People like to joke about January being a toxic wasteland for cinematic releases, but for all practical purposes it might genuinely be my favorite cinematic month of the year. Not only is January a notorious dumping ground for Hollywood studios to unload cheap genre trash into wide release in a gloriously uninhibited free-for-all, it’s also the time of year when prestigious Oscar Hopefuls trickle down from NYC & LA to finally reach the American South. It’s a truly jarring overlap that allows for maniacally curated double features like Silence & Monster Trucks or Mom and Dad & Call Me By Your Name, the kind of high-brow/low-brow battleground I always crave at the cinema. Even as an enthusiastic defender of January genre trash, however, I was taken aback by the entertainment quality of this year’s earliest release of note – the high-concept gimmick horror Escape Room. Escape Room is the ideal specimen of January trash, where all storytelling logic & meaningful character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, preposterous gimmick. My only regret is that I didn’t think to pair it with something prestigious, like Roma or If Beale Street Could Talk, even though that was totally doable thanks to the bonkers programming choices that always kick off the calendar year.
When stripped down to its essentials, Escape Room is the ideal version of Saw – with all of its nasty torture porn impulses & (most of) its nu metal soundtrack removed for optimal silliness. A group of money & adventure hungry strangers are lured to a high-end escape room with the promise of a $10,000 payout if they solve the puzzle therein. The exposition that introduces the escape room’s contestants (and, later, combatants) is smartly kept brief – reducing the film’s characters to broad archetypes who are instantly familiar, so no time is wasted. Once the boring business of telling a story with emotional stakes is swept away, they find themselves struggling for survival, both as a team & as opponents, in a series of preposterous death traps – escape rooms except for real. As they fight their way through creepy mannequins, oversized ovens, and monstrous doses of hallucinogens, a larger conspiracy about why they were chosen as participants and who, exactly, is pulling the levers behind the curtain emerges, but the effort amounts to even less than the half-assed motions towards character development & meaningful dialogue. This movie is entirely about in-the-moment cheap thrills, which it supplies in exponentially silly delirium as its escape room gimmicks escalate towards a near-global scale.
Besides keeping its character work to a bare minimum, Escape Room is smart in its acknowledgement of the dorkiness of its own premise. When a college student receives a Hellraiser puzzlebox invitation to the titular escape room, her roommate jokes “Have fun playing with your box over break.” Later, an uptight business prick endlessly razzes the escape room’s most enthusiastic participant for his nerdy obsession with escape rooms in general, essentially brushing him off as a virginal loser. There aren’t many other flashes of intelligence to be found in the picture, unless you’re easily impressed by casually tossed off references to Satre that have no actual significance to the tone or plot. The movie acknowledges that escape rooms are inherently dorky, rushes to pack one with broad caricatures anyway, and then puts its head down to power through the most absurd applications of its gimmick that it can conjure in just 100 minutes. You can squint your eyes looking for interesting choices in neon lighting, spooky synth music, or lavish production design, but you’d be fooling yourself for trying to pump this film up for being anything more than it is: cheap January genre trash with an all-in commitment to an attention-grabbing gimmick. It’s entirely satisfying for being just that and not pretending there’s a need for more.