Well, unsurprisingly, it’s three in the morning and I’ve decided to write a blog post. You see, I was reading On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears by Stephen T. Asma, and his writing is so fluid, his stories so interesting, his points so insightful, that I got inspired to write. In general, I find that as I read more for my comprehensive exams, I tend to get so enthusiastic that I feel I absolutely must release some of my excitement through writing. And, I have the perfect fodder for a blog post this evening. Michael and I went to see a showing of Escape Room tonight, and we both really enjoyed the film. Given that I’ve been reading about monsters and horror non-stop over break, my mind started playing with the movie in light of what I’ve been reading, and I jotted down some thoughts earlier. So, here’s what will probably be a fairly short little post on Escape Room. I’m not one for rating or grading movies, so while I won’t give it a rating, I’ll say it’s an interesting example of a horror archetype we’ve been seeing a lot of recently, and it’s a genuinely engaging film with (my favorite!) mostly likable characters! As such, I highly suggest you check it out. But…I’m no good at writing without spoilers, so those will inevitably follow this paragraph. Beware!!
To begin, (sing the next clause to the melody of the Brady Bunch song) here’s the story of six people in Chicago, who are gifted with invitations to an Escape Room, and who think they’re getting those invitations from close friends, teachers, business partners, etc. Zoey, Amanda, Mike, Ben, Danny, and Jason, an eclectic group of strangers, find themselves together in what appears to be the waiting room of the company that’s manufactured the game. They soon find out, however, that the waiting room is the first of a series of creative, intricately designed but lethal escape rooms. When the heat escalates to an insufferable level and endangers everyone involved, the strangers begin to sense that their situation may be more serious than previously assumed. When the first member of their party dies, they realize that the Escape Room is no joke; they’ll have to work together to unlock each room and pass through the labyrinth of puzzles. Unfortunately, the room are systematically engineered to kill each group member, one by one, for reasons that aren’t initially clear, and the group members soon realize the invitations weren’t from friends or acquaintances. By about half way through the movie, our intrepid game-players seem to be stuck in a hopeless case. Never fear, however. The archetypal “final girl,” Zoey, will step in and save the day.
W. Scott Poole cites Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween as a prime example, and perhaps one of the first examples, if not the first example, of the “final girl,” who, according to Poole, is “a gender-bending figure who slays, or at least holds at bay, the monster” (159). Poole notes that the final girl trope is prevalent in slasher movies, but his text implies that Ripley in Alien is also a “final girl,” and I would argue that the final girl is a convention visible in horror movies that span different subgenres. One reason I enjoyed this film is because I really loved seeing Zoey’s character as the “final girl.” Zoey, who is supposed to be a brilliant college student with a penchant for physics, is a timid, sometimes hesitant girl who looks like a college student, and saves herself and Ben with her brain, not her brawn. While the “shy smart girl” who solves the mystery sounds like a familiar trope, horror movies are much more likely to rely on often sexualized, extroverted, statuesque “college students” (who look much older) who are going on a trip over the break (i.e., Cabin in the Woods), not an escape room. I thought almost all of the characters in this film were likeable and relatable, but I really like the fact that they inverted the final girl trope to make her young, shy, and, like Laurie Strode, unusually smart.
And Zoey has to be brilliant to outwit the monster that she faces. The monsters of the late 2010’s, after all, are much unlike the monsters of the past. Rick Worland pinpoints the bloodlust-filled Dracula and the misunderstood, sympathetic Frankenstein as two definitive monsters of classic horror when he notes that Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein, both produced in the early 1930s, initiated the launch of the classical period in horror, or, the classic horror movie. In genre studies, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the classical period follows the experimental period, or the period where auteurs experiment in order to start shaping the genre. By the classical period, movies have stock elements and tropes, elements that will be manipulated in the refinement period and self-reflexively acknowledged – even mocked – in the baroque period of the genre. I mention these phases because Rick Worland suggests that we’re entering a neo-classical period in the horror genre, and I wonder if we could categorize Escape Room as a neoclassical piece. It isn’t as self-reflexive as a baroque piece, but it’s sort of a high-tech, posthuman version of a monster movie containing a very different monster than what we’re used to.
