Escape Room is a gimmicky horror movie with some good ideas, some truly innovative and beautiful production design, and capable performances from an unheralded cast. But it falls apart nearly at the end.
Directed by Adam Robitel, a veteran of Insidious and Paranormal Activity sequels, the film mines the urban Escape Room craze of the last few years, while considerably upping the stakes, to a matter of life and death. Think of David Fincher's The Game, only set entirely in one building. It was also, oddly, shot in South Africa, although it's set in Chicago.
Six people from different walks of life—but also with a hidden thing in common—have been lured to a Chicago escape room. There's a game-obsessed nerd (Nik Dodani), a military veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), a burly truck driver (Tyler Labine), a finance type (Jay Ellis), an alcoholic screw-up (Logan Miller) and a genius student (Taylor Russell). They're asked to break out of a series of rooms, but it’s considerably more intense than any escape room that you've ever been to.
A Blumhouse movie in everything but name, Escape Room is stylish and well-designed, and the rooms themselves are the best thing about the film by far. I especially enjoyed the sequence that's set in a billiards bar that’s upside down. There's also a black-and-white room in which characters are exposed to an LSD-like substance, and another nifty sequence set on a wintry lake. Twin Peaks is a significant visual influence on the piece.
The cast is also a strength. None of these actors are quite household names, but they're all somewhat recognizable. Woll, who played the young vampire Jessica on True Blood but has been mostly on Netflix/Marvel shows since, gives her character unexpected depth, while Miller—the strange villain from last year's Love, Simon—gets a lot more to do here. Ellis, from Insecure, also finds an unconventional gear for playing a finance bro. And Russell's Zoey is the closest the film has to a conventional hero.
Two thirds of the way through, I was somewhat surprised at how strong this unheralded, lightly-advertised, first-week-of-January horror film was. But then came the ending, which is bad in several different ways.
There are a lot of ways a movie can end badly, and Escape Room includes just about all of them. There's the long, gibberish-filled monologue by a villain. It undoes an hour of intricate plotting by pivoting to guns and fights. There are multiple twists, and even more false climaxes. One of those climaxes would have made a great final ending, but then there are two more after it.
And after all that, we're still left, at the end, not quite knowing exactly what happened. It's the rare film that has a central mystery that ends by explaining both not enough and way too much. We're still left wondering why exactly the plot happened the way it did, although I’d imagine the idea is to make a bunch of sequels.