ESCAPE ROOM review by Mark Walters – this new thriller comes so close to being great

ESCAPE ROOM review by Mark Walters – this new thriller comes so close to being great

The “escape room” concept has become very popular in recent years – usually playing off a theme (like a popular horror movie franchise), it involves entering a seemingly locked room with other people, and having to find clues to escape (usually into yet another room) before time runs out. Those who participate sometimes find themselves paired with strangers, or in some instances groups of co-workers will do these as a team building exercise… and there are of course times where it’s just a group of friends jumping into it together. It’s basically the next evolution of a haunted house. I’ve done a few, and the results were mixed. The concept has been used in cinema many times before, with movies like CUBE or the SAW films, almost always played as horror with the subjects typically not knowing why they’re there. The new movie ESCAPE ROOM plays more off the real life fascination of people willingly participating after receiving invites, but still results in becoming a horror movie that’s ends up being fight for survival.

The film opens with a scene we eventually realize is much later in the story, and we then go back to the beginning to see how that certain person arrived to that specific moment. We’re introduced to several characters – Zoey (Taylor Russell) is a brilliant college kid too timid to speak up, Ben (Logan Miller) is a young man working a dead end job and tortured by a careless act he carried out, Jason (Jay Ellis) is a successful businessman who loves a challenge and always has to win, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is a former soldier fighting serious PTSD, Mike (Tyler Labine) is a truck driver with a haunted past, and Danny (Nik Dodani) is a game obsessed nerdy type. All six of them receive a mysterious black box, containing an invitation to play in an escape room where the winner could walk away with $10,000. They all decide to do it, and show up to an industrial-looking office building where they congregate in a waiting room. After a little banter about why they think they’re there, they wonder when someone will talk to them about the game they’re going to play. But soon they realize the room they’re in is actually the first escape room, as the walls and ceiling begin to heat up to sweltering degrees. The unfortunate realization sets in quickly – this is REAL, and if they don’t work together to find a way out of whatever room is next on the list, they’re all going to die.

Again, we’ve seen this sort of story before, and there’s only so many ways it can play out, but director Adam Robitel (INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY) somehow finds a way to keep things interesting. A big part of why the film works is the characters. They’re all progressively endearing as we find out their tragic pasts, and none of them are overdone when they easily could have been. Tyler Labine as Mike is the kind of guy who is always smiling and making dad jokes, but you can see there’s still some nervousness in there, a sort of underlying fear that humanizes him. Jay Ellis as Jason plays the cocky businessman persona with just the right amount of brashness, more of a guy who is acting confident because he doesn’t want others to see him sweat. Deborah Ann Woll as the former soldier Amanda shows the effects of PTSD well, and how little things can set her off, but she’s also able to step up when there’s a physical challenge ahead. Taylor Russell is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, playing the genius shy girl well, but also showing more emotion and concern for those around her when things start to go bad. She makes us wonder, if you were in this situation with five strangers, would you only care about winning/surviving, or would you get emotionally invested in the group itself? And these characters are interesting enough to care about, so we get emotionally affected when someone doesn’t advance to the next challenge. Logan Miller as Ben is an role that could have used a bit more development. He’s a big part of the film, and there were opportunities to show some real emotional remorse and angst with him that just feel glossed over or wasted. Out of all the characters, he’s one that really should have had a bigger arc, if for no other reason than the reveal of his dark past… and instead he’s played fairly by the numbers. Heck, even one scene where he breaks down and has to muster the energy to go on would have been welcome, and once you find out what he did in the past you’ll likely agree an emotional breakdown would have been expected. Nik Dodani also doesn’t get much to do, sadly, as he’s one of the more amusing characters, but when you’re juggling six principals someone is bound to draw the short stick.

Everything about ESCAPE ROOM is slick and effective, right down to the pulsing score by Brian Tyler and John Carey. The rooms themselves are interesting and imaginative, with the showcase segment being an upside down bar called The 8-Ball, a production designer’s dream. And for a PG-13 horror movie, the action is intense and effective, and the deaths have great impact and manage to be shocking within the confines of the rating. Don’t expect any gore, but people do die, and at times in really bad ways. The unfortunate downside of the movie comes in the last 20 minutes, which for some reason feels the need to explain everything to us. So much of the ending could have easily been saved for a sequel (which I imagine they’ll want to make), but instead is pushed out on us in a way that feels like they’re giving the audience too much to process. When you look at how the SAW movies were handled, the filmmakers found a creative way to stretch out the core story over several films, showing how what seemed like ancillary characters were all intertwined in the overall narrative, and making each movie feel like a piece of one big puzzle. ESCAPE ROOM for some reason chooses to not save some of the vital info for later, and instead rams it onto the audience in a way that comes across as overzealous and needlessly complex. It’s like having Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ find The Wizard behind the curtain when the movie is only halfway over. Why not save some of the reveals for later? And also, just being objective here, but $10,000? That’s the prize?? We live in an age where people don’t buy lottery tickets unless the millions in prizes hit double digits. I wonder why the proposed prize here wasn’t a little more realistic considering how people think in real life.

As a horror film for the next generation of moviegoers, a younger and more millennial-heavy audience, ESCAPE ROOM is fairly solid entertainment and definitely sets things up for a franchise with a bigger story than what’s on the surface. It’s almost a great horror thriller, with the one glaring exception of the misguided wrap up. But if you like these kinds of films, chances are you’ll still enjoy the bulk of what is there, if for no other reason than to wonder “Could I survive that?”

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.