It’s the first week of January, and the award season onslaught is in full swing. If you’re anything like me, that means watching a bunch of pretty people prance across a stage to collect often undeserved accolades for pretentious and/or pandering movies that, in most cases, don’t deserve to be watched, much less praised. So when a film like Escape Room comes along in this bleak corner of the calendar, you jump at the chance to break from all the self-aggrandizing tripe-garnering Golden Globes or ogling Oscars. After all, a good movie should be its own reward.
Mind you, saying that Escape Room is good does not represent an unequivocal recommendation. This film is every bit as flawed as one might expect of its ludicrous premise — namely, that a shadowy company has created “escape room” attractions that literally murder you if you fail to solve their riddles — but do those flaws constitute deal breakers? I would argue that anyone expecting more out of a bargain-basement B-movie thriller of this sort should avail themselves of any of the lackluster blockbusters still littering postholiday cinema schedules.
To be certain, all of the complaints you might expect of low-budget counterprogramming of this ilk are on display here. It’s lazily scripted, its characters paper thin. The closest thing it boasts to recognizable leads are a couple of Netflix stars and the latter half of Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It’s highly derivative of numerous better films, like David Fincher’s The Game or Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods, among many others. It takes about 20 minutes to build any narrative momentum, and the ending narrowly skirts the line of painful predictability.
But here’s the thing: Problematic though it may be, Escape Room is also a hell of a lot of fun. It avoids gratuitous gore and superficial startle scares, opting instead for some pretty creative chaos with the design of its eponymous murder rooms — even the deaths caused by those titular terrors are nowhere near as mundane as you might expect. Director Adam Robitel mounts tension proficiently, competently ratchets up the insanity of his staging, and creates dramatic stakes that resonate despite their inherent ridiculousness. Perhaps most importantly, it’s one of the few movies in theaters this week that isn’t based on a pre-existing intellectual property, and that originality comes as a welcome respite in and of itself.
Look, if you want high art, do yourself a favor and go see The Favourite. But if, like me, you’ve already endured quite enough award-bait battery for one year, then Escape Room is your way out. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it was never trying to be. It manages to deliver exactly what it promises, zigs in some places where it might have zagged, and has the good taste to avoid overstaying its welcome. Genre fans will be well-pleased, and those whose sensibilities are not thusly attuned are at least unlikely to be offended. After the prestige drama deluge of December, the relatively recent tradition of the early January shlock-horror slot is one of the few requisite seasonal institutions I’m glad to see sticking around. So if you’re in the market for a chilling change of pace, Escape Room provides just the right kind of escapism. Rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande.