Critics weren’t all that thrilled with Escape Room when it debuted last January. Though it did manage to fare better than most left-for-dead bargain-bin January horror productions, it wasn’t exactly a thrilling blockbuster on the level of something like Jordan Peele’s Us or M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass.
Largely written off as a less-than-subtle rendition of the Saw franchise, Escape Room actually managed to put forward some of its own ideas and advance a narrative that, while not exactly inventive, was worth buying into at the very least. It may not be perfect, but here are ten things that Escape Room managed to do better than Saw.
Escape Room was far tamer than anything bearing the Saw monicker, but it also lends a bit of believability to the plot. The elaborate, spectacular puzzles in the former film felt like they were meant to be solved, while most of Jigsaw’s traps came across as little more than deliberate torture devices.
While most of his games could theoretically be won if the victim played their cards right, most contestants seemed to be doomed from the very start. In Escape Room, the whole thing feels at least someone possible to survive—the rooms came across as more than cages designed to tear their inhabitants apart.
Just about every Saw movie immediately starts off with a scene depicting some helpless victim being elaborately eviscerated by one of Jigsaw’s creations. While it’s an excellent way to get audience member’s pulses pounding from the get-go, it also serves to dull down the shock factor a bit once the core cast is finally introduced.
Barring the very first scene, Escape Room is a bit more subtle when it comes to the introduction of the game at hand, and the characters don’t even realize that they’re in the titular escape room until one of them goes to leave and pulls the handle from the door, revealing that they’ve all been locked in. It’s much less gratuitous, yet somehow much more surprising than the typical Saw-style introduction.
The first entry into the now long-running Saw series came with a pretty major twist, but it wasn’t something that the series could necessarily repeat. While subsequent franchise installments tried to replicate that same eye-popping narrative turn, there’s no denying that there’s very little mystery in a majority of these films.
On the other hand, Escape Room makes that sense of morbid curiosity one of its strengths. The audience never quite knows what’s going on or what the characters will be faced with next, and the movie is all the more compelling for that reason. By contrast, though we don’t ever really know what’s going to happen next in a Saw film, we do know that it will probably involve death and dismemberment.
The traps in Escape Room feel a lot more fleshed out than they sometimes do in Saw. Sure, like in that franchise, the puzzles all somehow involve the tragic backstory of one of the movie’s characters, but they feel like they were constructed by someone who wasn’t putting gore first.
Sure, there may not be all that much nuance in a copy of Fahrenheit 451 being the clue to a code which lets everyone escape from a heat-based trap or the body warmth of players being required to access a key frozen in a block of ice, but it’s better than the hundreds of variations of ‘do this horrible thing or you die’ as seen in the Saw movies.
This may not seem all that relevant to a film’s quality, but Escape Room clearly had a larger budget to work with than a majority of the films in the Saw series—an estimated 9 million compared to the first movie's 1.2 million. Budget certainly isn’t synonymous with quality, but Escape Room clearly had a higher budget than many of its horror contemporaries.
The held-together-by-cardboard-and-duct-tape vibe of the first few Saw movies sort of worked to their advantage, but it got old once the sequels rolled around. In contrast, it was refreshing to see the remarkably elaborate special effects and sets present in Escape Room. Sure, these things aren’t necessary to make a good cinematic experience, but they are a breath of fresh air in a notoriously underfunded genre.
By now, every horror fan should know the basic plot of Saw; an old man, stricken with a fatal disease, takes extreme measures in an attempt to redeem the lives of those he believes to have wronged society at some point. While it’s a fair enough setup, it starts to wear thin the further along the series goes.
By the time the sixth film rolls around, Jigsaw’s inclusion and motivations almost feel ridiculous. Escape Room, on the other hand, feels relatively plausible, if not a bit predictable. A twisted corporation puts on a series of deadly trials for wealthy socialites to gawk at and bet on. That may still come across as a little silly, but it arguably holds more water than the plot of the franchise on which the movie was based.
While gore is a time-honored horror staple, and tons and tons of franchises have sold themselves on their utter gratuity, it’s hard to deny that by the end of the Saw series, things get a little bit stale. It’s a bit of a movie critic cliche at this point, but there is some truth to the ‘seen one severed head, seen ‘em all’ mentality.
Rather than focus on violence and bloodsport, Escape Room emphasizes its elaborate traps, and there’s a sense of morbid wonder in it. Watching the film’s characters exit an office building to emerge in a wintery cabin or seeing the laws of physics ignored in a gravity-defining billiards room is, in some ways, more compelling than Saw’s repetitive gore crutch.
Most PG-13 horror movies are little more than predictable, watered-down versions of more extreme fan-favorite films. That could easily have been the case with Escape Room, but the producers managed to defy the odds and create something worthwhile in spite of the rating restriction.
While Saw tends to unseat itself by focusing entirely on brutal spectacle, this movie sidesteps that issue and tells a more thrilling, interesting tale. There’s a sense of non-stop intrigue present here that most of the Saw films fail to convey in their quest to shock everyone into submission. That’s not to say that the aforementioned movie doesn’t have its merits, but Escape Room manages to be a more enthralling experience without introducing too many elements of hardcore horror.
It’s the oldest horror trope in the book and something about which many fans constantly complain, but the protagonists in many of these movies often showcase the intelligence of the average kitchen sink. They make bafflingly stupid decisions, and it’s usually because, had they made any sensible choices, there wouldn’t be a movie at all.
It isn’t all that easy to gauge—some of the characters in Escape Room were just begging to meet their fate—but, on the whole, they do seem at least slightly more intelligent than Jigsaw’s contestants. People in those movies tend to be so incredibly dense that the audience starts to root against them, and it never quite comes to that in this film.
Escape Room, for all of its faults and misgivings, should get a little credit for dressing up the traditional Saw formula and presenting it to a newer audience. The escape room craze is still pretty relevant right now, and, while this film may have had all of the trappings of a cash-in, it did something Saw couldn’t; take the same ideas and make them feel new.
Audiences had the Saw plot devices worked out by the second film, and yet they kept going for five more entries without shaking anything up at all. Escape Room finally takes that same structure and changes it enough to make it a least somewhat interesting again. Is it a perfect film? No, absolutely not—but it innovates where its predecessor couldn’t.