The surprise is not that Escape Room, a body count thriller released in January, isn't good. The surprise is that it's almost good, and the reasons it ends up going bad aren't probably the ones you'd predict. There are not, at least, the ones I'd have predicted. The desire to retain a teen-friendly level of bloodlessness, ordinarily a surefire sign of a horror movie giving up on life, ends up working to its benefit, obliging director Adam Robitel (who has now directed the first movie of the year twice in a row, between this and 2018's Insidious: The Last Key) to focus on ratcheting up tension rather than just relying on explosions of blood to carry the day. And I am perfectly happy with explosions of blood: I like them very much in one of Escape Room's most obvious forebears, Final Destination, and it's close to being the only thing of any worth in one of its other most obvious forebears, the Saw franchise. But Escape Room is, at least, probably better off for it. (The single most obvious forebear is 1997's marvelous cult film Cube, and it somewhat feels like everything else is just there to distract us from that as much as possible).

The film also has unexpectedly strong characters, which isn't to say that it has strong characters in some overarching objective sense. They're clichés, and the more we learn about them, the more clichéd they seem. But the script by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik wields those clichés reasonably well, giving us a six-person ensemble that has just enough distinction and personality that it evokes honest-to-Godinvestment in their plight. And this despite the film baldly telegraphing who is going to die last in a "show the last scene first" prologue that kicks off the momentum well enough, but also quite badly spoils any intrigue surrounding sad-sack twentysomething alcoholic and stock room worker Ben (Logan Miller). Or, for that matter, most of the intrigue surrounding the other five people who've just been slated to die before he does.

That opening is one of the bad things, though where Escape Room really screws the pooch is in the ending, so I won't go into details. Let us say that the appeal of the scenario lies primarily in its trashiness, not in its narrative mystery, and whipping up a shadow cabal in the background doing all of this for trite reasons sucks a lot of the fun out of the movie: the exact moment when the first character starts to figure out they "why" of all this is also the exact moment that the film becomes a slog, and it never recovers. Certainly, adding a whole five-minute epilogue to do nothing other than set up a sequel is perfectly suited to do nothing else other than make sure the movie doesn't recover.

Up till that point, though, Escape Room is a pretty watchable bit of trash. The notion is high-concept heaven: six strangers are gathered together by figures unknown to solve real-life video game puzzles in a serious of elaborately designed escape rooms; unlike the corporate team-building facilities of escape rooms in the real world, these escape rooms are all elaborate death traps. The victims have to race various forms of clocks and work together, but of course panic and desperation start to set in pretty fast, and that number six starts going down pretty steadily.

The thing lives and dies on really just two things: are the escape rooms fun to look at, and do the puzzles seem just sufficiently complicated that it's fun to watch the characters figure them out? And for the most part, I think Escape Room passes both of these tests. Anyway, the first three rooms, where it spends most of its running time, do: a banal waiting room that turns into a huge oven, a rickety old hunting cabin in freezing cold woods that appear for all the world like the real outside, and a dive bar that has been turned upside-down. It's not rocket science, what Robitel and company do here. Each new location follows a reliable pattern, in which the editing starts out fairly slow and begins speeding up as the clock reaches zero, the volume of both the sound effects (mostly screaming) and the score by John Carey and Brian Tyler (mostly just generic banging, though the end-credits theme is pretty great) is rolled up, and the shots go from alternating between wide shots and expository cutaways to just including the cutaways. Cunning it ain't; the film wants its viewers to feel exhausted, and it will, by God, punch us in the face as often as necessary to make that happen.

But even if it's crude, it works; it worked on me, anyway, even while I was watching the strings being pulled to make me jump. Partially, I think, because the film does strike that Final Destination note, where the fun is all in watching mechanisms play out, and what is the film itself, if not just one more mechanism? (The film knows it: we hear a grinding clock-like noise over the studio logos, very much like the movie is grinding into position). Partially, it's because the escape rooms that are good really do have a great sense of the visual, particularly that upside-down bar, which starts to enable some really striking staging in depth and from weird angles as the room begins the process of trying to murder people.

And what the hell, part of it is because I actually enjoyed getting to know the expendable meat. The film does a really strange thing, structurally, that I think works better than it was even supposed to. After the prologue, there are three parallel introductions. First we meet Zoey (Taylor Russell), a bright but dysfunctionally shy physics student; then we meet Jason (Jay Ellis), a stock trader with a huge corner office and a real shitty attitude; then we meet Ben, and learn about his alcoholism, his Dark Secret, and his financial troubles. Their three scenes are all cross-cut, so that when they receive strange black puzzle boxes, we watch them unlock them in tandem, and then watch them receive the same invitation at the same moment. The film then jumps ahead a couple of days (this is over Thanksgiving - our protagonists are all friendless loners) to find Ben smoking a cigarette in a parking lot, when he's passed by Amanda (Deborah Ann Wolf), who goes inside the building to meet Danny (Nik Dodani), an escape room junkie. The two of them have a conversation that establishes themselves and the rules of the game. The sixth player, middle-aged Mike (Tyler Labine), just kind of shows up, but since Labine gives easily the best performance of the six, he ends up feeling important too.

This odd sort of relaying between our first three characters over to the third and fourth immediately gives Escape Room an oddly egalitarian relationship to its cast. It's never, ever in doubt who will matter the most - we know Ben gets all the way to the end, and Zoey has by far the most detailed, Chekhov's Gun-loading introductory scene (she also gets the poster all to herself) - but even so, the shifting balance of the exposition seems to insist that we consider all of the characters as potential protagonists, not just targets for later execution. Yeah, their personalities are all pretty boilerplate, and their traumatic histories are dragged into the film in a horribly arbitrary, artless way; but somehow, the film manages to force a weird kind of identification with all six of them anyway, and that little boost of humanity before the genre shenanigans kick in is much appreciated. It's a pity that Escape Room shits the bed so hard, but not every cheap thriller would have bothered to make the bed in the first place.