The horror film Escape Room (2019) opens with a group of strangers getting a mysterious box that produces an invitation to Minos escape rooms. Each of them go only to discover that the rooms appear to be designed to kill them.
Based around the concept of the escape rooms, the filmmakers set out to make a film based around elaborate and deadly rooms that challenged larger than life characters’ darkest fears. To drive home their point, the advertising sold a fun and scary game for a youthful audience.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The color palette in Escape Room changes based on which character the story follows and which room the scene takes place in. Many scenes use certain colors to suggest danger and safety, only to switch colors in the next room. Oftentimes, director Adam Robitel chooses colors that contrast with the color palette of the rest of the scene to draw the audience’s attention to pertinent information in the scene (i.e. red shoes or a red jacket in a primarily blue scene). These visual choices clearly set up characters as well as the stakes of the scenes.
Set in Chicago, the film primarily takes place in doors. Apart from a few exteriors and overhead shots, the audience almost never sees Chicago. This creates a more claustrophobic style that adds to the tension.
Over the course of the film, the story builds up small visual details that become increasingly important over time. Little details that sit in the background of set up scenes (such as a boat behind a character) become clues in the actual escape rooms. The film ends with a tease for the sequel rather than with an explanation for the mysterious company.
The premise revolves around a group of damaged characters. Each character receives an invitation for the escape room that supposedly comes from a close friend, associate, or family member, only to have it revealed to be a big ruse later on. All players will supposedly receive 10,000 dollars. Of these characters, shy college student Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) and lowly grocery store employee Ben Miller (Logan Miller) reveal themselves as the protagonists.
Since the audience rarely sees the antagonists, the rooms tend to become the main antagonizing force of the story. These rooms include:
- A waiting room that turns into an oven. This reveals the danger of the situation. The whole group escapes through a duct before the room engulfs them in flames.
- A cabin on a frozen lake. The first death happens here when a comic relief character falls through the ice, making the stakes even more clear.
- An upside-down Billiard’s room where the floor keeps falling out. The death of a female character happens here.
- A room of hospital beds, each containing vital information about the characters. Here, it is revealed that the mysterious company chose five sole survivors of various tragedies. The room then fills with gas, causing two deaths. In this scene, Zoey appears to die, but comes back in later scenes.
- The tile room. A trippy room designed to look like a finger print. The characters have to find an antidote to get out. Ben does and falls through a hatch into the next room.
- A study where the walls close in. The film opens Ben nearly getting crushed by this room before flashing back to the beginning of the story.
- A final room for the winner. A grimy warehouse room, it has a scoreboard of all the winners and losers. The Games master (Yorick van Wageningen) comes out, congratulates the winner (in this case, Ben), then kills them. However, Zoey foils their plan when she comes in with a gun.
In each of these rooms, the characters have to find ways to escape. Usually, these come in the form of a key of duct.
When Ben and Zoey escape, the rooms in the building disappear. Zoey comes back to find nothing there, making her look crazy. This set back leads to her finding a puzzle months later and new set of escape rooms, which will be explored in an upcoming sequel.
Like many suspense films, Escape Room functions mostly as a plot driven film. The film’s primary question revolves around whether or not the characters can survive the deadly puzzles thrown at them. Because of this, a primary antagonist does not show up until the climax.
Throughout the film, most antagonists exist mysteriously in the shadows. The audience rarely sees their faces until the lead characters come into contact with them. Almost every villain also rarely has a name or a North American accent. The only name really given (WooTan Yu) turns out to be an anagram for “no way out.” Only Zoey realizes it when she sees it written out on a wall.
The main antagonist the audience ends up seeing in the finished film is the Games master, who the film credits as WooTan Yu. The character has a monologue about the nature of violent entertainment before trying to kill the male protagonist of the story. The character also makes the distinction that he did not design the maze, making him a minor antagonist.
The audience only gets glimpses of a bigger antagonist. The theatrical cut features a shadowy figure with a digitally manipulated voice, while an earlier ending features a voice coming from a machine. Both indicate that they will play another game with the protagonists of the story.
In Escape Room, both college age protagonists must get out and experience the world at the urgings of foils and mentors. As a plot driven story, the character arcs of the story tend to take back seat to the puzzles and plot twists.
In this case, the foils that contrast these characters tend to be the slightly older generation who have a few more life experiences. Characters older than that usually either serve as mentors, antagonists, or comic relief.