But the initial reason I mentioned Worland was to contrast the monster in the Escape Room from your classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein. Dracula and Frankenstein are highly “otherized,” after all. Marie Calafell asserts that a hallmark of the monster is his position as a cultural “other,” someone who’s treated as inherently different than “normal” people. Usually, those who are otherized are considered different from the mainstream in a negative way. Dracula lives in a location of cultural exteriority, initially, in his castle on a hill, and even when he moves to London and integrates himself with other characters, he’s still depicted in movies as sort of an eccentric individual, the kind of misunderstood “foreigner” who delights and amuses Americans because of his perceived differences. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is perhaps one of the most otherized horror monsters in history; because of his physical appearance, he is immediately rejected by virtually every human being he approaches, labeled a mistake and a monster and cast out from human society long before he kills, simply because he’s different. The monster in Escape Room, however – a monster much more expansive, even amorphous – isn’t necessarily otherized. Indeed, the monster take on a whole new form in this film. More spoilers to follow!!
In this film, the monster is a hegemonic power, an entire network of near-technocrats working in the service of the 1% to produce entertainment. We find this bit out at the end of the film, of course, but the fact that the group of escape room players are in the hand of some malevolent, partially-hidden corporate leaders is evident from the film’s start. Rather than being exteriorized by an unforgiving culture, the techies who stage these escape room productions for the elite are nearly elites themselves, or so the film would have us believe. Hardly cultural outsiders, those who invent the escape rooms, and those who watch the proceedings play out on video camera, are glorified and privileged in a culture that bows down to their demands, and their money – as the very concept of a lethal escape room to entertain the rich suggests.
In this way, the film has sort of a Hunger Games vibe, but it also bears similarity to a lot of other contemporary horrorfilms – films in which a vast network of corrupt individuals are working together for some ultimately selfish aim, often in the name of science and experimentation. In The Belko Experiment a corporation wants to see whether or not people will kill each other to ensure their own survival, so individuals are locked in a building while the experiment unfolds and left to decide how they will survive brutal demands to slaughter other human beings or face their own punishment. The corporation running the experiment is, of course, very rich and very sneaky – and interested, as in The Escape Room, in answering questions about human behavior. Like Cohen’s monster, who tests the limits of knowledge by embodying human hubris, those who fly to close to the sun – our group of techies and corporate elites in these films – indicate that progress, when broadly construed and unabashedly pursued, can have catastrophic consequences. Cabin in the Woods and the Unfriended movies rely on similar, highly technologically adept networks of individuals who exert a nearly insurmountable level of control over unsuspecting “ordinary” people. In these films, the monster, through the use of oh-so-formidable technology, has so much control “behind the scenes” that the collective monstrosity –a group of people moving toward a callous aim – are practically God-like in their capabilities. This is why Zoey has to be brilliant for this film to work; nobody but a genius – and a genius with capabilities even more extraordinary than the film emphasizes – could outwit such a network of people.
And at the same time, these movies are surprisingly realistic. Stephen T. Asma cites a famous series of psychological studies in which individuals agreed to shock people in another room simply because they were told that said individuals had done something to deserve the shocks. Hannah Arendt notes the banality of evil, the nonchalance with which scores of people will follow a leader whose machinations are insidious. During Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, 17,000 innocent individuals were brutally tortured in one death camp alone, by soldiers who would have asserted that they were just doing their jobs (Asma 8). If human beings are so easily manipulated into brutalizing and killing other human beings, if a good portion of individuals are likely to follow suit just because they believe that the people they’re brutalizing deserve it (ahem, the Trump administration with Mexican immigrants at the border), then it’s not inconceivable that networks of people with basically evil aims could arise like they do in these films. Indeed, our future might present such scenarios. These are, in a sense, almost futuristic, dystopian horror movies, despite the fact that they usually take place in the present. Often, in these movies, though a small group of people are initially threatened, the end of the film insinuates that the threat will spread and others will be affected as the collective monster gains control and expands. Like any good organization that sets goals and revises its action plan, these corporate/scientific monsters always have a monumental ability to spread and wreak havoc, virtually unchecked because of their own subtle know-how.
The films I’ve mentioned, perhaps with the exception of Cabin in the Woods, don’t tend to get much critical acclaim, and you won’t see high scores for them on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes. I for one enjoy this “elite network of evil-doers” archetype. In a sort of post-baroque, neo-classical way, these films take classic horror conventions and resituate them for an audience in the 2010s that’s experienced what Ray Kurzweil would describe as the exponential growth of technology, and the simultaneous fear that technology will become too explosive, and too dangerous. This particular subgenre, if you can call it that, is seldom truly scary but always suspenseful – creative and fun to watch, although a little predictable. Along those lines, I really enjoyed Escape Room, and I’d definitely recommend it to fans of horror or suspense movies.