For some, the thought of being trapped in a small room with a limited time to solve puzzles and escape is sheer nightmare fuel. Maybe your boss thinks such activities are the perfect team-building exercises. For others, escape rooms are the perfect way to spend a Friday night. Whatever your position, traps, puzzles, enclosed spaces and countdown timers under all guises have proven perfect writing prompts for horror filmmakers. As we await Adam Robitel’s new horror flick Escape Room, out this Friday, here are ten other game-based thrillers that use the trope to varying degrees of success.
10. Escape Room (2017)
Not to be confused with the horror film of the same name directed by Peter Dukes (also 2017), or indeed Adam Robitel’s 2019 film, this Escape Room is by Will Wernick and stars Evan Williams as Tyler, a young man who is gifted escape room tickets for his birthday by his girlfriend Christen (Elisabeth Hower). The film follows the plight of the couple and four of their friends as they attempt to escape what quickly appears to be a grisly and horrifying trap. The film’s characters are frustratingly under-developed, featuring some promising but poorly acted conflicts. Various moments threaten to be quite interesting, but are discarded in favour of unashamedly trashy jokes and the simple lack of anything interesting happening. With the faint aroma of drama class improvisations, the most fun game offered by Escape Room is to write your own satisfactory ending before the film thoroughly disappoints you.
9. Jigsaw (2017)
You’ll find the original and best of the Saw franchise further up this list, but there’s a special place here for the (hopefully) final instalment – if only because it showcases the qualities it lacks. After seven previous films following the convoluted schemes of technically-not-a-serial-killer Jigsaw, filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig were a little low on options when it came to resurrecting the franchise after the disaster of Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (2010). This film at the very least blows its predecessor out of the water, returning to some of the classic themes of the series and featuring some seriously disgusting traps. It falls down at some typical hurdles: the victims are much slower than the audience to grasp the solutions, the traps don’t make quite enough sense, and the other characters are too underdeveloped to warrant the audience’s compassion. What this film does have is the opportunity to shout loudly at the screen in frustration, lots of Charlie Clouser’s iconic theme, and the nostalgic return of both Billy the Puppet and the pig mask. Even now, against all better judgement, “I want to play a game.”
8. Circle (2015)
In this debut feature from Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, a large group of people wake up in a dark room standing in a circle, with no idea where they are or how they arrived. They quickly discover that trying to move or touch one another results in a laser zapping them to death, and – to add to the fun – someone is randomly selected to die every couple of minutes. The group figures out that they can vote for who dies, and thus begins a 90-minute conversation riffing on the “who would you save first” thought experiment. It’s an annoying question that actually asks, “What prejudices do you have?” With no discernible rationale behind the scenario, the premise lacks any real tension, although the design and concept are pleasantly unusual even for this niche genre. Circle just about avoids being boring, possibly because characters keep dying before they have a chance to become tedious. (Producer Michael Nardelli suggests taking a shot of beer every time someone dies, which is guaranteed to make things fun.) This film has the feel of an early directorial effort that fans of future work will discuss to one-up each other… “Yeah, but have you seen Circle? That was their first one, man, it’s worth a watch.”
7. Cube (1997)
This list could not exist without Vincenzo Natali’s Cube, a film which seems to have overcome its many flaws to attract a sizeable cult following. Perhaps more sci-fi than horror, this film follows a small group of strangers after (you guessed it) they wake up in a strange place with no idea what brought them there. They are stuck in a giant series of cube-shaped rooms, each colour themed and patterned in the slightly sickening manner of Wetherspoons carpets or ’70s wallpaper. Some of the rooms contain deadly traps, and the group must overcome their immediate interpersonal conflicts to puzzle out their escape. The surreal style and plot suggests a far-reaching allegory, but as the puzzle theme disintegrates into the group’s internal violence, the possibility of a meaningful metaphor dissolves. There is some seriously icky ableism and sexism at work; casting the film’s one BAME actor as the most unpleasant and stereotypical character makes the film seem racist and horribly dated. Today it is a tough watch, but its influence on the genre warrants its acknowledgment as an originator of escape films. If you feel like sitting through it, make sure you have some comedy lined up to follow, because you won’t find many laughs in Cube.
6. Would You Rather (2012)
David Guy Levy’s Would You Rather goes to great lengths to establish the reason behind how its protagonist Iris (Brittany Snow) ends up playing a deadly game in a room full of strangers. Iris is facing enormous healthcare bills as she cares for her dying brother Raleigh (Logan Miller), and thus takes up a suspicious offer from a seemingly benign philanthropist (Jeffrey Combs), who wants her to try to win a game in return for Raleigh’s medical care. Despite its insubstantial plot and excessive violence, the film’s production values are surprisingly high, and its script and performances generally above the B-movie standard. This film also surprises because its villain is prominent and present, unlike many of the films here, which depend upon the dramatic revelation of the killer’s identity. This film has more in common with Salo than it does Saw, forcing its viewers to watch as the characters fight for money by playing a sadistic game of ‘Would You Rather’. It feels unpleasant and vaguely unethical to watch, but the moral quandaries it poses are complex enough to hold our attention through at least some of the gory events.