An unpleasant bitter character, Ben lives a pretty meager existence after a drunk driving accident that he caused as a teenager. His boss does not want to put him out front because it is “bad for business.” In a deleted scene, he buys some high school kids booze, then stiffs them. All of these choices suggest that Ben’s journey will be to become a better person. Although Ben behaves in an unpleasant manner, he does make an effort to help other people.
At the beginning of the story, Ben’s primarily uses force to solve problems. Over the course of the story, he will have to use personal knowledge to escape the rooms. Ben also primarily solves these problems because the clues relate specifically to his experience.
At the midpoint of the story, Ben comes under attack when his behavior inadvertently leads to the death of another character. This leads the group to accuse Ben of being the games master since they have never seen that character yet. With that, Ben verbally accuses everybody of being the real creep in the situation. He ends this monologue by saying he’s “the least suspicious one there.”
Foils and Mentors
Ben has a mentor and a foil in the story. Both serve the purpose of setting up Ben as a character and challenging him throughout the story. In this story, Ben eventually comes into direct violent contact with his foil.
In the first act of the film, Ben tries to talk his boss Gary (Bart Fouche) into giving him a promotion so he can move out of his mom’s house. Genuinely worried about Ben, Gary tells him he should stop drinking and “go outside and make a friend.” This character serves to set up Ben’s need and give him the escape room box, but largely disappears from the rest of the film.
Although presented as the third lead, day trader Jason Walker (Jay Ellis) serves as a counterpoint to Ben. He leads a successful life, drives a motorcycle, and has a cocky sociopathic attitude to him. The deleted scenes feature the character weaving through traffic. Unlike Ben, Jason serves a mentor to his nerdier assistant Charlie (Russell Crous). Jason also compares himself to Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid (1984). Another deleted scene features Jason trying to talk Charlie into coming into work to solve the cube. This relationship suggests Jason’s treatment of other characters later in the film.
Throughout the story, Jason feels haunted by a boat trip where his friend died. However, it is not clear whether Jason murdered his friend or not until later in the story. Many of his scenes feature boats in the background. The escape rooms often feature items from that event, such as boats and a red jacket Jason and his friend wore. All of these little details challenge Jason, but also challenge Ben later on.
Like Ben, Jason has a more forceful and aggressive approach. Unlike Ben, Jason continuously reveals himself as caring about winning at all costs rather than other people’s lives. While they do not tend to have much interaction throughout most of the film, they come into direct conflict with each other as Jason’s more aggressive nature reveals itself. In the end, this leads to Ben having to kill him to survive.
The sole survivor of a plane crash, physics major Zoey Davis fears expressing herself and must overcome that to survive. Unlike Ben, Zoey’s problems revolve around being an intellectual who does not fit into the social environment around her. The film presents her almost always as kind and giving, bordering on saintliness. She literally comes from the dead, making her a sort of Christ-like figure in this story. Her main need in the story has her needing to be built up rather than changed in any major way.
Throughout the film, Zoey’s wardrobe choice suggests her character. The film’s early scenes have her in lighter colors than her classmates, which separates her visually from them. Her establishing scenes tend to have a blue color palette that her wardrobe contrasts. These include a white striped sweater and a brown cotton jacket. To suggest her kinship with Ben, the film places in the similar brownish shirts while dressing the other characters in blue. When Zoey finally starts taking control of her situation, she wears a shirt with blue flowers on it, suggesting that she has bloomed.
Foils and Mentors
In the story, Zoey has two foils and a mentor. All of them serve to give Zoey options to break out of her shell. Both of Zoey’s foils have lived lives that contrast Zoey’s withdrawn introverted existence. One exists in Zoey’s normal reality, while the other comes to the escape room. Both serve to set up and contrast her character. The Mentor serves to set up Zoey’s need to escape and her drive to change, among other things.
Her roommate Allison (Jessica Sutton) wants her to get out. She asks Zoey to go to her family’s house for Thanksgiving. In an extended scene, she asks if Zoey will go to the party outside, fully knowing the answer. Allison also says that she sometimes thinks that Zoey makes up overly complicated phrases because she knows Jessica will not look them up when Zoey excitedly describes the possibility of Euler’s concept of a perfect box not existing. She explicitly and implicitly discusses sexuality when a box from her professor arrives. Explicitly, she acts if Zoey has sex with the professor. Implicitly, she tells Zoey to have fun with her box in a suggestive tone of voice.
