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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Clever White-Knuckle Thriller
by Frank Wilkins

Fortunately, the Tide Pods Challenge went untouched by Hollywood, but the same can’t be said about the escape room craze. Sony’s latest, called Escape Room, comes across as a clever little high-concept psychological horror film that plays off the raging escape room phenomenon -- and in the process provides enough fiendishly conceived traps, puzzles, conundrums, kills and excitement to keep us on the edge of our seats. It is more white-knuckle thriller than horror. Still, the film is pretty good at what it sets out to do. And for a cheap little horror film released in the dead of the January dumping season, Escape Room is a whole lot of fun to watch.

Most know the concept of an escape room: several people are locked in a room with no windows and only one door. Players then search around the room for clues that will help them escape before the clock ticks down. But what if the final tick of that clock meant death to one of the players? Now you’re talking! That’s the main conceit of this Escape Room in which six seemingly random people, each experiencing a varying level of accomplishments, phobias, obsession, or anguish, are invited to participate in an exciting new rendition of an escape room. The first one out goes home with the $10,000 prize.

Of course, we know going in that the stakes are actually much higher than that, and it is during the first room challenge that the characters begin to realize it as well when a series of hellish space heaters buried within the walls and ceiling begin to slowly heat up the room to dangerous levels. As the players scramble to solve the puzzle, they begin to discover there is a much larger and much more important puzzle to solve. Who are these strangers, and what sinister mystery links them all together? The traps get more and more menacing as the players’ personal lives are revealed.

As the story -- written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik -- carries forward from room to room, the back story of each individual appears slowly spooled out behind it. We don’t get a whole lot of exposition however as most are standard, paper-thin horror characters. But there is a quite satisfying and convincing answer to most of our questions about why each character is there. There’s apprehensive science student Zoey (Taylor Russell), drunken grocery stockboy Ben (Logan Miller), wounded-in-action Army veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), egocentric finance businessman Jason (Jay Ellis), nerdy gamer Danny (Nic Dodani), and redneck trucker Mike (Tyler Labine). Despite the fact that none of the cast is a big star, it never feels stilted or forced as they argue and squabble over game strategy and resource use. Particularly memorable is Russell, who we will undoubtedly see more of very soon. She's really good here.

Director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) bucks the typical tropes of a low-budget PG-13 horror by taking focus away from trying to scare us at every turn and, instead, putting it on the elaborately staged puzzles and booby-trapped rooms -- and what a great decision. One particularly satisfying scene takes place in an empty bar. The players are forced to jump around the room, grabbing onto furniture, pool tables, or bar stools as they try to solve a sliding tile puzzle while the floor (or ceiling -- the room is upside down) crumbles away at regular intervals into an elevator shaft beneath them. Much of the scene’s enjoyment comes from feeling as if we are playing a living board game ourselves. And that is largely thanks to the production design by Edward Thomas  which is absolutely spectacular in this scene as well as in most of the others.

Think what you will about how much legs the real-life escape room fad has left, but this clever little play on the concept certainly gives it a gusto-filled run with whatever remains in the tank. There is some clunky dialogue throughout, and it could have used an additional twenty minutes to fully flesh out some of the characters, but the fact remains that Escape Room is a legitimately viable answer to the post-holiday malaise. And don’t be surprised if this thing goes on to huge success at the box office. I get the distinct feeling this just might be the birth of a new Final Destination-like universe.

(Released by Columbia Pictures Corporation and rated “PG-13” for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language.)

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