One of the defining features of popular, even mainstream horror cinema in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 was an indulgence in the graphic, gory violence wrought upon seemingly honest, everyday people. From Hostel to James Wan’s Saw (written by Leigh Whannell), post-9/11 horror of this sort, the kind that reveled in broken bones and visible marrow, was lumped together and described as “torture porn” (by David Edelstein). Those who swore an allegiance to these films, and even those who considered themselves detractors of this subgenre, recognized that there was a throughline to the sadism: Flesh was breakable, finite, and the horror movies that permeated the culture until about 2011 thrived on codifying the limits of what could tear skin apart, then transgressing them.
In “torture porn,” nihilism bleeds from every frame, those that came out in the wake of 9/11 serving as a kind of next logical step from the slashers of the 1980s. Not only were presumed innocent people being knocked off one by one without real reason, but in their films directors like Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja and Pascal Laugier embedded hopelessness into the genre’s DNA. There was no final girl to be found, and, more often than not, the moral purity of the films’ victims was questionable, from the tourist bros of Hostel to the keen-to-betray leads of High Tension. Torture porn was unbridled confrontation with our own sins.
It was this kind of viewer rubbernecking that Michael Haneke critiqued, both before and during the torture porn craze, in his film Funny Games, originally released in 1997 and then remade by him in America a decade later. The political violence of horror has manifested in the psychological theft of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and, less subtly, in the Americana iconography of James DeMonaco’s The Purge series, whose most recent entry pilfered from the minimalist, yet no less unsettling, imagery of a MAGA hat.
The direction of horror may continue to travel a line of unseen, phenomenological anxieties, instead of in the well-tread direction of the explicit violence that 9/11 trauma triggered. Another It movie is on its way, and much of the lauded horror of 2018 (Hereditary, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, A Quiet Place and Unfriended: Dark Web) found its anxiousness in a broadly defined idea of grief, trauma and identity, as has been written about in a number of critical pieces.
Yet, PG-13 horror movie Escape Room, directed by Adam Robitel and written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, suggests a reality that’s far more ambiguous in terms of our relationship to violence and trauma. In several ways, Escape Room is Saw’s mirror image: Besides the obvious similarity in conceits—strangers forced to complete tasks with fatal consequences—the two films are complementary in ideology. Escape Room takes six strangers and forces them to play a game in an “escape room,” requiring players locked in a confined space to find clues hidden in the details of the decor that will lead to their freedom. Whannell and Wan also predicate Saw’s premise on escape, on an objective of some sort that doubles as bloodletting.
The Saw films were always more bald-faced about the moral imperative of their characters. Everyone kidnapped by Jigsaw and forced into playing one of his games was making some sort of ideological choice, their presence in one of his games in the first place the product of some kind of moral transgression. It’s, insidiously, a fascistic scenario, in which one man proclaims moral clarity over everyone else, with survival based on follow through of such a supposed superior ideology. Stranger still is that in the Saw films, the traumatic events leading to one of Jigsaw’s players being trapped has little of a bearing on the actions they actually take during “gameplay.” Though such backstories place much importance on how a player got there and what a player will do to get out, the connective tissue between characters’ past and their present turmoils is thin at best.
Not so for Escape Room, a film that places less dependency on the backstory of its characters specifically and instead relies more on implication of what that past was. From room to room, nuggets of information are given about characters’ circumstances—one served in Iraq, one was a teenage alcoholic, one survived a plane crash—and these details are often what decorate the escape rooms that serve as arenas for the players. Escape Room is rather play-like in this way; as opposed to spilling all of its beans about who the characters are through clunky exposition regarding how they all ended up in the same room, the film relies more on the tiny bits of information hidden in the room, subtle characterization and the dynamics that emerge between the players. At times, it even hews closely to the claustrophobia of Lord of the Flies.
Most crucially in this is that the film’s lack of exposition requires its characters to reveal parts of themselves by action. That one character’s struggle to make it to the next room without having a panic attack says more about her than a dumping of dialogue about her background ever could. For Zooey Davis (Taylor Russell), the film’s implied protagonist, her past influences the decisions she makes in certain rooms (e.g., her familiarity with quantum physics in relation to impossibly surviving a plane crash when she was younger allows her to figure out exactly how to move unobserved in the game). Still, Escape Room refuses to expose its characters, to allow them to be consumed, so to speak, by the viewer. It’s as if they know they’re being watched.
If the big, unwieldy concept of “trauma,” a word which has been thrown around indiscriminately in the last couple of years, refers to the distress, the physical and emotional injury caused by an event or action—what, ultimately, does Escape Room say about trauma that something like Saw does not? Both films essentially posit trauma and the past as games, locked rooms, bear traps. But while Saw articulates a grimness in which the only ending is death and submission, Escape Room argues that trauma can be weaponized for survival. The film is tinged perhaps more overtly than Saw with an awareness of the thrill of watching ants clamor for safety, but the spectatorship is ironically unsatisfying. With intention: We don’t really ever get to see, scour and therefore exploit the ghosts that haunt these people’s lives.
Saw suggests two kinds of violence: the more obvious violence of watching the pain of someone fighting for their lives in the immediate moment (with a reverse bear trap fastened to their jaw) and the violence of exploitation, of watching these people fess up their past traumas as a kind of cultural or emotional capital. Escape Room resists this, perhaps even critiques that. While we luxuriate in the film’s production design, the characters are guarded, unwilling to allow their trauma to be exploited. It’s like they’ve been here before.