Friday, January 11, 2019

Escaping from a Room With a Clue

It was bound to happen. There’s a new low-budget suspense thriller out with the provocative title, Escape Room. (Here’s the catchline: Solve the Puzzle. Escape the Room. Find the clues or die.)  I haven’t seen Escape Room, but I doubt it’s terribly good. Still, as a former Roger Corman person, I give this project high marks for hitting on a topic that’s both timely and commercial.

Escape rooms, of course, seem to be our latest fad. I’ve experienced two, and enjoyed the fun of using logic and bursts of inspiration to find my way out of a colorfully decorated but decidedly locked chamber. Escape rooms have various themes, some of them quite gruesome. But my family and I chose fairly innocent escapades, involving wizards and magic. And it was always made clear to us that an  unseen overseer was monitoring our progress, so there was no chance of our being trapped forever.

I’ve just learned that the escape room phenomenon began in Eastern Europe. Hungary, in fact, has dubbed itself the Escape Room Capital of the World, and I’m told that much of the clever apparatus at my last escape room was imported direct from Budapest. It’s provocative to muse about why escape rooms are currently flourishing in the former Soviet bloc. Perhaps, if you have memories of living under Russian domination, you relish the idea of using your wits to burst out of bondage and recapture your personal freedom. Or maybe I’m getting carried away.

But it’s certainly true that almost all of us are susceptible to claustrophobia. And the makers of horror films have long used that fact as a way to scare us silly. Horror films remain popular among filmmakers because their limited locations and small casts make them cheap to produce, and also because they have a way of tapping into our deepest fears. That’s something Roger Corman certainly knew back in the 1960s when he was filming Edgar Allan Poe stories like The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Premature Burial.” Corman’s Poe films had Gothic trappings, but other claustrophobia-inducing films of the era are set in the present day, like 1964’s Lady in a Cage, in which Olivia de Havilland is trapped in a home elevator, and mayhem ensues.

The idea of being trapped perhaps reaches a pinnacle of sorts in the Saw franchise, which began in 2004. Saw starts, as you may recall, with two men finding themselves in chains, locked in a mysterious bathroom, with only a corpse and a pair of hacksaws to keep them company. Playful malevolence is the watchword here: our characters are caught in a sadistic game whose rules elude them. It’s clear there are some clever minds at work behind the scenes in Saw, but as one of the characters approached the necessity of hacking off his own foot I decided this was one film I didn’t need to watch to its conclusion.

We tend to like horror films (and escape rooms) because we know that at some point the lights will come up and we will return to our own reality. Unfortunately, the horror doesn’t always end when the game is over. In my daily newspaper, I just read a tragic story from Poland: five teenage girls died when the old building housing their escape room caught on fire. Locked by the operator into a tiny closet-like chanber, they had no way out. No one was able to reach them in time, and smoke inhalation caused their senseless deaths. A very sad story—and one that will doubtless soon be coming to a theatre near you.

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