Escape Room ★★★½

Shot in South Africa as THE MAZE, this low-budget horror picture worked up a sizable profit for Sony by taking advantage of a trendy infatuation with escape rooms, but not treating them like a silly fad. Written by Bragi Schut (SEASON OF THE WITCH) and Maria Melnik (AMERICAN GODS) and directed by Adam Robitel (THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN), ESCAPE ROOM can’t escape its obvious debt to the SAW movies, but with a PG-13 rating, doesn’t pander to them either.

Six disparate strangers receive invitations, via intricate puzzle boxes, to solve an unsolvable Chicago escape room for a $10,000 prize. Oh, it’s solvable alright, as they manage to crawl out just before it explodes into a raging — and quite fatal — inferno. More escape rooms follow, each as deadly as the first, and it slowly dawns on each player that they were chosen for a reason.

Imaginative production design by Edward Thomas (RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER) is ESCAPE ROOM’s secret weapon, as the rooms are cleverly designed for maximum visual and visceral impact. The characters are not the childish bickerers often created for horror pictures, and the actors who play them, in particular Taylor Russell (Judy Robinson on Netflix’s LOST IN SPACE remake) as a shy college genius and Deborah Ann Woll (Karen Page on Netflix’s DAREDEVIL) as a claustrophobic war veteran, are appealing and make smart choices.

Robitel can’t sustain the premise all the way to the end — one solution is found by accident — and once the director shows us what’s behind the curtain, the already far-fetched plot becomes a lot harder to swallow. He also tacks on a completely unnecessary second ending that would have been more effective as a prologue to the inevitable sequel. Third act slide aside, ESCAPE ROOM is an interesting and mostly smart sleeper worth your time.