01st Feb2019

‘Escape Room’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, Nik Dodani, Adam Robitel, Kenneth Fok, Yorick van Wageningen | Written by Bragi F. Schut, Maria Melnik | Directed by Adam Robitel

escape-room-poster

Directed by Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key), entertaining thriller Escape Room puts an inspired horror movie spin on the current trend for locked puzzle rooms. The franchise-friendly result is like a toned-down version of the Saw movies. In a good way.

After an opening teaser, we’re introduced to three apparently unrelated characters – shy brainbox student Zoey (Lost In Space‘s Taylor Russell), convenience store slacker Ben (Logan Miller) and arrogant businessman Jason (Jay Ellis) – who each receive a mysterious cube-shaped puzzle box. After solving the puzzle, they’re invited to partake in a state-of-the-art escape room in downtown Chicago, where the prize for escaping is $10,000. In the waiting room, they meet their fellow competitors: ex-soldier Amanda (Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll), paunchy trucker Mike (Tyler Labine) and nerdy escape room enthusiast Danny (Nik Dodani).

However, no sooner have they been introduced, than a series of heat lamps light up in the waiting room, plunging the group into a deadly race against time if they want to escape with their lives. And as if the game’s creators weren’t already mysterious enough, each room has been tailored to trigger memories from a traumatic incident in each of the contestants’ pasts.

Casting is everything in a film like this and Robitel has assembled a terrific ensemble that bounce off each other in engaging fashion. Woll is particularly impressive as Amanda, combining physical toughness with a convincing portrayal of PTSD, making her simultaneously kick-ass and vulnerable at the same time. Similarly, Miller has an appealing slacker vibe that works well and Russell solidifies her rising star status with a likeable turn as a timid student discovering her inner strength.

The escape rooms themselves are an intriguing mix, ranging from classic deathtrap (walls closing in) to an iced-over lake (complete with sub-zero temperatures) and, in the film’s most enjoyable sequence, a bar that’s been turned upside down, where sections of the “ceiling” keep falling away to reveal a cavernous drop down what looks like a giant elevator shaft. Accordingly, the race-against-time puzzle-solving scenes are both extremely tense and a lot of fun, but it’s a shame that scriptwriters Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik weren’t able to include clues for the audience to figure out alongside the characters.

Robitel may have decided to downgrade the gore factor (though, oddly, it’s still a 15 certificate in the UK), but the death scenes are nicely handled and achieve the desired emotional impact. The film also cleverly taps into acknowledged phobias (tight spaces, etc) for an extra jolt of horror.

The main problem with the film is the disappointing final act, which leaves several questions frustratingly unanswered (notably just how the games designer knew certain details about their pasts) and comes up with an explanation for that particular group of contestants being put together in the first place that is at best underwhelming. In addition, it’s clear that the filmmakers are much more concerned with leaving things open for a sequel than they are with making dramatic sense or providing an emotionally satisfying ending.

Despite a few stumbles towards the end, Escape Room is an engaging, smartly paced and superbly acted slice of high-concept horror that leaves you wanting more. Bring on the sequels.

*** 3/5

Escape Room is in UK cinemas now.

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