Escape Room (2019)

JANUARY 10, 2019

GENRE: SURVIVAL, THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

If I was operating on a normal schedule, I would have seen/reviewed Escape Room on its opening day (perhaps the Thursday night before), as seeing genre films on opening day is one of the only HMAD traditions I still uphold. But ironically, I was out of town for a weekend bachelor party that included doing an actual escape room on Friday, so between traveling and wanting to spend time with my family on Thursday night I just couldn't make it happen, and had to wait for an opportune moment during the week. Weirder still, there's a moment in the movie where a character looks at a newspaper headline saying that five people died in a fire - it has nothing to do with the movie, but in real life, on the day the movie opened, five girls actually DID die in a fire that broke out in the escape room they were doing. So that's kinda freaky, and if I went to the movie earlier I wouldn't have thought anything about it.

Odder still, the escape room I was playing in real life was based on the Saw films, which this movie occasionally feels like. The characters arrive on their own freewill, but it's still kind of the same deal as Saw II and V (and, uh, Jigsaw) - a group of people who don't know each other are trapped in a building and need to complete twisted tasks engineered by an unseen madman, and making a mistake means you die. The PG-13 rating obviously keeps it from ever being as violent/gory as those films could get, but it's still easy to be reminded of that series from time to time, and not in a ripoff way - it's actually kind of part of its appeal, reminding me of when that series was king and still retained its clever appeal. There are no major twists in this one, but the ticking clock scenarios that usually reduce the cast by one before they move on to a new challenge makes it feel like a Saw that doesn't require a notebook to keep up with who's who and when things take place. So a more successful Jigsaw, I guess.

But the film's primary appeal is that the writers clearly ran through some escape rooms before sitting down to hammer out their screenplay, giving it a genuine feeling that a number of game-driven movies often lack. Video game movies (that is, movies *about* video games, not Tomb Raider or whatever) are the worst offender - the games the characters play often bear no resemblance to a game anyone would actually play, suggesting the writers never bothered to check if they came off as genuine. But here, even if the setup is unlike anything in the real world (people are invited to the room to play with strangers - it's almost exclusively something one does with their friends), the puzzles themselves are 100% in line with what I myself have experienced in these things*, which added immensely to the proceedings.

In fact, the movie was at its best when combining danger with their attempts to solve a standard puzzle. The trailers highlight what's probably the best overall sequence, where the group is trapped in an upside down room - as the floor gives way, they have to figure out a four digit code for a safe that contains the key that will allow them to get to the next room. Apart from the whole "the floor is disappearing and can send you plummeting to your death" element, it's a puzzle that anyone who has ever done an escape room will recognize - the group has to scour the room for clues that will produce the necessary code (in this case, it matches up to the color/number of billiard balls that are glued to the table above them), with the clock ticking down and the ever-present "we have the numbers but the wrong order" hiccup that I've run into nearly every time I've done a room.

Unfortunately, they occasionally betray this realism with some stuff that would never fly in a real room, like when their key is frozen in the center of a giant ice cube, so they have to melt it with their bare hands. The room had plenty of other dangers (the cold temperature and cracking ice), so I wish the solution involved something more traditional i.e. "brainier" rather than be something that just adds to their risk. Later in the movie they get even more unfamiliar, but it's explained away with "they did their research, they know what we can handle!" so solutions require them to know sign language and things like that. And by that point I was pretty much on board and willing to forgive, but still - I would have loved if they kept the puzzles/solutions in line with reality while simply increasing the risk of the danger around them.

Speaking of the danger (and this is kind of a spoiler, so skip to next paragraph if you want to go in blind-ish), it's the rare instance of a PG-13 rating actually kind of helping a genre movie rather than hurt it. If it was rated R, I'm sure we'd see all the horrific details when our characters got offed, but instead it's usually left pretty vague - which got me wondering for a while if it was all a game after all and no one was really being killed (a la April Fools Day). The first time it becomes 100% clear that these folks are dying is when it's actually from the hand of another player (not in a villain way, it's a fight to the death per the game's rules), so it kind of works as much of a shock to us as it is to the person who just took another life, an element we'd be denied if they were going the Saw (or Cube, respect) route and letting us see the gruesome outcomes.

