An Introduction to Escape Room Movies
Escape room movies, as a category, blend elements of survival games and isolation horror films. At its most basic, an escape room movie is about a group of people locked inside a room or building who must solve puzzles or riddles in order to go free. Most escape room movies heighten the tension by adding time limits, traps, and a death penalty for failure, but those additions aren’t technically required.
The escape room subgenre as we know it on film took form in the late 2010s, but the roots of the format reside within video games. In 1988, a text-based adventure game titled Behind Closed Doors was released for the ZX Spectrum. Players take the role of someone who is trapped in an outhouse and must solve a simple puzzle to open the door. The format of escape the room games (also called “room escape”) didn’t catch on in a big way until more than a decade later. Browser-based flash games like Crimson Room and its many imitators released in the early 2000s firmly established escape rooms as a popular indie game genre.
The enduring popularity of escape-the-room video games led to the development of real life escape room attractions. According to Market Watch, the first of its kind was called “Real Escape Game,” and it opened in Japan in 2007. Popularity grew around the world with the first US escape game facility opening in 2012. As popularity soared, escape rooms found their way into movies. Building on established hits like Cube (1997) and Saw (2004), escape room movies gravitated towards the horror and thriller genres by dramatically increasing the stakes of real escape rooms, and often adding mysteries and interpersonal conflicts.
Escape room movies can be made relatively cheaply since all you really need is one set, a few props, and just a few actors. For that reason, a large proportion of movies in the subgenre are low-budget and independently made. That’s never a bad thing though. Collected here are some of the best movies, from no-budget to big-budget, that fall within or very close to the escape room criteria laid out above.
The Best Escape Room Movies
Cube (1997) is a fantastic independent sci-fi film that works as something of an early precursor to the more established escape room movies in later decades. In Cube, five strangers wake up in a cubical room with no memory of how they got there. As they move through the doors in the room, they quickly discover that they are trapped within a kind of maze where each room is nearly identical. The only differences between the rooms are their colors, and the fact that some of the rooms contain a deadly trap. Cube may not feel like a traditional escape room right at the start since the traps aren’t presented like puzzles, but the puzzles come into play later as the group realizes that deciphering a series of numbers within each room may hold the key to their escape (if escape is even possible).
Cube 2: Hypercube (2002) attempts to go bigger and more over-the-top with the premise established in the first film in the series. A new group of strangers find themselves trapped in a series of cubical rooms with little hope of escape. This time the rooms are brighter and more sleek in design, and the traps are heavy on special effects to create reality-bending scenarios. The result is a sequel that isn’t as entertaining as the 1997 Cube, but is still fun in a cheesy way. There is also less of an emphasis on puzzle solving in Hypercube, with more time spent on the captives just trying to make sense of what they are experiencing.
The Saw franchise became associated with escape room movies once the distinction became more well known, but only a few of the Saw movies fit well into the escape room subgenre. The first film, Saw (2004), is one of the few in the series that actually does have the right criteria, if only just barely. Two men, played by Cary Elwes and cowriter Leigh Whannell, find themselves locked in a room. They are each chained to a pipe, and there is a body face down in a pool of blood between them. Over the course of the film, the two men uncover clues about why they are being held captive and how they are connected to each other. There is a decent amount of puzzle solving in Saw as the two men discover items and clues hidden within their room, though their hopes of escape hinge more on games of deception and, ultimately, sacrifice.
Saw II (2005) is one of the films within the Saw series that properly fits into the escape room subgenre. The movie follows two plot threads which eventually come together. Half of the movie features Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) as he is detained and interrogated by a police detective (Donnie Wahlberg). The other half of the movie focuses on a group of people locked inside a house filled with traps and riddles. While many traps in the Saw series are fairly upfront and clear about what needs to be done to escape (usually involving pain and sacrifice), the traps in Saw II are part of a larger puzzle that must be solved. Saw II doesn’t live up to the quality of the first film, but the final few minutes of Saw II provide enough great twists to make the whole film worthwhile.
Fermat’s Room (2007) is a Spanish film that features an increasingly claustrophobic escape room. Four brilliant mathematicians are invited to participate in a gathering to attempt to solve a great mathematic enigma. After arriving at a secluded location, the group discovers that they have been locked inside a room. They are presented with a series of problems to solve, and if they can’t solve them within a set time limit, then the walls of the room will gradually close in on them until they are crushed. While still solving math problems, the captives must also solve the riddle of what connects them to each other and how they can escape. Fermat’s Room provides a decent mystery and is an underrated gem in the escape room subgenre.
