Released: 7th February
Seen: 4th February (Advanced Screening)
In 1997 there was a film released called Cube, a glorious little horror film about six strangers waking up in a cube that turned out to be part of a gigantic maze. During the 90’s horror resurgence this was one of the big markers of change, showing you could basically create a tense powerful horror film that relied on people being intelligent instead of just being the dumb jock and the virgin girl. They also dealt with things like suspicion, doubt and the general fear that comes from not knowing which room is going to carve you up into tiny pieces like a box-shaped blender, creating a sense of tension that built every time they would enter a new room and find a new math puzzle. That’s right, it’s a horror film and everyone tries to save themselves with complicated mathematics. It’s a genuinely brilliant thrill ride and I highly recommend it… because that’s basically what Escape Room is, except Escape Room wishes that it was as intelligent as Cube was.
Escape Room, much like Cube, also follows six random people with no real relation to each other. OK, they have got a mild relationship to each other which would be a spoiler if I described it but it’s dumb, it’s really dumb and it’s about the same as saying I have a relationship to an elephant because we’re both fat, it’s that kind of stupid random link. Anyway, they all end up getting invited to try out this new immersive escape room and if they win, they get $10,000 bucks. Once they’re there, they realise that not only must they solve a bunch of puzzles but failure to solve those puzzles might result in death via tragic back story coming back to kill them.
It might feel cheap to compare this to Cube but this movie really is lifting on that idea that solving a puzzle can get the main characters to safety, an idea that’s also been used in Saw. The catch with both of those movies is that they were willing to accept that a death trap that can only be stopped by figuring out an anagram is kind of boring unless you make it viscerally shocking. This horror film is PG-13, that should tell you how shocking it’s permitted to get. There are no real moments that make the audience need to scream, certainly not the audience that I saw this movie with who basically sat completely still the entire time. I’m not saying they needed to go for full Saw or Cube level effects (though I wouldn’t object), but I really need to feel like this maze is dangerous and that a wrong move will kill people and every death here could basically be written off as an accident.
This isn’t to say there aren’t inventive set pieces, there are. The upside down room is a genuinely great set piece that really lets the camerawork shine and disorients the viewer, which is good because you don’t want to be oriented enough to go “There is no way on earth that a phone cord would hold a human being up for that length of time” when the time comes to have that thought. There’s also the ice scene which is good, but again after a minute you do end up going “Why are you not wrapping the ice in the warm jacket you’re using for warmth”. That’s because this is a movie trying to be smart, but it’s not. Escape rooms are notoriously difficult things that require a lot of thought and creativity, while this one is basically a ton of dumb luck just stumbling upon things in the nick of time so you don’t die. It never really feels like people are being smart and thinking about how to get out, indeed there are moments of spectacular stupidity that makes me wonder how these people put pants on in the morning. If you’re going to do an intelligent horror film where the idea is about people solving complex puzzles in order to escape, then make these people really smart but make the puzzles just as hard. As it is, the puzzles feel hard because the people feel stupid.
Then there’s just the outright lying, without spoiling too much let me just point out that this film explicitly lies about the fates of two characters so we can have a dramatic conclusion and I find that irritating. I’m usually fine with a fake out death when it happens off-screen, which happens a lot in horror films where a character leave the screen and we hear a scream to infer that they died. Here, it’s on screen, we see it, we accept it, and then they go “PSYCHE! THE FILM STILL HAS 20 MINUTES, LOSERS!” and we have to deal with the very stupid ending that is stupid and also bad.
Do you know what’s more irritating than any of that though? STROBE LIGHTS, my old favourite. One of the rooms is a disturbing hellhole room where the idea is clearly to show the effects of a psychotropic drug on the people who are locked in it and during that scene, for no reason other than “We think it looks cool, screw the epileptics” they turn on the strobes and they can suckle upon my ass for doing so. Now they do not do it nearly as bad as Incredibles 2 did it, that movie did it six times and was aimed at kids while this one only did it one time and was aimed at a more adult audience so I can be a little more lenient about it… but not much because, goddamn it, why do we still have this effect in film without adequate warning to the consumers? Do we need to write to the rating boards to get them to do something? It’s annoying and I do not like it.
Escape Room wants to be a smart intense horror film but it ends up being fairly generic and nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It’s entry-level horror that’s made for people who haven’t seen that many films in the genre. If you’re looking for that toe in the door to try horror out then maybe this might work for you, if you’re not affected by strobes. It’s not one I recommend, I’ll probably forget it within a day or two, but it’s not outright awful… but it’s still getting a bad score because I do not reward films that use strobe lights if I can help it.