‘Escape Room’ (2018) Review: More Reason To Never Do An Escape Room!

By Steve Pulaski

You wouldn’t find me going anywhere near an escape room even prior to seeing Adam Robitel’s new film, and you absolutely won’t see me experiencing one going forward. The whole concept of an escape room — a group activity where you and several others are locked in a room and cannot get out unless you solve a puzzle or a code by searching your surroundings for hints, for those unaware — sounds about as enjoyable to me as a root canal, plus the ensuing claustrophobia makes me squirm just thinking about it. 127 Hours is why I’ll never explore canyons. Final Destination 3 is why I don’t even want to be in the same room as tanning beds. Escape Room only hardens my stance on the recently popular activity.

But I look forward to experiencing Escape Room again. Our first film of 2019 is not only a horror film, which I’m beginning to think is part of the unwritten code of Hollywood, but a captivating adventure thriller with great suspense and mayhem. It revolves around six misfits: Zoey (Taylor Russell), a shy but incredibly wise student; Ben (Logan Miller, Love, Simon), an apathetic bust-out; Jason (Jay Ellis), a cocksure business executive; Mike (the always charismatic Tyler Labine, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil), a former miner with a quirky edge; Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), a war veteran with PTSD; and Danny (Nik Dodani), an escape room enthusiast. All of them receive mysterious boxes inviting them to take part in the world’s most challenging escape rooms where they’ll be awarded $10,000 if they successfully complete them.

The six strangers arrive at a cold, concrete building in the otherwise dilapidated part of Chicago’s industrial parkway, which makes the building in The Belko Experiment look inviting. They meet in a waiting area as they anticipate a “game-master” arriving and taking them to their first room, until they realize that they are in their first room. Ostensibly every move to search the otherwise plush surrounding reveals the area is essentially an enclosed oven, which heats up to 451°F as they frantically try to search for clues to get out. It’s only the beginning, as they have several other rooms they must navigate with the realization these are life-or-death situations.

Escape Room is pure formula. It combines elements of the forgotten 1997 thriller Cube with the modernist puzzle-solving, punish-characters-for-their-sins aspects popularized by the Sawfranchise. One of the most significant details in Robitel’s film is its use of set design. Each room is a marvel of detail and intricacies, not to mention cinematographer Marc Spicer’s ability to make them all visually distinctive while still adhering to a similar, overarching style. There’s an indoor mountain rage overlooking a precariously icy water-bank with hypothermia-inducing temperatures, an upside-down dive-bar scored to the cloying sounds of Petula Clark, and an optical illusion, strobe-lit homage toVideodrome. Spicer and Robitel effectively capture the nuances of each room, but are never quick to show their hand, making the film an entirely active experience for audiences, even if we occasionally find the clues before the characters themselves do.

Escape Room actually plays like an adventure film, where the characters are tasked with survival and navigation. Faithful readers will know I love “circumstantial” horror, like the aforementioned Final Destinationfranchise, where the real terror lies in what happens next as opposed to a particular person or monster racking up a body-count. There’s an added fear of lacking control, and in Escape Room, the characters are indeed in control, but left to their wits under tremendous pressure, which hinders their ability to think cogently in the moment. Screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik milk this haste and produce a well-crafted flick that might make you sweat.

Even rarer than a visually deft, (relatively) low-budget horror flick is one that’s also buoyed by its workable cast of characters. No one here is a great actor, but everyone is a good screen presence, particularly Miller and Russell, who show a little bit of range with their characters as the picture goes on. No one is so contemptible they’re a caricature, and no one is so morally bankrupt that you’re cheering for them to perish. This is the outlier of a horror film with a host of good personalities you want to see succeed even though, inevitably, you know desperately few will make it to the final room.

Escape Room connects with its emphasis on survival and the entrapping feeling of being unable to avoid a perilous situation. It combines adventure aspects and intuitive details, favoring them over grotesque bloodshed ala Saw. This is one horror film I wouldn’t mind seeing get a sequel or two, especially as the final fifteen minutes are so deliciously bonkers, I would’ve gladly remained seated in my theater if the conclusion of the end credits prompted an immediate follow-up. Like (how I presume) an escape room operates, it leaves you a prisoner of the moment, hyper-focused on your impulses, and delivers a memorable experience.

Grade: B