Breathing Room (2008) is a low-budget thriller that takes a little inspiration from many movies that came before it. Like Cube (1997), Breathing Room is about a group of strangers who wake up in a room and try to piece together clues to find a way out. It’s also a bit like Saw (2004), with a possible motive for the group’s capture relating to past misdeeds. And it’s also a little like Battle Royale (2000) since everyone is forced to wear a deadly collar, and only the final surviving person will be allowed to escape. Breathing Room may not add much to the escape room, survival game, or battle royale subgenres, but it’s still an entertaining flick for fans of those types of movies.
Exam (2009) is another movie that feels like a direct precursor to what would evolve into the escape room subgenre. In the movie, eight people are placed in a room for an employment assessment exam that they are told has only one question. They are each given a sheet of paper with a number on it, and they are given three rules: no talking to the armed guard at the door, do not mess up your paper, and anyone who leaves the room is disqualified. They are then left alone with an 80 minute time limit. Tensions rise to dangerous heights as the candidates try to figure out what the question is they are supposed to answer. Exam may not fit exactly into the escape room format since they can leave any time they want, but they puzzle solving, reasoning, and group dynamics make it feel like an escape room movie nonetheless. It’s also quite an interesting movie with some nice twists.
By 2017, escape room attractions were becoming a huge business in the United States, and independent filmmakers wanted to get a piece of the action. Two movies were released with the rather unoriginal title Escape Room in 2017. The first of the two features Skeet Ulrich (of Scream fame) as an escape room host who uses a creepy box with a demonic past as a new prop to scare his guests. An actor wearing a burlap mask has also been placed in the room to add a haunted-house-style vibe, but once the escape room begins, the actor apparently becomes possessed by the box and tries to actually murder people. With most of the movie taking place in a single room, Escape Room is good for fans of isolation horror who want some some light genre thrills.
The second movie from 2017 titled Escape Room take a more grounded approach than the Skeet Ulrich film of the same name and year. The movie is about a group of friends who go to a high-priced, exclusive escape room to celebrate the birthday of Tyler (Evan Williams). Many of the friends have secrets they are keeping from each other, and this helps add some tension when they inevitably discover that the games in the escape room are deadly. This film has been rightfully compared to the Saw series in some aspects, but the continued use of puzzles sets it firmly within the escape room subgenre.
Jigsaw (2017) was an attempt to revitalize the Saw franchise which had taken its increasingly convoluted plot threads about as far as they could go. Jigsaw, the eighth movies in the franchise, doesn’t add much to the Saw formula, but it’s still a decent movie for fans of the series. As with almost every movie in the franchise, Jigsaw splits focus between people figuring out traps and the investigation trying to stop the games. A group of people must work together to try to solve a series of deadly puzzles/riddle in consecutive rooms. Some of the traps come down to luck rather than deduction, but the movie overall has a strong escape room vibe. There are, of course, twists at the end, some of which are interesting, but some of which feel unfair. But then, that’s how many of the Saw movies seem to end up.
In Escape from Marwin (2018), five death-row inmates are given a chance to earn their freedom. They are locked in a mansion (called Marwin Mansion) and are given a 40-hour time limit. Anyone who finds a way out gets to live, but anyone still inside the mansion after the time limit expires will be killed. Promotional materials for Escape from Marwin explicitly mention “the latest fad – escape rooms,” so it’s pretty clear what you can expect from this low-budget endeavor: lots of puzzle solving and lots of bad people making questionable decisions.
No Escape Room (2018) is a pretty fun escape room movie with a supernatural twist. Michael takes his teenage daughter to an escape room attraction in an attempted bonding experience. What should be a playful afternoon of solving puzzles turns into a terrifying ordeal as Michael and Karen, along with the other people there for the escape room, encounter a mysterious presence out to kill them. Everyone must try to work together to solve the mystery of the escape room before they all fall victim to whatever is stalking them. Some viewers may get lost as the reality of No Escape Room takes some weird turns, but the finale is well done and certainly unique to the genre.
Escape Room (2019) was released as the trend of real life escape room attractions was reaching its peak. A cynical viewer might think the movie is a shallow cash-in on the trend, but even if that’s how it started, Escape Room is still an entertaining movie with nice drama and engaging puzzle rooms.