Another smart thing is that we only meet three of the six players before they all arrive for the game, which makes us identify more with them and mistrust the others, because if Saw II or Cube taught us anything it's that there's usually a mole in there to make sure things are going smoothly. I won't tell you if that's the case here, but the approach keeps us on our toes with regards to that and also the order in which people exit the film. The trailers thankfully stuck primarily to the first couple rooms where everyone was alive, so it's a legit surprise when this or that person is removed from the proceedings. It's a good mix of actors too; you might recognize them from this or that thing (for horror fans, Deborah Ann Woll from True Blood and Tyler "Dale" Labine being the most obvious), but there isn't a clear "star" that overshadows everyone else - it's a true ensemble from start to finish. That said, it's a shame they had to blow part of the mystery with the ever awful flash forward opening, which shows us one character in a room by themselves, rendering their "in danger" scenes throughout the film anticlimactic. It doesn't take too long to get going (especially since we only see three of the characters prior) so I'm not sure why they thought this was necessary, but it's mostly forgivable thanks to the other stuff that managed to surprise.

My only other quibble is that the ending drags. Obviously I can't get into details, but at a certain point it seems like we're watching the sequel to the film as opposed to the natural conclusion to this one, followed by a lengthy teaser for where the next room might be held - it's a bit much, in a movie that's already longer than average as is. Think of Cube, how it ended so perfectly with the guy walking out into the unknown - this could have done something similar, but instead it relieves us of the ambiguity, and then keeps going on and on for good measure. So it loses some of its energy, unnecessarily, with the only saving grace being that the film's surprising success (it made $5-6m more than it was expected to over the weekend) means we will probably get a sequel and this stuff will at least not be in vain.

Other than that, it's a solidly entertaining movie that makes the most of its concept and doesn't get bogged down in too much "how is this all possible" nonsense that would just kill the fun. It's more of a thriller than a horror film, and I think that works in its favor - the focus is always on the game itself and occasionally even lets you solve the puzzle along with the characters (I figured out one before them!), giving the film a minor interactive feel that the likes of Saw can never accomplish ("Audience members are invited to chop off their own fingers along with the characters on screen!"). This sort of thing makes up for its occasional blunders, and I hope they get the sequel to work out the kinks. In summary: it might be released in January, but it's not a "January movie"!

What say you?

*The Saw one has seven rooms and if you fail one you get to move on. We ended up beating five of the seven, which is apparently very good as we were told the average group only beats one or two! I believe it was the seventh room I have done over the past few years, so I'm not an expert by any means but I've done enough to realize that the people who make these things really love 3 or 4 digit combinations.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Inside (2016)

JANUARY 2, 2019

GENRE: SURVIVAL
SOURCE: ONLINE (HULU)

I usually bristle when they remake a recent foreign language horror film for seemingly no other reason than to do it in English, but at least they waited about a decade to do it with Inside, as opposed to the insulting turnaround times for the likes of Shutter (not even four years) and Let Me In (barely two!). Plus it wasn't just a greedy big studio behind it - this Inside is an independenta Spanish co-production, with [Rec] fave Jaume Balagueró writing and producing (a guy who'd know about quickie English language remakes), giving it more "on paper" cred than the likes of, say, The Stepfather '09. And as a bonus, they cast Rachel Nichols from my beloved P2 as the pregnant mother - add all that up and you should have a redux that's at least worth a look, right?

Well... they kind of cleared that not-exactly lofty goal, I guess. It's not a bad movie, but it's so beholden to the original's beats (not its specifics, more on that later) that the only reason to see it would be if you haven't seen the original. I prefer my remakes to keep the basic scenario but change just about everything else (Dawn of the Dead being the easiest example, though the recent Suspiria is also an easy one to point to, albeit less accessible), but this only diverges slightly from the Bustillo/Maury original, so if you've seen it there's little surprise to be found here, and you'll keep asking yourself why they bothered. Suspense/home invasion movies like this tend to not lend themselves to repeat viewings anyway, and that's what this kind of feels like; even when they change things up a bit, they tend to fall right back in line with the story we already knew... and likely preferred.

But in theory, it should actually be the better film, ironically enough, as they excise the original's two biggest blunders (skip the next three paragraphs if you haven't seen the original!). For starters, we aren't subjected to horrible CGI shots of the baby being jostled around inside the womb (to be fair, the original's directors didn't want them either - they were forced to add them by the producers), so that's a blessing. The other thing they thankfully get rid of is the number of cops (and the suspect!) who come over and figure out what's going on - this time around, there's no suspect at all, nor does one of them survive their initial injuries but attack Sarah thinking she was the villain. That chunk of the original nearly derailed the movie for me, so I was happy these folks seemed to feel the same, removing it without putting anything else in its place. The stuff with the cops is simplified and, for what it's worth, superior.