To visually separate her from Zoey, the filmmakers dress her in dark red and purple jackets and hoodies. Along with that, she wears red lipstick and nail polish. Each of these details suggest a more extroverted character than the more buttoned down Zoey.
In the actual escape rooms, Zoey teams up with Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), who served in Iraq. When the first introducing the world of the escape rooms, the film presents the sequence through Amanda rather than Zoey or Ben. In this sequence, Amanda goes from the lobby to the waiting room. Almost the entire sequence focuses on her as a lead character before switching to a more objective point of view. This includes shots from her point of view and from behind.
Unlike Zoey, Amanda has had actual life experiences, which she has many scars from. Amanda becomes the first person in the escape room to recognize and talk to the shy Zoey. Zoey comforts her and helps through the puzzles. While Zoey focuses more on the mental puzzles, Amanda focuses on the physical tasks. To visually separate them, they dress Amanda in a black leather jacket to start with. She also has a blue shirt that contrasts Zoey’s brown shirt.
When Amanda dies, she falls trying to save the group in the billiards room. Her death is seen as a sacrifice for the group. It affects Zoey particularly hard as she bonded with Amanda in the short time they had together. Ben and Zoey briefly bond over her death, but it causes tension between them and Jason. The character of Amanda serves to build tension and Zoey’s character over the course of the story.
In terms of a mentor, Zoey finds one in her handsome professor (Cornelius Geaney Jr.) that the audience sees in her introduction. In the scene, the professor asks about the Quantum Zeno effect, the quantum theory that a system does not change when somebody watches it. Zoey knows the answer and puts up her hand, but then quickly puts it down. Seeing this, the professor then her aside after the class to tell her to try something that scares her over break.
The character and scene serves a few purposes. First, it sets up Zoey’s need in the story. Second, his lecture on the Quantum Zeno Effect provides a solution for Zoey later into the movie. Knowing the games masters watch them players, Zoey begins smashing the cameras in the room so they cannot watch them anymore. Finally, the professor and classroom also serves a deeper purpose in the original edit, as the original ending took place in the lecture hall.
The Ending for Both Characters
In the theatrical cut’s end, Zoey and Ben end up together in a matter of speaking. Their final scene together takes place at a restaurant on a canal. The film does not explicitly suggest their relationship, but that they have a loving relationship.
After a discussion of Ben’s life, Zoey shows Ben what happened to the rest of the characters. She then tells him where Minos will strike next and that she has plane tickets to go there. Ben reluctantly agrees to go with her (saying he’s “not Jason Bourne”). The film then cuts to a final scare involving an airplane and a shadowy villain who will presumably appear in the sequel. Since Zoey is the sole survivor of a plane crash, the figure says he is glad she “got over her fear of flying.”
Both characters have changed for the better, but the film suggests their change in different ways. With Ben, the film explicitly shows his transformation. Ben has turned his life around and is now client facing for a vegan dog food company. They also get rid of his scraggily facial hair and dress him in casual dress clothes. To suggest Zoey’s transformation, the film dresses her in a yellow shirt that is the same color as a flower sitting on the table. She has now fully bloomed into a more confident person.
The film focuses on two male characters, two female characters, and two comedy relief characters. Each uses humor differently in the film.
Ben and Jason tend to tell bitter jokes. Ben’s jokes tend to focus on how much the situation and people around him suck. Jason’s jokes tend to point out his perceived superiority to the other characters. Ben and Jason denigrate masculinity and sexuality of each other and other male characters. These comments become a defense for the absurdity of the situation.
If involved in humor, the female characters tend to laugh at the guy’s jokes. Zooey uncomfortably laughs at a joke her friend Amanda makes early on, but that encapsulates the extent of her as a humorous character. Only Amanda makes a joke early on about a security guard (Vere Tindale) putting a nametag on her (“usually guys buy me dinner first”). Humor does not really become an important part of their characters as drama does.
That leaves the comedy relief characters, who remain pretty even tempered and fun loving. Both of them stand outside the group in many ways. Their gentler and sweeter humor usually downplays the seriousness of the situation until it becomes too late to get out of danger.
Enthusiastic Danny Khan (Nik Dodani) knows the most about escape rooms, having completed 93 of them. Danny believes that the escape room is not trying to kill them up until his death at the hands of it. He also becomes the first kill of the movie. This event helps the characters realize how serious this truly is.