5. The Game (1997)
This film is not strictly a horror, but David Fincher’s claustrophobic depiction of the life of investment banker Nicolas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is as unpleasant to watch as any slasher film out there. The dull, super-rich, and repressed Van Orton is approached by his renegade brother Conrad (Sean Penn), who tries to spice up Nicolas’ life by recommending a game organised by the mysterious ‘Consumer Recreation Services.’ Nicolas is not sold, but with nothing better to do, he initiates “the game” and sparks a strange and confusing chain of events that threaten his entire reality. It is so confusing, in fact, that the plot defers to the atmosphere of the film, creating a Kafkaesque (or perhaps Pynchonian) story about the insidiousness of paranoia. With more cinematic substance than some others on this list, The Game is a well-fleshed-out mystery, with just enough tension to balance the slow pace. Like other Fincher films, it’s about half an hour too long, but still one to save for a dark and rainy night in – if you can handle watching a white man with unresolved trauma running around in the dark for two hours.
Disclaimer: Sean Penn is in this film. Penn has faced allegations of violence and speaks out against #MeToo.
4. Fermat’s Room (2007)
This Spanish thriller by Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña offers us some relief from the frustration of the often poorly-written and unintelligent characters in horror. Here, a group of mathematicians receive mysterious invitations to join other great minds at a convention to solve a series of puzzles and work on a secret maths problem. Intrigued, the group dutifully follow their instructions to arrive without mobile phones and not to reveal their true identities to one another. As the puzzle-solving begins, the group discover that the walls of the dining room will slowly close in upon them, and they must solve the real puzzle of who invited them here and why, before the room becomes their tomb. Featuring satisfyingly realistic problems, a coherent plot, and intriguing twists and turns, Fermat’s Room shows how effective this genre can be without the typical gore and sadism.
3. Seven (1995)
David Fincher makes this list twice with another tangentially game-related film. Seven is a true cultural and cult classic which has seeped into public consciousness to the point that many who have never seen it know the contents of that box. While it does not feature characters stuck in a literal trap, Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) suffer the figurative pains of their seedy environment as if it were a real cage. The pair exist in an almost Gotham-esque noir city, a constant backdrop of violence and apathy in which the ill-matched partners attempt to solve a series of sadistic murders. The killer leaves them a trail of breadcrumbs, forcing them to solve riddles and play along with his plot. Seven has a fairly straight crime-solving structure, but as the detectives close in on the killer, the story makes some unpredictable and highly satisfying turns.
Disclaimer: Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman are in this film. Spacey has been formally charged with indecent assault and battery and multiple similar allegations have been made against him. Freeman has faced allegations of sexual harassment.
2. Saw (2004)
Director James Wan’s 2004 cult classic is easily disregarded as a great piece of cinema in the wake of the now tedious and overblown Saw franchise, often labelled as “torture porn”. This first entry in the series bears little resemblance to its successors, however, featuring masterfully paced tension and a truly chilling ending. The film takes place over seven hours in a nasty-looking bathroom, in which strangers Lawrence (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell) awaken, chained to pipes at opposite ends of the room. Between them lies a dead body. Their path to freedom lies in clues hidden around them, and as the two men converse, the puzzle and its causes unfold. The film introduces the twisted morality of the serial killer dubbed Jigsaw, who forces his victims to play sadistic games in order to value their lives more fully upon escape. Jigsaw’s traps are all designed to be won, and this first Saw film presents some of the better and more nail-biting designs. Prepare to have The Princess Bride forever ruined after watching Cary Elwes do gross stuff with a hacksaw.
1. Game Night (2018)
Once you’ve thoroughly freaked yourself out, or more likely, triggered an existential crisis, you can reset with this delightful comedy-horror starring Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman. Annie and Max are a hyper-competitive couple who host a weekly game night with their friends. When Max’s big-shot brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arrives in town, he threatens to put on the best game night ever, inspiring some tense sibling rivalry. From there, things go beautifully, violently wrong. Many films in the comedy-horror crossover genre focus on parodying horror tropes to make their stories entertaining, at the cost of a real storyline. Here, a set of believable and genuinely adorable characters follow simple but solid motivations, for once creating a horror film with likeable protagonists. Although the story has predictable moments, the fast pace keeps the action exciting, and a superb cast make the ridiculous jokes and convoluted plot charming rather than cringe-inducing. Best watched with a large group of (trusted) friends.