Their other changes aren't as successful, unfortunately. One intriguing one is that Sarah has lost her hearing as the result of her injuries from the car crash, but very little is done with it - it's mostly just an easy way to keep her from alerting a friend that stops by (because she isn't even aware he's there until she replaces her hearing aid battery, at which point he's out the door anyway), and rarely used otherwise. Also, this time The Woman (Laura Harring) has set up shop across the street in a half-finished house, so she can take pictures and such, but the only reason this exists, best I can tell, is to give them a second location to go to for part of the film's climax, which is always a dumb move in these things anyway. It's a home invasion movie - why is it all building toward two people fighting elsewhere? Hell they don't even stay in THAT house - they go outside for the final fight. So now it's a Yard Invasion movie.

In fact the ending is drastically different, so if you ignored my earlier spoiler warning then DEFINITELY skip this paragraph because it spoils them both! In the original, in keeping with the French New Wave Horror's sensibilities of being grim af, Sarah dies and The Woman gets the baby after all - this time it's the other way around, so it kind of just ends as you'd expect it to as opposed to something more interesting or daring. Worse, they fight to the death inside a covered swimming pool, so when The Woman is subdued Sarah swims to the top and pushes through a cut in the tarp to emerge from the watery enclosure - even the baby in Sarah's belly would probably roll its eyes about the corny symbolism. Then she just delivers the baby herself, robbing us of one of the original's intriguing elements: that The Woman becomes a protector and nurse during the delivery. They never have that sort of "bond" here, and I actually missed it - because otherwise it's just another crazy person trying to kill our hero (it doesn't help that we already had a ripoff of Inside called Visions, which gave us the happy ending version already).

Now, when doing a review of a remake I try to avoid too much "this is how it differed" stuff and try to judge it on its own terms, but when it's so close to a movie I've seen (let alone really loved) it's hard to separate. Any review I write will be from the mindset of someone who has seen x number of horror movies, and their job should be to make me think this is one I haven't basically seen yet. At no point was I able to forget that I was watching a remake, as Balagueró and director Miguel Ángel Vivas (who also co-wrote) never gave it enough of its own identity to let me get sucked into it (perhaps Balagueró was inspired by the impressive box office of Quarantine, which also changed precious little). There are times when it feels like things might go a different way, such as the introduction of a gay couple who lives next door (more or less filling in the role of the coworker), but they're dispatched before having much of a chance to do anything differently. Even the specifics barely change - the cop once again leaves the house thinking everything is fine before realizing that the woman he talked to wasn't pregnant. Like, they couldn't think of a different reason to have him go back (or just not leave in the first place)? It's fine to use the same setups if you have new punchlines, so that viewers can all enjoy whether they've seen the original or not, but here it's like the opposite - the setups occasionally change but it always ends the same way.

So it's like one of those Telltale interactive games, where they say you have a choice between saving Person A or Person B and regardless of what you choose, they kill Person B because that's how the main story needs to go (Person A will just be kind of a dick to you for not trying to save them). And by design it's not like we can fall in love with these versions of the characters, as they're not around long enough to get attached to any of them except Sarah. As for her, again I'm always happy to watch Ms. Nichols, but she's not given much to do here beyond look startled, look around for something to fight with, etc. She gets in a couple of good lines near the end (both the result of trying to stall The Woman while waiting for the right moment to strike), and they have softened her a bit from Alysson Paradis' version, though as with the ending that just gives the film less of a personality overall. So she's stuck kind of just going through the same "trapped with a psycho" stuff we saw her do in P2, so it's double the deja vu.

The good news is, it's watchable and decent enough on its own, and unlike the original it's not "tough to watch", so if you're squeamish there's finally a way for you to get through this story! It's got some gore (including a borderline darkly comic moment where someone is seemingly using their own pouring blood as a weapon of sorts), but nothing that would give the MPAA much of a problem - this movie won't have you worried about scissors, anyway. Indeed, I can't help but think this was meant to be a wider theatrical release at some point and all of these changes were made to make the film more accessible to mainstream audiences, only to see it get an even more buried release than the French original (which at least got Dimension behind a big video push for their Dimension Extreme label). I wasn't even aware the damn thing had even come out until I found it while scrolling around on Hulu (which I just got) for something to watch to fall asleep to. Considering Vivas made the incredibly grim Kidnapped (which makes the original Inside look like, uh, this one) I can't help but wonder if they had gnarlier ideas that were left off the table in favor of chasing ticket sales, but I also suspect that would just mean they'd make an even closer clone. So instead we get this watchable but forgettable version that exists mainly for Nichols' devotees and people who don't like to read.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

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