Movies to Watch With Escape Room

The first escape room I did was in the office park section of Amsterdam in 2011. The building was nondescript, live escape rooms were still a novel concept, and I had visions of Taken running through my head. The paranoia was just strong enough to make me send a tweet telling people to call Interpol if I didn’t tweet again an hour later.

It went fine. Those were early days where rooms were linear and filled only with numerical locks. Since then, I’ve stopped the assassination of JFK in Berlin, solved a gruesome series of murders before a serial killer returned home, and walked through a lot of armoires into hidden rooms.

As with any entertainment craze, it was inevitable that it would be twisted into a horror movie, especially since Strangers Fatally Competing For Cash is already a well-trafficked sub-genre. Considering the parallel sub-genre of Deadly Party Games (which went from Ouija to Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board in depressing time), it’s amazing that a horror movie specifically name-checking escape rooms as a phenomenon wasn’t made years ago.

Now it’s here. Escape Room features six strangers who converge on a mysterious location to vie for a million bucks. The catch? Just like your office team-building exercise, they have to escape without getting killed.

Here are 6 movies to play after you escape.

Exam (2009)

What Cube did for our fear of math tests, Exam did for job interview anxiety. This dense, violent psychological thriller pits eight strangers against each other for a dream job with an enormously powerful company. Instructed not to soil their exam papers and not to talk to the exam facilitator or an armed guard by the door, the interviewees buckle down to find all of their exam papers blank.

The post-disaster movie angle gave what might have been an absurd concept grounding, but it almost didn’t need anything more than its fraught commentary on what we were willing to do to get a job. Any job. It came out a year after the financial crisis and, purposeful or not, felt sickeningly immediate.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Five strangers must endure a series of grueling tests in an impossible, mysterious factory at the hands of a madman with a ton of money waiting for the sole survivor. They dance to his whims or risk horrific expulsions that grow more sadistic by the hour.

They can’t trust anyone. Nothing is what it seems. They might not escape without blueberry juice filling their veins.

The Game (1997)

The standard for Escape Room‘s genre is inherently populist. The groups in these movies are always poor people willing to risk their lives for the promise of a prize big enough to change their condition. Which makes sense considering 1/3rd of all GoFundMe pages are people asking strangers to cover their medical expenses.

David Fincher’s follow-up to Se7en took a different tack, torturing a debonair Ebeneezer Scrooge played by Michael Douglas in desperate need of a different kind of personal wealth. Douglas’s Nicholas Van Orton is obscenely wealthy, in denial about his cratering loneliness, and coming up on the same age his father was when he committed suicide. Annoyed but open to a new experience, he accepts his derelict brother’s invitation to what is either a profoundly immersive in-life game or a sophisticated bank scam.

What’s wild is that, even though he’s completely unrelatable as a character at first, it’s the fact that he isn’t going after money that deepens the movie significantly, allowing us to know him beyond what the genre usually offers: poverty as shorthand for personality.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

The prototype for strangers rolling into a creepy murder house just because they got a fancy invite. Embossing an envelope isn’t that hard, people! Stop being impressed.

With William Castle’s whiz bang theatrical googahs, wacky millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) gathers a bunch of randoms to a rented haunted house, promising them $10,000 if they stay the night. Is it all a ruse to disguise a devious plot? Or is the place really filled with violent spirits?

The Man From Earth (2007)

A movie that proves a crazed man can bring a group of people to a single room for a fantastical reason without threatening to murder everyone.

Jerome Bixby, famous for writing key episodes of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, weaves an engaging sci-fi saga in a tight space with only humanity’s biggest questions to provide the tension. Professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith) stands at the center of that tension. Retiring from his job, he reveals to colleagues that have shown up for a scholarly farewell that he’s a 14,000-year-old man. The ensuing dialogue challenges their expertise, their beliefs, and their friendships.

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Luis Buñuel served angry surrealism by trapping a dozen fat cats in a giant mansion. Despite the fancy attire and upper crust taste, their food and water dwindle, medicine gets stolen, and their tiny world devolves into a tuxedo-clad Lord of the Flies with a dead body shoved in a cupboard, a couple of suicides, and some frantic Kabbalah. The aristocrats!

In what’s most likely a sneering jab at the post-Civil War wealthy of Francisco Franco’s Spain, the dark hearts of the pretty people emerge as they discover they’re unable to escape the table they’ve set for themselves.

The Mix

The Escape Room trailer looks better than I’d have expected for a January dumping ground movie. It might thread the needle between entertaining ridiculousness and head-slapping ridiculousness, and a room that turns into an oven is a good start.

Its danger is in familiar set up. It doesn’t seem to stray from the formula all that much, substituting the top suggestions on TripAdvisor for the tired reason a bunch of strangers get together to endure a dangerous game.

The thrill of a real escape room is the liminal feeling of danger despite complete safety. You give yourself over to a stranger, tug at locks, and twist your brain around devious puzzles. That’s tough to replicate on screen, but the subgenre exists because a lot of movies successfully put us into the game their playing. Or, at least, give us the joy of seeing others wrangle the clues to salvation from the cushy confines of a dark theater.

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