Escape Room: Saw for the Young’uns

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I’ve never been to an escape room. Perhaps I should try it; I imagine it’d bring back fond memories of watching Knightmare  as a kid, only without stony-faced muppets popping out the wall and proclaiming to be GRANITAS OF LEGEND. But while haven’t given escape rooms a try in real life, I’ve given them a try in the world of celluloid thanks to my first horror film of the year: Escape Room.

The film deals with a group of people receiving mysterious invitations to a series of elaborate escape room. The protagonists in question are a confident, successful guy; a confident, successful girl; a twitchy middle-aged man; an insecure underachiever; a nerdy gamer; and bright but shy Zoey, who becomes the most likeable character by default as she avoids joining in the petty sniping of her comrades.

Spending the film with these characters is, at times, a little too much like being trapped in a room with a gang of dullards. At one point they’re tasked with working out which seven-letter name will open a lock; their surrounding is a log cabin with reindeer horns on its wall; and they are given a clue in the phrase “you’ll go down in history”. The first name they decide to try is… Madison. And they only twig the correct answer because one of them happens to have a traumatic memory involving Christmas music.

It’s not long before the games turn deadly and the hapless captives begin dying one by one. This, of course, is the most obvious approach to making a horror film about escape room, and it brings us to the elephant that definitely won’t escape the room: Escape Room is rather like Saw. The similarity gets even stronger when each of the main characters turns out to have a dark backstory which led to them being picked by the mysterious Gamesmaster.

So it’s hardly original, but there’s a reason why I tend to go easy on films like this. Mainstream horror films thrive on pulling in audiences new to the genre, who want to see their first scare flick as a rite-of-passage. Escape Room, which arrives in the UK with a relatively lenient 15 certificate, seems aimed at the younger end of that demographic. That’s an audience who likely won’t have watched the Saw series and won’t be bothered by Escape Room going over old ground. I’ve got to hand it to them, Saw Junior is a solid premise.

And in this light, Escape Room isn’t too bad. It replaces the grisly torture of Jigsaw’s exploits with loud, colourful and over-the-top set pieces, as when the characters find themselves trapped in a replica bar that turns out to be suspended over a multi-storey drop, and escaping involves solving a giant slider puzzle mounted on the wall. My personal favourite sequence is where two characters are doused in hallucinogens in a set that seems to have been repurposed from a 1980s music video, and get into a psychedelic scuffle over the antidote.

The film does have a number of scripting misjudgements; for one thing, it highlights how the Saw series made the right choice by including detective subplots, rather than relying on the diminishing returns of putting the characters in trap after trap. But director Adam Robitel does a good job of telling the story, and manages to redeem some moments that sound utterly dire on paper – like the sequence where the characters have to sit around waiting for a big ice cube to melt. The cast are likewise competent enough bring some life into the film’s not-particularly-inspired protagonists.

I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the sequel teased by the weirdly convoluted post-climax sequence, but on the whole, I don’t regret popping over to see Escape Room.

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