This Is a Movie Review: Escape Room

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CREDIT: David Bloomer/Sony Pictures Entertainment

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2019.

Starring: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, Nik Dodani

Director: Adam Robitel

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Disorientingly Perilous Action, Traumatic Flashbacks, and Inadvertent Drug Use

Release Date: January 4, 2019

Depending on where you’re coming from, Escape Room is arriving either ten years too late or right on schedule. The real-life escape room craze is still going strong, if TV shows as diverse as Conan and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are to be believed. From that perspective, Escape Room the film is cannily capitalizing on a current trend. But considered from a cinematic context, the Saw series already set the template a decade ago (and now even exists in its own escape room form). But that is not exactly the highest standard. Thus, Escape Room, which renders immersive puzzle spaces actually deadly, has plenty of space to make its mark as a solid piece of entertainment for those who do not have the stomach for torture porn.

That is not to say that Escape Room is a pleasant watch, especially for anyone claustrophobic enough to find the entire concept of escape rooms frightening enough in the first place. It has a cruel streak, though it is tempered by a consistent preference for hope (or at least the illusion of it). Where Saw was often gross and off-putting while occasionally trying to say something about human nature, Escape Room is tightly engineered but also unsettling in just how random it ultimately is. The six people who have been chosen for this challenge all have a past as the lone survivors of deadly accidents, including drunk driving, an IED blast, and carbon monoxide poisoning. While the escape room has been designed with their histories in mind, that concept may have everything or nothing to do with who makes it out alive. The (possibly sequel teeing-up) ending is effective as a gut punch saying that this whole game is actually a “no escape” room. But the whole movie has a feeling of meaninglessness that is somewhat frightening but also the sign of a screenplay with limited subtext.

That said, while Escape Room‘s themes and motivations are never fully clear, it was successful at holding my attention, and I suspect that many audiences will feel the same. The designs of each section of the escape room are ingenious feats of engineering, from a lobby that turns into an oven to an upside-down pool bar. It also helps that each of the characters generally act to the top of their intelligences, making this an engaging battle of wits. We also get at least two different kinds of comic relief, with Tyler Labine as the goofy uncle type and Nik Dodani (best known as Murphy Brown’s new social media director) as the escape room enthusiast who realizes too late how real the threat is. The whole thing is fluffy, but enough to make you think twice about playing any more interactive games.

Escape Room is Recommended If You Like: Actual escape rooms probably, plus the Saw and Final Destination series

Grade: 3 out of 5 Unlocked Doors

 

This Is a Movie Review: Insidious: The Last Key

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CREDIT: Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Josh Stewart, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Kirk Acevedo, Bruce Davison, Javier Botet

Director: Adam Robitel

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Physical and Supernatural Abuse

Release Date: January 5, 2018

It’s taken four tries, but the Insidious franchise has finally figured out to focus an entire film on its best character. Before 2011, Lin Shaye was perhaps best known for her appearances in Farrelly brothers comedies (especially There’s Something About Mary), though she did have significant horror experience, with small but memorable roles in the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. But then at the age of 67, she sauntered in as demonologist Elise Rainier, so sweet and loving but also so tapped into the darkness of the world – simply put, the role of a lifetime.

Alas, the first Insidious film ends with Elise’s death. Thankfully, however, this is the rare horror franchise resurrects its hero instead of its villain for the sequels. The series’ supernatural time-bending elements allowed her for her appearance in part 2, while the third and fourth entries have gone the prequel route. Chapter 3 introduced a new family into the series and allowed Shaye to take over as the lead about halfway through, while The Last Key wisely opts to put her front and center right from the start. I went into this film expecting to once again be in awe of Shaye, and that is exactly what happened.

The Last Key does in fact once again introduce a new family, but this time it is Elise’s own. She is called to investigate disturbances occurring in the house she grew up in Five Keys, New Mexico. The town name matches up with the m.o. of the film’s main demon in a manner that is a bit on-the-nose, but weird enough to be forgivable. Elise has been trying to forget this place ever since the horrible abuse her father laid upon her for violently disapproving of her supernatural skill set. It turns out that this house has been the locus of a cycle of abuse at the nexus of evil spirits and evil men. Could it be that the worst of humanity are just minions of the most insidious demons? Or is that already terrible people are the most susceptible to devilish manipulation? Or somewhere in between?

The Last Key employs several clever feints about what is ghostly and what is corporeal, playing around with our perceptions and those of Elise. At one point, our favorite demonologist explicitly states, “There are plenty of demons in this world who are very much alive.” Elise in many ways is psychologically equipped to deal with the most banal as well as the most fantastical forms of evil. I imagine there is a theoretical version of an Insidious film devoid of any ghosts or demons. It is perfectly fine that The Last Key is not that, but it is disappointing that it is ultimately about a rescue mission in The Further (the series’ supernatural realm), just like any other Insidious film.

The Last Key does not come anywhere close to establishing a new horror paradigm the way the first one did, but there are several small pleasures spread throughout in addition to Shaye’s expected excellence. The character design continues to be strikingly unique, with the main baddie having keys for fingers that he uses to bodily penetrate his human marks. He is played by Javier Botet, who has Marfan syndrome, giving him long and fine fingers that he has utilized for a fruitful career as supernatural creatures. The audio mix is just as memorable, though more discomforting. A whistle is frequently employed to indicate impending doom, which is a fun trick, but it is frequently so high-pitched that those with sensitive ears would be wise to wear muffs.

And of course I cannot conclude without mentioning Elise’s wacky assistants, who also get their most screen time yet in the series and successfully avoid being too much of a good thing: the nerdy, adorably awkward Specs (Leigh Whannell, who has written all four films and directed the third) and the deep-voiced, intense but harmless tinkerer Tucker (Angus Sampson). Ultimately, each Insidious film is about the power of family, and sometimes that family takes the form of the business partnership/close friendship between a seventysomething psychic and her two young male associates.

Insidious: The Last Key is Recommended If You Like: Septuagenarian Scream Queens, Horror Movies That Are More Heartwarming Than Scary

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Psychics and Sidekicks