New Horror Releases: Escape - Puzzle of Fear (2020) - Reviewed

Escape: Puzzle of Fear is an escape room mystery/thriller that is too clever for its own good. It tries so hard during its lengthy setup to plant clues and establish character motivations, that it actually gives away the majority of its twists before they even make it into the escape room. The who and the why become so obvious that all of the mystery or thrills are negated. Things can only go one way at that point and that’s exactly the way they go. It eliminates any chance of legitimate excitement or suspense.

I am usually a big proponent of character development, but Puzzle of Fear gives us a lot of information without adding any intrigue. It takes away suspense, leaving us with unlikable people arguing with each other. There are good ideas here, with creativity on display in both the situations and a few of the performances; however, it is presented in a manner that squanders much of the potential interest they could have generated. Unfortunately, in the finished product, the titular puzzle seems like an add-on rather than the focus.

After an unnecessary prologue showing a trial run for the escape room, the movie introduces its one-dimensional characters. There is misogynistic playboy Matty, his meek girlfriend Brittany, his lifelong sidekick Tyler, and Tyler’s greedy/jealous wife Angela.

Puzzle of Fear is not very nuanced when it comes to any of its characters, yet its shortcomings are particularly noticeable in its two major female parts (the men are just shallow, macho, jerks). Angela seems to be a selfish gold-digger who hates her husband and is much more interested in the wealthy Matty. Brittany, meanwhile, is treated like an object by Matty. It is implied that she is fine with it because she is happy to be wanted by a rich man. Now, to be fair, some of these roles aren’t precisely as they appear, though they are close enough that the twists don’t really make them less problematic.

There are a couple of pretty effective moments (my favorite featured an enthusiastic employee playing a policewoman giving them instructions prior to entering the game) and the supporting cast does an enjoyable job of providing color. The screenplay also deserves credit for devising a complex story that stays fairly consistent throughout, not contradicting itself. That said, the means the characters go to in order to get what they want are incredibly contrived, to the point where it is amazing that they have any time to do literally anything else in their lives.

The biggest problem is the puzzle itself, which doesn’t seem well thought-out. That should be where all the story’s cleverness is allowed to shine. Instead, it’s routine, with easy clues intended to serve as hints for surprises that are already quite clear. The escape room should’ve been the centerpiece, but it comes off as a gimmick that overcomplicates the plot. It becomes superfluous due to the structure, making the whole production fall flat.

Generally, the strategy is to start with mystery and build toward revelations, layering red herrings and surprises along the way. Escape: Puzzle of Fear forgets to build. It starts with some revelations, making it very difficult to get invested in the mystery when they basically tell viewers the solution right off the bat.

- Ben Pivoz