Remember when Saw was good? This may be an era lost to the mists of time for many, but I assure you it happened. When it was released, James Wan and Leigh Wannell’s 2004 horror breakout was a delicious nightmare of suspense and mystery. Then the (at times seemingly endless) sequels happened and everything just devolved into gore-porn.

Escape Room review - Tense horror escapism 5

Escape Room, while not as structurally advanced, finds itself in the same position as that first Saw film right now. Director Adam Robitel, a previous collaborator of Wan’s who helmed the Wan-produced Insidious: The Last Key, has the potential to kick off another big horror franchise here. And by the time you’ve frantically scrambled your way through the film’s 100-minute running time, it’s quite evident that this is exactly the end goal with a mysterious big bad proverbially cackling in the shadows as they manipulate events.

Whether these obvious future plans succumb to the same putrefaction that the Saw franchise did is something to worry about for another day. For now though we have a surprisingly entertaining bit of horror escapism. And that pun is fully intended as a group of disparate strangers get caught up in an escalating series of death traps when they take part in an escape room challenge for a wad of much-needed prize money. There’s geeky wallflower Zoey (Taylor Russell), loser grocery story packer Ben (Logan Miller), douchy young stock trader Jason (Jay Ellis), ex-Marine Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), good-natured former miner Mike (Tyler Labine) and overzealous escape room enthusiast Danny (Nick Dodani); all of whom found their way to the mysterious Minos Escape Room building after solving a puzzle box invitation they received in the mail.

Escape Room review - Tense horror escapism 6

If you’ve ever taken part in an escape room, you know the basics of what they’re in for: Folks are locked in a themed environment filled with hidden clues which they need to uncover in order solve a puzzle within a specific timeframe that allows them to exit the room they’re in. Tempers fray and personalities clash as the pressure mounts. The difference here though is that if they manage to overcome their obstacles, instead of just getting a certificate with their name on at the end, they get to not be barbecued by flamethrowers or crushed between moving walls.

It’s all popcorn-silliness. There’s some backstory character drama that ties into the hows and whys of the group’s predicament, and the cast all approach this material with solidly cogent seriousness (Woll and Miller, in particular, turn in good work) but nobody is here to win awards. No, what Escape Room is here to do is to aggressively take a chainsaw to your life expectancy.

Escape Room review - Tense horror escapism 7

As the group makes their way from one room to another, the filmmakers keep upping the ante on both their lethality and creativity. Each new environment is a mystery wrapped in barbed wire (an upside-down pool bar is a definite highlight in production design). Robitel shows off not a small amount of skill behind the camera as he manages to almost entirely avoid cheap jump scares in favour of expertly ratcheting up suspense levels to torturous highs. And that’s, thankfully, all the torture on display here.

Not to belabour a comparison but unlike the Saw sequels’ obsession with concocting the goriest, most bloodsoaked kills, Escape Room is instead more focused on grinding you down with atmosphere and mystery. Even when the jump-in-your-seat deaths occur, it’s all about their shocking suddenness rather than arterial sprays. This preference for puzzling edge-of-your-seat thrills over debauched bloodletting serves it well, as there’s no revulsion to drag you out of the moment.

Escape Room review - Tense horror escapism 8

That may still happen if you ponder through the head-scratching specifics of some of the film’s revelations though. This is a movie where high-level analysis is best kicked to the dark and dingy corners of your skull while base reptilian mechanics get exercised. In essence, Escape Room is not going to blow anybody’s minds – even its puzzles, though inventive, are not focused on enough to add a more cerebral slant to affairs. But for its genre, it’s a more than competently crafted bit of horror that will sufficiently thrill and chill you in the moment. You won’t be looking to escape the cinema until this one is all done.

Last Updated: March 14, 2019

Escape Room is much like it's real-world counterpart: Thrilling, frantic and breathless enough in the moment to overlook all kinds of silly foibles, but not an experience that sticks with you once it's done.
6.5
/10

Check Also

Weekend box office – Glass leads slowest weekend in years

Weekend box office report 1 - 3 February 2019: The new month got off to a terrible start a…