Horror has always been a derivative genre. That one breakthrough, original film begets dozens to hundreds of imitators. The success of Halloween – not the first slasher, but the first incredibly successful one – gave us a decade-plus of masked killers stalking under-dressed teenagers. George Romero inspired a thriving sub-genre of zombie films, Nightmare on Elm Street reinvigorated supernatural slayers and Jaws spawned a thriving school of water-bound beasties.
The twenty-first century, though, has arguably felt more derivative than the decades past. You can point to a couple of new genres here and there, with The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity giving birth to countless found footage films while Saw and Hostel begat the (poorly-named) torture porn sub-genre. But in the years since, the standout horror films were only intermittently original; It Follows was excellent but incredibly indebted to John Carpenter, while even Jennifer Kent’s distinctive The Babadook drew on iconography of silent horror films from a century earlier. After watching the tenth uneven horror remake or haunted house flick attempting to ape the success of a throwback like The Conjuring, it’s easily to feel a little disillusioned.
That sort of pessimism is countered by a quick rifling through the filmography of Blumhouse Productions: Paranormal Activity, yes, but also Unfriended, The Purge, Sinister, Happy Death Day and, of course, the Oscar-winning Get Out. Blumhouse applies the same model that’s paid dividends for exploitation filmmakers for decades – eschewing big budgets and big names in favour of marketable, cheaply-produced genre films – but with one significant difference. Where most exploitation films are about mimicry, most Blumhouse films are crafted with distinct enough concepts to cut through in a crowded genre marketplace.
Which brings us to Escape Room. This isn’t a Blumhouse film, but it feels like one. Escape Room draws deeply on familiar tropes of recent genre films, yes. Trapping a half-dozen individuals in an elaborate, deadly maze of escape rooms renders something that’s like Cube meets Saw meets Hostel …minus the gratuitous gore. But like most Blumhouse success stories, it has a hook that cuts through its derivative elements, and it’s not hard to spot. It’s right there in the title. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of a deadly escape room, no matter how crudely executed. If this is the new normal for horror in 2019, at least it forces filmmakers to offer something fresh amongst the reheated leftovers.
When it comes to Escape Room, It’s easy to criticise said leftovers. The six characters trapped herein – a meek young teen (Taylor Russell), an arrogant stockbroker (Jay Ellis), a scarred ex-soldier (Deborah Ann Woll), an escape room aficionado (Nik Dodani), the others (Tyler Labine, Logan Miller) – have paper-thin character arcs telegraphed from the get-go, and the larger narrative arc avoids too many Saw comparisons by shunning anything approaching a major twist. But the premise is so inherently engaging, and many of the escape rooms so cleverly designed, that it’s easy to forget these issues and just enjoy the ride.
And this is very much a ride. In avoiding the maiming and cruelty found in the Saw sequels, Escape Room ultimately plays like a cleverly-designed, somewhat mean-spirited theme park attraction. The puzzles aren’t heinous, but are clever enough to keep your attention without feeling unfair, while director Adam Robitel manages to maintain a sense of tension throughout. Escape Room may be far from original, but it’s more memorable than the equivalent slashers of a few decades prior. If aping Blumhouse means feinting at a modicum of originality, then I’m all for this new wave of derivative horror.