The subgenre of horror film that entails a group of friends, coworkers, or even strangers, being trapped in an area that they must escape from might be a tired cliché, but it is a tremendous guilty pleasure of mine. Especially the films where the characters willingly or forcefully band together to discover why they have been placed there in the first place, or how they can use their combined strengths to find the exit. Whether their strengths or their histories are coincidental (as is the case with Cube, 1997) or if they are gathered for a very specific mission of revenge (9 Dead, 2010), these films play with narrative connections in such a way that is irresistible to me.
In 2004, James Wan arguably reinvented this subgenre to his torture porn feature Saw. Not only are people trapped in an area together, they are taunted with the reason “why” and tasked with grueling challenges that, more often than not, end in some form of bodily mutilation. With Saw’s seven sequels and upcoming reboot, the subgenre I have enjoyed so much has plateaued, largely failing to reinvent itself since Wan’s intervention in the early 2000’s. Escape Room does not reinvent the franchise, but it does offer a new the possibility for reinvention through narrative: the victims actually want to be there.
Tyler and his friends are people caught in the twilight of early adulthood: late 20’s, early 30’s, too much on their plate to figure out, let alone maintain decent relationships with one another. For Tyler’s birthday, his girlfriend buys him and his friends tickets to one of the many escape rooms that are popping up everywhere across the country. Upon their mysterious, anesthetized arrival to the venue, they wake up to find that they have been separated by unique, interconnecting puzzle rooms with only an hour to escape. As the rooms begin to penalize incorrect answers to the puzzles, the group begins to realize that there might not be an escape.
Narratively speaking, the film has a good story. The concept of a group of 30 somethings all trying out “these escaper rooms they’ve been hearing so much about,” really is an amazing set up for the aforementioned subgenre of horror films. The victims have actually paid to be in the deathtrap that has been set for them. That is a new twist that I really appreciated. As for the plot, the events that transpire have a wonderful hint of subtlety about them; without ever knowing any of the character’s pasts, you can tell there are multiple tiers of tension that can only have developed between characters over extended periods of time. Where the narrative loses me, however, is towards the end when the mysterious killer begins talking to the final girl. Not that the killer shouldn’t have reached out to her, but he really didn’t have much to say. He only talked to her in the final moments of the film to taunt her, which felt hastily attached to the film with no real reason.
Now, the narrative’s ideas are in place, but the films greatest strength is in set design. The mise-en-scene of every individual room was incredibly impressive and super interesting to look at: each one sparked curiosity. Why are their newspapers everywhere? Why does this hospital-like room have LED squares on the wall? Wow, that bear head is insane looking. Does that have the secret to finding the way out? And while the film did utilize many of the prominent things that stood out (newspapers, bear head, LED lights, etc.), there just felt like there was so much more to the rooms. Plus, the way the characters interacted with the rooms, as they believed they were logical puzzles, was wonderfully believable.
Overall, the film reminded me a lot of Cube, simply because the reasons for them being placed in separate rooms was completely vague, and we were meant to be kept in the dark just as much as the characters were. That’s why it felt so disappointing with the final taunts from the antagonist. The escape room itself was antagonistic enough, plus, one character is locked in a cage some miles away from the actual venue. That visual cue implies there is some very sinister work being carried out by an unsettling antagonist. However, the film did leave me curious to about a sequel, which is currently in development according to our interview with director Will Wernick.