Audiences can be cruel to January releases. Summer is reserved for multi-million dollar blockbusters, and the fall/winter Oscar drop is behind us. January releases, especially horror titles, often carry the stigma of being predetermined failures by their respective studios. Dropping the first weekend of January, Escape Room faced an even more difficult obstacle; turning around a very disappointing slate of horror films from distributor Sony Pictures. Slender Man, rumored to have been severely cut down to avoid public controversy, proved to be a huge wasted opportunity. The Possession of Hannah Grace fell victim to a similar fate, projecting the feel of a big studio film but delivered only a sizzle reel of possession movies. Against the odds, Escape Room manages to break free from these negative stigmas and provide a modestly fun trip to theatre.

Directed by Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last KeyThe Taking of Deborah Logan)Escape Room cold opens right into….an escape room! Inside, a man we later find out to be named Ben (Logan Miller) is seemingly meeting his end, unable to solve the clues of the room. A typical escape room it is not, though. While trying to solve the puzzle, Ben triggers the wall to begin closing in, eventually crushing him. Or so it seems. Could they really call it Escape Room if no one actually escapes? Maybe. Maybe not.

 

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Cutting to three days prior, we are introduced to the rest of the (un)lucky participants. There’s Zoey (Taylor Russell), an intelligent, reserved college student who’s too shy to answer a question about the Zeno Theory Effect (don’t worry nerds, the ZTE comes back into play later in one of the most painful, teeth-grinding forced foreshadowing’s in modern film).  Next comes the aforementioned Ben, a grocery store stock boy who gets denied a promotion to cashier because, and I quote, “the customer’s aren’t ready”. Does his boss think he’s that ugly? Was he caught licking the frosting off of all the baked goods while reading Mein Kampf over the loudspeaker? Without explanation, the possibilities are endless. Next on the guest list is Jason (Jay Ellis), a stockbroker doing the only thing Hollywood has ever come up with to portray a stockbroker; the persuasive phone call. It’s in Jason’s office where the first invitation to an “Escape Room” is delivered, wrongfully assumed as a gift from his boss. Zoey and Jason receive theirs that night, each supposedly from a trusted source.

The next day, the honored guests meet the remaining escapees-to-be, war vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), gaming nerd and escape room connoisseur Danny (Nik Dodani), and truck driver Mike (Tyler Labine). Each give a brief overview of their lives in the waiting room, killing time before the game starts. When trying to leave for a cigarette, Jason pulls off the door handle, revealing an oven dial. Realizing they’re already immersed in the escape room experience, the players start searching for clues. In a bit of twisted humor, after finding the book Fahrenheit 451, they match the dial to that number, revealing they have not solved the room, but instead have begun preheating the room like a giant oven. If only it was 101 Dalmatians instead. Realizing they may not get out alive, the players start to panic and frantically begin their journey through escape rooms Jigsaw would certainly approve of.

 

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Now, I think I’ve made myself quite clear regarding the backstories of the escape room players. They are laughably bad, both written and portrayed. Shockingly, this doesn’t even matter. Escape Room‘s greatest accomplishment comes from the filmmaker’s ability to make the audience care about characters they have no business caring for. Director Adam Robitel achieves this by creating a pulse-pounding sequence of escape rooms in which you actually root for the cast to survive.

 

One stigma Escape Room cannot escape is the infamous disappointing third act. While successfully avoiding the inevitable comparisons to the Saw franchise for the majority of the film, the writers eventually caved and served a warmed-up version of Saw‘s “they were chosen because they kind of deserve it” mentality. Sprinkle in a few shakes of The Belko Experiment, and presto, we’re eating something we’ve all ate before.

 

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With dialogue so on the nose, it’s hard to judge the acting performances fairly. A great acting performance should immerse you in the movie, and not remind you that you’re watching one. With the few exceptions of Nik Dodani’s Danny, Tyler Labine’s Mike, and Deborah Ann Woll’s Amanda, you won’t be forgetting you’re in the theatre. Fortunately for Escape Room, the real stars aren’t the cast. They are the escape rooms themselves. The set designers and cinematographer Marc Spicer did an outstanding job creating unique, visually stunning rooms.  In particular, the pool hall sequence is a truly spectacular sight to behold. Well done.

Escape Room serves as a tale of filmmakers overcoming the odds. In reality, this movie should have been a run-of-the-mill thriller. But, thanks to a director who knows how to create tension, shifting the focus from the cast to the captive rooms, and a talented cinematographer, the film avoids the growing pile of PG-13 horror misfires. While Escape Room may not be memorable, it’s a fun beginning to horror in 2019.

 

Escape Room is now playing in theatres.