You know how a lot of my posts that have to do with ranking and discussing horror movies have, like, a lot of thought behind the watch order and reverence for whatever franchise it is?
This time, I offer none of those things! Instead, I simply watched all the movies I could find about escape rooms and ranked them. Obviously, most of them were terrible, but I will take any excuse to watch a godawful horror movie, so here we are.
I was pretty strict about interpretation: it couldn’t just be a “characters are stuck in a deadly place” film; it had to be “characters went to something marketed as an escape room and found themselves in a horror film.”
Films in this sub-genre are incredibly formulaic, so here is the basic anatomy of the cast, in case you want to make one of these bad boys yourself.
Strangers are plopped together (which has never actually happened to me when I’ve done an escape room) tends to work better than groups who know each other, but either is a decent starting point. This group contains…
- The guy who’s way too into it: This person is sometimes a jerk and sometimes charmingly optimistic.
- The one who doesn’t want to be there: The lesson here? STOP FORCING YOUR PARTNERS TO DO STUFF THEY DON’T LIKE! It’s not a healthy dynamic and it might end in one or both of you being chopped up into little pieces.
- The smart final girl: What it says on the tin.
- Sundry redshirts to get slashed up: Also what it says on the tin,
Then, The Gang Realizes This Is For Real (usually because a redshirt dies), and hijinks ensue.
Basically, this subgenre is just an extension of the “bad guy forces victims to play sadistic games” genre. And that stuff goes way back, to H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who operated during the Chicago World’s Fair. The mythology surrounding Holmes is that he had a deadly, funhouse hotel where he trapped people. IRL, he was a serial killer, but not that interesting of one. But people ran with the idea, because there’s nothing people like more than Messed Up Stuff In the News.
Then, of course, we have the SAW franchise. Pretty much any “sadistic game” type film is Jigsaw’s twisted offspring in one way or another. The Collection and other b-movies follow in the same noble track.
And all this leads, unsurprisingly, to escape rooms. With the boom in popularity in the 2010s, making them into horror was a recipe for success.
Escape room films are fun because they keep you tense. As someone who likes puzzles—and actual escape rooms—following along with the characters and trying to solve the puzzles alongside them is most of the fun.
All this makes for a solid niche, so it’s no surprise there are quite a few escape room horror flicks.
Onward to the ranking! Per usual: spoilers for all the films below.
1. Escape Room (2019) dir. Adam Robital
This one’s got the basic premise, with a cool twist: the strangers who are stuck in the game together are all lone survivors. And the ending—it’s actually metal as hell. In this one, the gamemaster’s motivation is to create life-or-death games to entertain the world’s richest. “The Most Dangerous Game” and The Hunger Games put together, it has the twist you’d expect at the end, but is still satisfying.
2. No Escape Room (2018) Dir. Alex Merkin
Does it have more plot holes than a slice of Swiss cheese? Yeah, but it leans into the surreal element and is genuinely a good time, when the characters are constantly. yelling. each. others’. names. I did not count how many times the dad yells “Karen!” but it’s enough to make you think he’s fending off a horde of manager-hunters. The characters also do a fair bit of standing agog while Things Happen, which, though probably realistic, doesn’t make for good cinema.
All that being said, this one is atmospheric and trippy in some fun ways! Time goes all bendy, the ending makes no sense but is wickedly delicious, and there’s a weird lady-in-the-lake scene that either has some deep significance I can’t figure out or is just there to mess with us. I was skeptical of supernatural elements working in this sub-genre, but Merkin makes it happen.
3. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021) dir. Adam Robital
The first one was good so they made another one, and it was decent but not as good. In fairness, that’s the story of sequels everywhere (with the exception of Shrek 2). We’ve got a Catching Fire scenario where winners of previous games get roped back in. There’s interesting backstory for Minos, the corporation that does the escape rooms and some pretty rad puzzles (the one on the subway car was my favorite). This one’s generally a good time, if not very inspired. Tournament sequel-baits, and I’d watch a third!
4. Escape Room (2017) dir. Will Wernick
Has all the ingredients of a good film but isn’t that great. It’s a decent slasher, and “The Teddy Bear Picnic” is a creepy soundtrack, but overall, it’s not too impressive.
5. Escape Room (2017) dir. Peter Dukes
This one just misses the mark. The beginning is…basically Jumanji? Anyway there’s this demon infested box, which is the most cursed object in the world. It is called “the skullbox.” A guy buys it for his escape room.
Well, technically he steals it after the Cryptic Antique Dealer goes to talk to someone on the phone about gremlins. (Yes, the ones from Gremlins.) She has told him that the prominently displayed box in her store is not for sale, and then leaves him alone with it. I guess technically he leaves some money on the counter, but she doesn’t seem to bothered either way. What’s a demon-box here or there?
As expected, integration of the demon box into the escape room goes poorly, and the actor dude ends up possessed and murdering everyone while they solve the clues. Then, of course, he possesses someone else and the credits roll.
Final verdict: Watch Escape Room (2019) and skip the rest—with the possible exception of No Escape Room for a rainy day.