In the first room, both Ben and Jason denigrate Danny’s sexual prowess. In the scene, Danny notices an injury on Jason’s hand. When Danny asks if he can still play video games, Jason responds “he has sex with adult women to pass the time.” Ben also tells Danny “nobody wants to have sex with you” when he tries to be chivalrous to Zoey. Both these comments suggest a certain the character’s contempt for the nerdy character of Danny. This part of the story never really comes up again after Danny dies.
In terms of wardrobe, Danny’s red shoes stick out the most. This draws the audience’s eye to his feet. It becomes important because Danny dies by falling through the ice. This small foreshadowing builds up audience expectation until Danny actually dies.
The oldest member of the group, Mike Nolan (Tyler Labine) has come to the escape room out of innate curiosity and financial gain. A trucker, Mike wants to save his money for when the trucking industry becomes automated. When his nephew signed him up, he saw it as an opportunity to win 10,000 dollars for that nest egg.
Much of his character’s humor centers around his awkward attempts to connect with the younger hipper members of the group. This includes jokes about not being able to find his keys and stuff like this. At one point, he uses the phrase “glass half full,” which emphasizes the character’s positive outlook.
Mike dies because Jason wants to “test the limits” of the EKG machine as a way of getting out. His tinkering leads to Mike’s death and demonstrates Jason’s disturbing sociopathy. It leads into the next scene where Jason has to fight Ben to survive. Since Jason killed Mike, Ben immediately distrusts him.
During the editing process, Escape Room went through many changes and trims, mostly around the beginning and ending scenes. In terms of story structure, the theatrical cut uses a scene from the middle of the film to open it. The filmmakers have an alternate opening involving a Spanish speaking soccer team investigating the first room. The film originally had a different ending too.
Zoey’s storyline got the most trims and deleted scenes. Both extended scenes on the DVD revolve around her. One is a longer sequence with Zoey in the dorm, while the other focuses on a longer gaslight of Zoey. Towards the end comes a deleted scene where Zoey heroically holds a technician hostage, effectively stopping Ben from being crushed by an escape room. This scene explains the sequence better than in the theatrical cut. The technician does not appear anywhere else in the movie.
Perhaps the biggest change to the Zoey storyline is the ending. She finds a puzzle that leads her back to the classroom from the beginning of the film. There, she finds a check from Minos in a secret compartment and a compass that belonged to her mom. A machine comes out of the podium and challenges her to another puzzle, which she has 90 minutes to solve. This ending feels like more of classical horror ending than the theatrical ending. This end scene also features Zoey in the very similar clothes to the ones she wore at the beginning of the movie, which does not suggest change in character.
With Escape Room, the trailer bends the time and space of the film to create a tense experience that gets the audience into the theater. This goal means suggesting the most enthralling experience possible. In order to make the stakes higher, the trailer also brings up the chance to win a million dollars when the prize in the film is 10, 000 dollars. In the film, the character of Danny also brings up the oddity of an escape room having a cash prize.
Escape Room was released on January 4, 2019. It received 155.7 million on a 9-million-dollar budget. While it did well, the film also received a belated release in Poland after five teenage girls died in a fire at a real escape room.
The already filmed sequel originally received a release date of April 17, 2020, but got moved back to January 1, 2021. Although the sequel had many push backs, Sony Pictures also delayed pretty much all its releases to 2021 due to COVID-19.
In terms of marketing, the concept gets pushed to the front and center. The film primarily features actors known largely for television, such as Taylor Russell (Lost in Space (2018-present)), Jay Ellis (Insecure (2016-present)), Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil (2015-2018)), and Nik Dodani (Atypical (2017-present)). Besides Logan Miller and a few other primary cast members, South African actors play many of the bit parts (the filmmakers shot the film in Capetown). Since the film does not star a big movie star, the concept of escape rooms becomes the star of the trailer. The trailer constantly brings up the motif of boxes as an example of this. Director Robitel says in a featurette that he wanted the audience to feel that they were trapped in a box every time. All of these choices allow the audience to focus on certain items.