The plot is essentially the same as any number of escape room movies: six people are gathered for what they think is harmless fun for a chance to win money, but they are forced to navigate a series of escape rooms where failure means death. One of the major highlights of the film is the cast, with each cast member giving a very nice performance in some ridiculous scenarios. The other major highlights are the rooms. The rooms are all distinct and memorable, and the puzzles are presented in a way that allows viewers to play along with the characters as they try to come up with a solution.
Play or Die (2019) follows Lucas, a troubled man who has a knack for solving puzzles and logic problems. As the movie begins, Lucas reluctantly helps Chloe solve a new set of puzzles that takes the two of them to the final part of a game called Paranoia. Lucas and Chloe are joined by four other finalists in a remote mansion where they are locked inside, separated, and instructed to solve a series of escape room puzzles to be released and win a huge cash prize. The catch is, the puzzles are deadly. Also, there is a killer stalking the hallways of the mansion. As Play or Die goes on, the puzzles give way to something more akin to a Saw movie, and the finale raises more questions than it answers. Even so, Play or Die is a nice entry in the escape room subgenre with some interesting traps (like a bed of knives that slowly lowers as a timer counts down).
Follow Me (2020), also known as No Escape, is a good movie with a well-done ending. Cole (Keegan Allen) is a social media influencer who travels the world to find new and exciting experiences. Cole’s latest trip takes him to a highly exclusive escape room experience in Moscow. The experience is, of course, deadly, and Cole is forced to solve puzzles to rescue his friends from elaborate traps. Follow Me is very much a blending of Saw and escape rooms, so fans of either will find a lot to like here.
As a direct sequel to Escape Room (2019), Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021) does an admirable job of adding interesting layers to the returning characters in the overall story. The film begins with the survivors of the first movie traveling to New York to investigate the organization behind the games. The survivors are tricked into entering a new set of escape rooms along with survivors from other games. The new rooms and puzzles may not have the charm and freshness that the rooms from the first movie did, but it should still please most fans of the original.
More Movies for Fans of Escape Rooms
Most of the films below don’t qualify as true escape room movies, but they have enough similarities to make them worth seeking out for fans of the escape room subgenre.
- Panic Room (2002) – Jodie Foster and Kristin Stewart hide in a panic room as burglars (including Forest Whitaker and Jared Leto) try to get them out. This is kind of the opposite of a deadly escape room, with the danger lurking outside.
- The Method (2005) – Known in Spain by its original title El Metodo, this film takes place mostly in a conference room where applicants for a lucrative job are set against each other by a psychological test to figure out which among them is lying about who they are.
- House of 9 (2005) – Nine people try to figure out how to escape a locked mansion. There aren’t any puzzles really, but watching the group try to reason their way to a solution before a bunch of killing starts makes it feel a bit like an escape room movie.
- Saw V (2008) – The fifth Saw is one where multiple people are placed together to try to figure a way out of multiple traps, each of which feels like a riddle in which no one has to die if they can work out the proper solution.
- The Killing Room (2009) – This psychological thriller is about a group of four people who are locked in a room and subjected to a series of mental and physical tests.
- Nine Dead (2009) – Nine people are kidnapped and confined in a room. One of them will be killed every ten minutes until they figure out how they are all connected.
- Panic Button (2011) – Four people are trapped on a private jet and must answer questions and perform secret tasks, otherwise their friends and families will be killed.
- Elevator (2011) – Nine people are trapped in an elevator, and one of them has a bomb. The group tries to find a way out before the bomb goes off.
- Infinity Chamber (2016) – This sci-fi thriller follows a man held prisoner in a futuristic cell controlled by AI with the ability to manipulate memories.
- Domain (2016) – From single-occupancy underground bunkers, a group of people who survived a global virus outbreak are connected via video conferencing. They begin to suspect their safety is in jeopardy, and they each begin to look for a way to escape.
- Don’t Breathe (2016) – A trio of burglars pick the wrong house and end up locked inside with a blind man who is more than capable of killing them all.
- Escape Room: Quest of Fear (2018) – In Moscow, a group of friends go to an address given to them by a ouija board and find themselves in a cross between a deadly haunted house attraction and an escape room.
- White Chamber (2019) – A woman trapped in a stark white room is tortured for information in this movie that draws a bit from Cube (1997) in terms of visuals and tone.
- Scare Attraction (2019) – In a cross between a haunted house attraction and an escape room, a group of people are trapped in a room where they must relay personal information by confessing their past sins if they want to survive.
- Escape: Puzzle of Fear (2020) – Though an escape room plays a role towards the middle of the film, the movie focuses less on actual puzzles and more on the not-so-puzzling mystery of the characters and their backgrounds.