Are Escape Room Horror Movies Redefining The Horror Genre?

In the last few years there has been a huge trend in Escape Rooms – a series of interactive and often themed puzzles that expand a multitude of rooms. Puzzlers and their friends would solve the riddles, the mysteries, and the clues in order to make it out of the escape room within an assigned time limit. The popularity exploded, with at least multiple escape rooms popping up in almost every city. With themed rooms such as horror escapes, witches, mental asylums, magicians, and old fashioned Sherlock Holmes style rooms, there really is something for everyone.

But puzzles have always been a selling point, and basically as soon as someone perpetrated the idea of the Escape Room, the horror fans amongst us came up with the idea of ‘what about a horror themed escape room where people die if they don’t solve the puzzles?’ It certainly ups the antsy.

Granted, this concept isn’t necessarily new. Back in 2004 Saw made waves as the leader in Escape Room puzzles. About a serial killer named John Kramer punishing people with deadly games, the Saw series became one of the biggest horror franchises ever. The puzzles and the ideas got gorier, the choices to be made got harder, and the rooms got harder to escape from.

But the thing about Escape Rooms is the idea that it is all just a game. You’re not actually going to die – it’ just part of the game, right?

Well, horror lovers have figured out that the possibility of real danger makes for a spookier element and by blurring the lines of what is a real game versus what is real life makes the idea of an escape room out to get you all the more thrilling. The edge of realness mirrors traumatic fears like claustrophobia, and can provide an epic gore-fest for hard-core horror fans, or a more psychological take for a lighter mood.

Wait, you can actually die from one of these puzzles? You can actually get locked in a room? The reality of the situation puts in the danger, and it works.

But that’s not the only reason that escape room themed horror films are working. It’s also the depiction of characters that has had a fine tune for horror. Back in the day, the classic horror trope character list include the jock, the slut, the brains, the comedian, and the final girl, but with these new escape room themed horror movies the characterizations in horror have changed completely.

It means that the people in the horror movies doing the puzzles can be intelligent and show aptitude for solving puzzles or doing things that could be once considered “nerdy”. They can all be the brains, they could all be jerks or jocks, and there can be no final girl if the room won’t allow it.

I mean, lets be real, there usually is a final survivor, and there are characters who are jerky salesmen, fun-loving sisters, and sexy girlfriends, but these people have enough sensible gumption to figure out a few puzzles. It’s not a classic stick-the-jock-and-the-slut-together-naked-in-a-room-and-fuck-and-then-die plot. These people are usually somewhat more multi-faceted, and this has changed the game of the horror trope!

Since Escape Rooms rise in popularity and discovery of a change of character tropes we have been met with an onslaught of escape room horror themed movies. But do they all stack up with what they’re meant to be? I chronicled three escape room themed movies that suggest difference, and see if they actually bring it.

Escape Room (2019)

2019’s Escape Room was probably the most popular depiction of horror escape rooms, primarily due to it’s budget and the fact that it actually came out in Cinemas pre-COVID times. Starring True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll, Escape Room saw a series of advanced puzzlers arriving in an office building looking to be apart of a cool new experience – only to find that the experience started the moment they walked in – and the dangers are deadly real.

Based on the traumatic fears of each of the contestants, the group find themselves moving from a literal oven, to a frozen lake of ice, and a cabin in the woods. As they move throughout the rooms, and the dangers become apparent, the game realize that they have been sent here for a reason, leaving the storyline open for Escape Room 2 (coming out in 2021).

Escape Room’s best room had to be the upside down bar and pool room, that every so often the ‘ceiling’ would give way. The contestants had to climb all over the bar and the pool tables to discover the clues as the floor drops out from under them, creating quite the nail-biter of a situation, and an awesomely unique escape room.

Escape Room (2017)

Not to be confused with the 2019 higher budget version, this 2017 movie of the same name is about six friends who are clearly faking at having their shit together and join in on a mysterious escape room party for the birthday of their friend Tyler, organised by his girlfriend Natasha. As Natasha leads the charge on the escape room she is taken from the group and put naked into a cage. The friends try to work out the clues of the room to rescue her, as per the idea of the game, only to discover that the danger is very real.

Putting the validity of the game in question, the group unravel in a way that is very irrelevant to the rest of the plot and the reason behind the game. Red herrings are set up constantly – did Natasha plan this whole thing as a way of getting back on her boyfriend? What happened to their single friend at the start of the film? Is she somehow mysteriously involved? Who has taken over the game?

The unfortunate part of the 2017 Escape Room is that you never find out.

No Escape (Follow Me)

Apparently the mystery of terrible and ever-changing movie titles is part of the riddle when it comes to escape room horror movies, as the previously dubbed Follow Me becomes No Escape in an attempt to move away from the social media setting and into the escape room vibes.

No Escape is a 2020 film that appears almost COVID-19 friendly, as many of the introductory scenes with Pretty Little Liar’s star Keegan Allan are filmed in the form of social media. Keegan plays Cole, a social media “influencer” who travels around the world to make content for his Youtube channel and is whisked away on a trip to Russia for his birthday where his friends suggest taking part in an escape room.

As Cole and his friends work through the series of clues in the escape room they begin to panic as the line between real life and the escape rooms puzzles are blurred and Cole must figure out if this is really a game or not.

Besides the terrible acting and the incessant desire for these puzzles to actually be real and actually be killing these kids, the best escape room puzzle has to be the Harry Houdini style box in the poster, in which the box needs to be unlocked prior to it filling completely with water. An old school classic, that is still fun to watch.

All in all, while the idea of following escape room carnage is a pretty good idea, many of these recent escape room movies lack the finness of the sci-fi drama Cube (where six strangers awaken in a cube-shaped room with deadly traps in different hatches of escape plans) or the gore-factor and overarching storyline of the Saw franchise. Half the time it is escape rooms for escape rooms sake, but honestly – isn’t that kind of the point of escape rooms in general?

In that case – these three movies probably nailed it.

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