Originally titled The Maze, Escape Room primarily targets a youthful demographic. Rated PG-13, most of the advertising on the DVD focuses on other PG-13 horror movies and thrillers (Searching (2018), The Intruder (2019), Slender Man (2018), Miss Bala (2018)). The only R-rated film, the animated heist movie Reuben Brandt, Collector (2018), comes from Sony’s art film division, Sony Pictures Classics. The advertising on the DVD ends with an anti-smoking PSA aimed at teens. All these choices suggest a film aimed at a more youthful audience
The Escape Room trailer starts out by including the strictly visual parts of the characters while including some key lines from the rooms (such as a professor asking Zoey to do one thing that scares her over break). Although it includes snippets from many characters, Zoey’s plotline becomes the most prominent.
In terms of rooms, the film focuses mainly on the first three rooms (oven room, ice room, upside-down billiards room), while taking key dialogue and moments from the other rooms. This gives the audience a taste of what will come next without spoiling the twists.
The trailer also edits the scenes in a way that makes it seem like the audience sees more of the conspiracy than they actually do. This includes a shot of somebody pressing a button that makes Danny fall through the ice. This shot does not actually appear in that scene.
To get the audience excited for the movie, the trailer chooses to focus on shots that emphasize movement. When focusing on static shots, the trailer tends to cut the scene to music and sound effects, making the tension more apparent.
It also jumpcuts longer shots. This includes jumpcutting a longer shot of Ben labelling a set of items and a shot where Danny notes the “immersive” experience of the escape room. Both these shots exist with more information in the story. The labelling shot begins on a TV playing The Karate Kid, which Jason mentioned in the last scene. When Danny calls the experience “immersive” in the film, the scene cuts to a wide before cutting back to the same close up. This helps set up the geography of the locations, but does not serve as much of a purpose in the trailer’s storytelling. Often these cuts in the trailer create a faster pace to sell the film.
Along with these choices, the trailer also digitally manipulates visuals into images that do not appear the actual film. One would not even notice these subtle tricks unless they had seen the actual film.
This includes reversing a shot of Zoey walking into a college building. The film has her walking from right to left, while the trailer has her walking from left to right. Since the English-speaking audience reads from left to right, Zoey walking the other way suggests an unease and danger, where her walking the other way suggests a certain comfort. This shot also comes after the classroom scene in the trailer, so the trailer makes it appear that Zoey leaves the building rather than enters. This small visual change makes a difference.
In another smaller example, Jason holds his hands up to his face because of a bright light. The film features this image on its own. In the trailer, this image appears on a TV as the camera pushes in. The push-in to the TV also exists in the film, but the TV does not play that image. Such a change appears to build tension, but does represent the real edit of the film.
The font presents itself as white letters on a black screen. Generally, the font moves in subtle yet noticeable ways. These font choices tend to sell the stakes and tension of the story.
After the danger first rears its head, the font and titles come across the screen like a dial. The dial only clicks when it says to “find the clues or die.” This makes sense because it emphasizes the stakes of the movie.
When emphasizing the danger in the second half of the trailer, the titles slowly pull back to emphasize the character going deeper and deeper into the puzzle. This contrasts with the title, which slowly pushes in. After the release month of January comes up, a small title appears below it that reads “everybody is dying to play.”
Trailer pioneer Andrew J. Keuhn said that he thought of trailers like two to three minute songs. The film’s trailer treats the film as a tense song. The trailer features two music choices: a song and scored music.
Malvina Reynolds’ original 1962 song “Little Boxes” plays throughout the trailer. When the audience first hears it, it plays without any sound effects. While the song focuses on satirizing the American suburbs of the time, its use in the trailer obscures this by focusing mainly on the box part of the song (“There’s a pink one, and a green one”). This change eliminates all description of the people in the houses. This makes for a repurposing of the song.
Sound effects and stings score the rest of the trailer to increase tension. This includes a ticking clock that plays throughout the first part of the trailer until the first room reveals its dangerous nature. Throughout the first part of the trailer, the ticking builds up until the danger reveals itself. The ticking then gets replaced with musical stings and sound effects from various dangerous rooms.
When “Little Boxes” returns, it comes in after a phone has fallen down in front of a character. The song now takes on ominous tones as sound effects and stings now play beneath it to build tension to the title.
Escape Room begins not on a character, but on a chess board. This choice sets up that the film as a game that the characters will play. Over the course of the story, this game will destroy or kill many of them. The trailer for Escape Room sells a specific fun movie using a set of tricks. The film itself sets up future sequels and ideas.