A group of people are locked in a room together and must solve intricate puzzles in order to find a way out. That is the idea of an escape room and I guess it was just a matter of time before the concept was applied to a horror movie. That would be Escape Room, the first wide release of 2019, in which six total strangers are forced to survive a series of increasingly complex, and increasingly deadly, puzzles. Being PG-13, it comes off as a kinder, gentler, Saw. It is pretty predictable, with paper thin characters, however that does not prevent it from generating genuine suspense in its initial two-thirds. It does not finish strong (the conclusion is both pointless and unsatisfying), but is decently entertaining nonetheless.
The setup is simple: Zoey, Jason and Ben get mysterious puzzle boxes delivered to them. Once solved, the boxes reveal a card inviting them to participate in an immersive and challenging escape room, with a $10,000 prize. The movie then cuts to them entering a massive office building where they are joined in the waiting room by Amanda, Mike and Danny. They soon discover the game has already begun and the stakes are very high. Escape Room (95 minutes without the end credits) breezes through this setup to focus on the elaborate layout of the puzzles themselves. Those are surprisingly well thought out.
I do not want to give away too much because a lot of the suspense lies in what awaits the players in each room. What I can say is I was impressed with how director Adam Robitel and his team designed and delivered their surprises. Every room has its own theme with clues and a threat that play into said theme. It allows the story to add layers to its mythology subtly and steadily.
There is an overarching story here, but it is not nearly as interesting as what essentially amounts to a series of connected short films. The first three are pretty darn good, taking their time and creating some legitimate tension. My favorite was the scene in the upside down bar which sets up a clever internal logic that builds really well.
From there, Escape Room leans a little too heavily on the mystery aspect (whose game are they playing? Why were they chosen?). I wish they had just stuck with the puzzles. The characters are the usual collection of stereotypes (introvert, jerk, hero, nerd, etc.) with big secrets. The cast commits but, as is usually the case in horror, they are not the draw here. That would be the clever concept and skilled direction.
Robitel takes a second to introduce the characters and their predicament before leaping into the premise, not taking a breath the rest of the way. That approach works wonders for this material. It emphasizes the set-pieces, which are absolutely the strength here. Escape Room may not be groundbreaking cinema, but it is a thriller with several actual thrills. The studio probably dropped it here assuming it would do better against no new competition. That makes this sound like a bomb they are dumping at an opportunistic time. On the contrary, this is a fun production genre fans should check out.
3¼ out of 5
Taylor Russell as Zoey
Logan Miller as Ben
Jay Ellis as Jason
Deborah Ann Woll as Amanda
Tyler Labine as Mike
Nik Dodani as Danny
Directed by Adam Robitel
Screenplay by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik