I’ve been trying to work out for a little while now just what it is that I like so much about the Escape Room movies.
Because that first one is something that I genuinely, unironically enjoyed; the best responses that I could find to it were the so-bad-it’s-good brigade enjoying the nonsense on display, but there was no doubt in my mind that I actually liked this movie as a piece in its own right. Come the sequel, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, I was there on opening day, ready to further
my crush on Deborah Ann Woll live my best life and watch some Rube-Goldberg horror cinema.
And I think I’ve finally figured it out – I am a person with OCD, which means that I approach every situation in life with the same stakes in mind as the characters in this film. Going to the shops? A perilous journey. Making a phone call? Potential death, almost certain mutilation. Escape Room feels like it has the stakes of what my brain tells me my day-to-day life does, and there’s something oddly comforting about watching something like that.
Anyway! The actual movies: the premise is simple: a bunch of people find themselves trapped in a series of potentially fatal games that require the unwilling participants to think, fight, and sacrifice their way out of a series of elaborate traps for the viewing pleasure of a mysterious and sadistic audience. Actually, now that I say it, it’s not that simple, but bloody hell, it’s entertaining: the films have been compared to the Saw movies, for obvious, trap-related reasons, but honestly, to me, it’s got the vibes of something closer to a mystery.
Because, in other trap-based horror movies, we as the audience generally know why the victim is being stuck in this particular nightmare, whether it’s an un-jolly puppet turning up to inform us or an omnipotent narrator hitting us up with the reasons. In Escape Room, though, things feel a little different – much like his first movie, the excellent The Taking of Deborah Logan, director Adam Robitel digs back into the stories of the people we’re dealing with here and makes the question not “how are they going to escape these fiendish traps?” but rather “what does it mean for them that they’re here in the first place?”.
I mean, yes, the actual escape rooms of the title are seriously cool, and surprisingly inventive, but it’s the characters that I enjoy the most in these movies. With great, underrated actors to embody them (including Channel Zero’s brilliant Holland Roden and Pose’s Indya Moore), the Escape Room movies try to pull the characters into focus to deepen the story. I’m not saying that we’re getting full psychological rundowns of every single victim of the Escape Room stories, but we are, at least, making their backgrounds important to the story – something draws together everyone who winds up in these traps, and uncovering that is just as important as getting out alive.
Which makes the Escape Room movies stand out a little above the general high-concept slasher fare. The actual setpieces are clever enough to work in their own right, but it’s an investment in characters and backstory as part of the mystery that really gives them their value. I might like them for my own small, deranged reasons, but I can defend them for better ones than that.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image via IMDB)