To be frank: the term elevated horror is condescending. What the buzzword is meant to convey is a recent trend of horror films, starting in earnest with 2014’s The Babadook and It Follows, and reaching a new apex with the 2018 smash hits A Quiet Place and Hereditary, that are intrinsically character driven. The focus of these films is less about the monsters and demons inhabiting these worlds, but rather the characters struggling with past traumas. There’s no denying that these aren’t your run of the mill horror films, but they also aren’t as unique as some think pieces would lead you to believe.
But the idiom ultimately was born from apathy. Horror has always been derided by critics, audiences, and concerned parents alike. The film genre, from its formation as children’s entertainment to the blood and boobs of the 1980s, and into the grotesqueries of the post-2000s, has always been considered low-grade shock, not worthy of the merits the industry awards. But in a world where a reboot of a slasher franchise can dominate the box office, the industry has certainly stood up and taken notice.
So where does the genre go next? I wouldn’t say that the horror film will regress, clapping back at the cerebral pop horror and re-embracing the harder, gorier films like Terrifier. But also I think horror will recultivate its more fun, shlocky roots while continuing to incorporate character-centric narratives. And if any director can blend these two worlds together, it’s the director of The Taking of Deborah Logan.
Escape Room is the next film from Adam Robitel, who also directed 2018’s Insidious: The Last Key. As the ominous plot synopsis states:
‘Escape Room’ is a psychological thriller about six strangers who find themselves in circumstances beyond their control and must use their wits to find the clues or die.
And what are the circumstances they are in? Well, if you couldn’t already guess, it’s an escape room. Yes, the immersive challenges where you and a group of friends are pitted against the clock to solve a series of puzzles to get out of the room before the time runs out. Just stay with me here and check out the trailer:
Fun, right? Horror has always been about taking whatever is the entertainment flavor of the week and making it spooky! At the height of the “My Buddy” doll craze in the late 1980s, what did we get? Child’s Play. With video games becoming all the rage in the ‘90s, it makes sense we saw Brainscan and Arcade. Hell, when personal computers became all the rage in the early 80s, what film was waiting for us? Evilspeak.
Between the dementia-as-possession parable of The Taking of Deborah Logan and the child abuse of Insidious: The Last Key, Escape Room has the makings to be the most entertaining of Robitel’s short but effective filmography. From a screenplay by Maria Melnik (American Gods) and Bragi S. Schut (Nicolas Cage’s Season of the Witch) the film has a Cabin In The Woods meets Saw quality, but with less of Cabin’s meta textualism’s and definitely more of a post-torture porn gloss to it.
But it’s the strength of Robitel’s cast that makes me feel that this film could be the bridge connecting horror’s modern character work with its past shlock value. Escape Room is clearly an ensemble piece, and it’s hard for me not to see Jay Ellis as being the anchor of the film. His work in Issa Rae’s Insecure is compelling, engaging, and his Lawrence is an extremely empathetic character, showing sides of masculinity we never see on television.
Deborah Ann Woll, who was consistently one of the best parts of True Blood’s long ratings reign, has continued her ass-kicking through the Daredevil series. Tyler Labine, most noticeable for his comedic genre roles like Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil and Deadbeat has been trying to break from the mold of his own making with his recent dramatic turn in Breaking Star and now Escape Room.
These are actors at a point in their careers where they have a level of autonomy to pursue the roles they want, and by this trio choosing Escape Room, it does nothing but pique my interest. And with the rest of the cast featuring Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, which I’ll forever stan for), Taylor Russell (the Lost In Space reboot), and Nik Dodani (Atypical) I can’t wait to see what this ensemble brings to the table.
Based on his track record, Robitel deserves the benefit of the doubt that this will be more than just a dumb fun thrill ride. But that doesn’t mean Escape Room is aiming for high art. Horror doesn’t have to be contemplatively sad and feature a screaming Oscar nominee to deserve your attention. Movies where the poster feels like a “Paperback from Hell” book cover do.
Because long after the elevated horror moniker has retired to its crypt, more commercial horror will continue. And if the future of horror is films with strong character-driven storytelling mashed together with the more commercial trappings of the genre, then I’d say we’re all winners.