No Escape Room (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another horror movie that attempts to capitalize on the idea of escape rooms but fails to offer an original contribution of its own. It could have been about something. Consider, for instance, that the story opens with Michael (Mark Ghanimé) and Karen (Jeni Ross), a father-daughter on their way home because the ranch they wanted to visit turned out to be closed.
We notice immediately that this relationship is strained, possibly a result of divorce. It is apparent that the teenage daughter’s disappointment—and anger—is not just because of the parent’s failed attempt at bonding or her raging hormones. The issue lies far deeper, perhaps feelings of abandonment, but the screenplay by Jesse Mittelstadt is adamant in functioning on a most superficial level. To exorcise an emotion, thought, or trauma—conscious or subconscious—is precisely what the horror genre is for. Yet the writer appears to have neither understanding nor appreciation of this. What results is a movie that is flavorless, substandard, certainly without soul.
Lack of substance aside, a horror movie can get a pass for being riotously entertaining. “No Escape Room” also fails on this department. Michael and Karen end up in a house with three other players: the couple, birthday girl Melanie (Kathryn Davis) and the cowardly Tyler (Hamza Haq), and a man named Andrew (Dennis Andres) who jokes as being the spy during the game’s sixty-minute duration. Simply by looking at the participants, even if one hadn’t seen a single movie surrounding escape rooms, it is no challenge to predict the death order correctly. There is no entertainment to be had because there is minimal element of surprise right down to the archetypes. (And you don’t have to listen closely to detect the deadness in the dialogue.)
I enjoyed a few of the rooms. The overall theme is a throwback to the past. There are wonderful props like grandfather clocks, tribal masks, vintage phones, creepy paintings, surgical documents, and ominous film projectors. The five participants are tasked to find the five people who failed to make it out during the previous round and escape with them. But it is said there is a killer inventor on the loose so vigilance is of utmost importance. Every room has a specific personality, particularly in the lower regions of the house—where dead bodies are not just dead bodies. Or so it seems. Not only did the father-daughter, the couple, and the odd man out sign a waiver, they consumed tea that might have been drugged.
And so the movie jumps—needlessly—into the realm of is-it-real or is-it-not-real scenario. It is executed so haphazardly, the minimal interest it is able to milk out dissipates less than halfway through its eighty-minute running time. By this point, the idea of finding the key to get access to the next room is thrown out the window. The picture is then reduced to cardboard cutouts running around the house, screaming and questioning reality. It is boring, lazy, and devoid of creativity.
Director Alex Merkin employs the camera as is instead of a device for storytelling. At some point, two characters end up in the house of horror’s ventilation duct system. The dull script requires the actors to express fear and paranoia… but because the director fails to do anything with the camera, like experimenting with filters, mode of shooting, or angles, there is not a whiff of claustrophobia created—let alone panic or terror. There is, however, comedy due to the sheer ineptness of what’s presented on screen. There are few here that should have never made it into the final product.