There’s something comforting about the fact that any popular new phenomenon will eventually be turned into the premise for a horror movie. For example, escape rooms are big lately. You and a few friends get locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to get out; if you don’t do it in time, you “die” (i.e., the zombies get you, or whatever the game’s theme was). The movie version of this, simply called Escape Room, seizes upon the obvious idea of “What if this game turned out to be real??” and spins it into a diet version of the Saw franchise: PG-13, modestly inventive, fun rather than gruesome, with a few characters who are even likable.
It practically writes itself (though it was actually written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik), with the only variation from what you’d expect being that it’s a group of six strangers, not friends. Our heroine is Zoey (Taylor Russell), a timid but bright college student with a head for puzzles who responded to the anonymous invitation because her professor challenged her to do something outside her comfort zone. Before getting to the escape room we also meet Ben (Logan Miller), a grocery stock boy who yearns for more in life, and Jason (Jay Ellis), an arrogant stock broker; once we’re there, we meet the other three: scarred Iraq vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), gregarious bear-man Mike (Tyler Labine), and Danny (Nik Dodani), a gaming enthusiast who’s done a million escape rooms and is super-excited about this one. (Viewers making survival predictions based on who the movie seems to think is important will probably be right.)
This particular game involves multiple connected rooms that grow increasingly lethal. One gets smaller like the Star Wars trash compactor; one is an oven; one is upside-down; etc. None of the players were chosen randomly (their backstories prove relevant), and we gather pretty quickly that the details of the rooms aren’t random, either.
The variety in locations allows for visual creativity — the upside-down room is especially cool — while inspiring different responses in the participants. Jason the hotshot money guy can’t believe they’re in real danger (where’s the profit margin in actually killing your customers?), while Zoey quietly scurries around gathering clues and evidence. Danny thinks the whole thing is great and not at all suspicious: “I feel like I’m playing the world’s funnest game with the world’s meanest people.”
Well, Danny is wrong, as everyone learns soon enough. But director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) doesn’t torture anybody — there are no “saw off your arm to save your life” scenarios here — and he gives the story a good-natured, funhouse feel despite its dark premise. There’s humor in some of the characters’ interactions and breathless tension in the diabolical contraptions they face. As with nearly every film about a group of strangers being brought together by a mysterious entity, the eventual explanation for it all is disappointing, and there were at least two moments when I thought the movie was over before it actually was. But Zoey is a plucky girl worth rooting for, supported by characters who are either appealing or awful in appealing ways. It’s noteworthy that while this is a movie about people being killed off one by one, there were only one or two characters whose deaths I was eager to see. That alone separates it from the horror flicks populated entirely by jerks and morons.