January horror is notoriously awful, but this Saw-like morality play takes advantage of a hot trend to surprise audiences with a much better product than expected. Five players—alpha male Jason (Jay Ellis), mathematics student Zoey (Taylor Russell), alcoholic loser Ben (Logan Miller), tough girl Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll, aka Jess from “True Blood”), talkative trucker Mike (the typically refreshing Tyler Labine) and escape-room vet Danny (Nik Dodani)—compete for $10,000 in, they keep being told, the most immersive escape rooms yet devised. The quintet soon learns the struggle is life or death, and $10,000 does not seem like a big enough reward anymore; now, the prize is survival.
Outside of a rather ratty reveal that, at worst, made me think about Hostel again, Escape Room is cleverly devised by director Adam Robitel and its two writers, Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik. The cast, thanks to anchors Woll and Labine, has far more charisma and talent than the usual, pretty CW ciphers. Sure, the bar was not set very high, but this inventive, entertaining horror entry sure heats up the dead-of-winter multiplex.