Studio: LJH Entertainment
Director: Peter Dukes
Writer: Peter Dukes
Producer: Corbin Timbrook, Ron Althoff, Jacov Bresler, Harel Goldstein
Stars: Christine Donlon, Randy Wayne, Matt McVay, Ashley Gallegos, Hayley Goldstein, Taylor Piedmonte, Sean Young, Skeet Ulrich
An ancient box containing a demon curses four friends trapped inside a struggling Los Angeles escape room.
If you believe “Escape Room” is “the most original and terrifying horror this year,” you might also believe a statue of Elvis exists on Mars. Examining tiny typeface on the film’s UK DVD cover, this pull quote praise appears attributed to British tabloid “The Sunday Sport.” Far be it from me to poke holes in anyone’s journalistic integrity, but quick Googling reveals that some of this publication’s more prominent headlines include “Gordon Ramsay Sex Dwarf Eaten by Badger,” “Banned from Chinese Buffet for Sh*tting in the Seaweed,” and regular variants about how sex with some food item mangled a man’s “bellend.” Forgive me if I assume anything this ridiculous rag has to say should be taken as an outright laugh with no basis in reality.
I couldn’t find any online evidence that The Sunday Sport actually reviews movies, not that it really matters if the above quote is authentic. Replace “original” with “average,” “terrifying” with “tiring,” and “-The Sunday Sport” with “-Virtually Anyone Who Sees This Movie” and you’ll come closer to a quote that can be considered accurate.
“Escape Room” opens with an ultimately unnecessary eight-minute prologue in a Southern California sandscape standing in for the Arabian Desert. Two bearded men walk, talk, dig a hole, bury a box, and then commit a murder-suicide. This pre-credits sequence sets up, well, other than telling us bad things happen when this box is around, not much of anything.
The box inexplicably reappears two centuries later in a Los Angeles antique store operated by Sean Young. The box isn’t for sale, and Young doesn’t want anyone to have it. Nevertheless, she keeps it prominently displayed on a shelf directly behind the register, where of course it catches Skeet Ulrich’s eye.
Playing Brice, an escape room owner up to his ears in financial troubles as well as divorce paperwork, Ulrich gets to method act by focusing frustration with the contractual obligation and agent who shackled him to this embarrassing appearance. Desperate to get out of debt, Brice’s bright idea to put his attraction “Deranged” back on the map involves simply purchasing a prop. Because if any one thing will lure paying customers in droves, it’s certainly going to be the addition of a wooden box as set dressing.
Keep in mind that Sean Young still isn’t willing to- oh wait, cue the ringing phone. While Young warns her caller, “don’t get it wet and don’t feed it after midnight,” Brice uses the conveniently timed distraction to take the box.
Continuing with winking winks and nudging nudges like the groan-worthy “Gremlins” nod, “Escape Room” introduces us to Jeff and Ben, two pop culture nerds whose couldn’t-care-less girlfriends Angie and Jess roll eyes at their horror references almost as much as the audience does. Jeff and Ben drop jokes about “You’re Next” (review here), “The Thing,” “Halloween 5” (review here), and more in an apparent attempt to let us know writer/director Peter Dukes has familiarity with fright films. They also double as regular reminders that we could be spending our 80 minutes watching something more memorable.
Jeff, Ben, Angie, and Jess end up in Brice’s escape room with an actor wearing a sack over his head. The game’s gimmick challenges players to escape the room within 55 minutes while the chain holding ‘Stitch Face’ to the opposite wall gradually grows longer. Escaping becomes more imperative when Jeff opens the box, releasing an evil essence that possesses the actor and turns Stitch Face into a real, live serial killer.
Frugality might earn the low-budget production an accolade for smartly staging its story around one location, except such simplicity mires the movie in an unremarkable swamp. Essentially, “Escape Room” invents some superficial fiction about supernatural spirits and ancient curses only to reduce its premise to a straightforward slasher where four people are confined with a quiet killer.
Further limiting opportunities for originality, the escape room element refuses to influence intrigue. Unlike “Cube,” “Exam,” or “Fermat’s Room,” mystery doesn’t motivate engagement with suspense from the situation. To unlock the exit, the quartet solves a series of tactile puzzles involving patterns, colors, other props, etc. There aren’t any riddles adding a “play at home” element that would put the viewer in there with them. It’s a passive experience watching four people putter around as they move items or otherwise fumble about while we are decidedly left on the outside looking in with disinterest.
And disinterest fittingly describes the likeliest reaction to “Escape Room.” Performances from Sean Young and Skeet Ulrich play inconsequential roles in what basically becomes a routine one-at-a-time murder movie with no creativity in its carnage.
Maybe the staff of The Sunday Sport can be tapped to drum up ideas for a sequel. They don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to critiquing horror films, but an adaptation of “Neighbour from Hell Ate My Guinea Pig” would certainly be more entertaining than “Escape Room.”
Review Score: 35