindling) characters proceed through the ingenious, booby-trapped rooms, Robitel and his production team excel at varied and intriguing set design, from an indoor frozen lake to an upside down pool hall and more. Meanwhile, screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik succeed where it arguably counts the most by creating games and riddles and other intricacies that are actually compelling to watch unfold and attempt to figure out along with the characters. A scene in which Zoey must slide puzzle pieces on a wall into place as the floor falls away bit by bit beneath her is strikingly similar to one in last year’s Tomb Raider. It’s also miles better. That’s something Escape Room has in common with the original Final Destination. It takes a pretty ridiculous horror premise and turns it into a tricky and engaging delight you’re likely to want to see more than once.