The Lazy Writer’s Guide to Vaguely-Defined Evil International Organizations
'Escape Room' and 'Squid Game' both feature shadowy organizations sporting apparently infinite resources and power, but one does it right and the other makes a classic lazy writer mistake.
Friendos, I have a problem: I cannot resist a cheap horror movie1. The cheaper the better2, in fact, and the more ridiculous the premise the more intensely I will watch it. It’s incredibly easy to get me to watch a bad horror movie; recently I was scrolling through on-demand movies and noticed that a sequel to the bad horror classic Escape Room had landed. Escape Room 2: Tournament of Champions3 is 88 minutes of pure cheese, but I was hooked immediately. In part this is because I watched Escape Room, which was 100 minutes of pure cheese, and it was pretty much the Platonic Ideal of terrible horror movies, including flat characters, poor acting, and insane set pieces that defy all laws of physics and logic4. In other words, they’re perfect films.
The premise of the universe is simple: An evil underground group known as Minos invites people to innocuous-seeming escape room installations for a competition. Each person has a specific skill or two that will come in handy—if they survive, because unlike most escape rooms that deliver mild entertainment and no small amount of boredom, these escape rooms deliver death. A lot death5.
Part of what attracts me to bad horror is how rich these stories usually are in weird moments of verisimilitude and effective bits of world-building. They’re typically terrible films, but always seem to have odd moments of genius. Two things struck me about Escape Room 2: One, they capture the lazy dream logic of actual escape rooms pretty perfectly, and two, the film trades in one of my favorite emerging tropes: The concept of a global oligarchy paying enormous amounts of money to watch peons suffer and die.
Desolation in Immaculate Public Places
If you’ve ever experienced a real-life, non-lethal escape room, you know they are terrible puzzles6. While there may be terrific escape rooms out there that are thoughtfully designed and exciting to play through, most are just random puzzles best solved via brute force: Just keep searching until you find some random numbers, then look for something to punch those numbers into. The themes of these rooms are typically insultingly thin, reduced to random props. That’s why escape rooms are typically endured as group activities, usually as part of corporate team-building bullshit: No one wants to do one alone, because they generally suck7.
The Escape Room fictional universe gets this, which is why they’re fun movies despite being horrifyingly dumb and not at all horrifying (which is bad for a horror movie, I hope that’s clear). Because in real life people do tend to find themselves in escape rooms more or less against their will, and they do tend to exhibit some desperate energy to escape them8. The films also capture the random-ass nature of escape room decor—the rooms in Escape Room are elaborate and exhibit impossible architecture and/or physics, but the puzzles within them typically have little to do with their settings and typically make sense only in a dream logic kind of way.
And people are desperate to leave and make the fun stop, which is also extremely true to real life.
This is all to say that even in mediocre horror movies, it’s essential that the writing draw from real life to some extent. The further you drift from a real-life experience that people are familiar with, the less tolerant our audience will be of more purposeful deviations—and in any speculative story you need that tolerance. So the fact that the Escape Room films seem to at least understand the bizarre non-fun of actual escape rooms and their weird “Theme Restaurant from Hell” aesthetic is promising.
Less promising is how the films treat the Ominous, All-Powerful Global Organization of Evil Billionaires (OAPGOEB)9 that run the murderous escape rooms, however.
OAPGOEB (I should have thought through the consequences of this acronym)
The world has always been dutifully suspicious of billionaires (and, in the less-inflated past, millionaires). For every mega-wealthy person depicted as working to make the world a better place like Connor MacLeod in Highlander 2: The Quickening10 there are a dozen—or more!—weirdos in the Ernst Stavro Blofeld mold (Telly Salavas version). So we’re all very comfortable with the general idea that super-rich people are weird and probably malevolent.
In recent years, though, the trope has mutated into something new—we now imagine that not only are billionaires actively evil more often than not, we also imagine they are so corrupted that they engage in casual torture and murder of proles in order to entertain themselves. In films and TV series like The Hunt, Squid Game, Fresh, and Escape Room, the OAPGOEB is always in the business of catering to the twisted desires of these billionaires, and these billionaires are always depicted as being revoltingly gross and without any humanity or saving graces11.
It’s ultimately a lazy writing trick, of course—by keeping the secret oligarchy obscured and obfuscated, you never have to explain how it works, or what the membership requirements are, or any of the backstories12. You’re free to show glimpses of horrifyingly decadent, corrupt people and let your audience use their imagination, which is basically when a writer says “Fuck it,” takes an early lunch, and lets you do all the work. Lazy, but effective!
But there are levels of laziness. One reason Squid Game worked so well was the way it depicted the inner workings of its secret evil organization. Seeing all the guards and functionaries working furiously—and running their own side hustles—gave realistic weight to the outsize and frankly incredible game setups, the huge spaces, the mind-boggling logistics. We could see at least some of the inner workings, which assured us there were inner workings, not to mention minions to build and maintain and repair those creaking torture machines.
In contrast, a film like Escape Room doesn’t show those inner workings. Incredibly complex and frequently enormous rooms appear to operate via magic, as we’re certainly not shown an army of harried staff racing about to ensure that the murder gets done properly13. The escape rooms appear to exist in a void, without context. Where Squid Game’s glimpse behind the curtain gave its surreal torture schemes weight and gravity, Escape Room’s float in an unreal ether and are, as a result, not particularly interesting. In other words, in Squid Game you could imagine the poor technicians who had to ensure that creepy statue in the Red Light, Green Light game worked flawlessly, sweating as they crawled up its ass to oil the mechanism14. In Escape Room, nothing feels real at all.
Which doesn’t matter to me, because when it comes to horror movies, the worse, the better. Which is also how I approach my haircuts.
Next week: The ensmallening of Batman.
Also, in no particular order: Scotch, Ding Dongs, stray cats, pop punk bands, old detective novels, tone-flipped cover songs, naps at inappropriate moments, new George Saunders stories,
This is my guiding philosophy to most things in life, and frankly it has never steered me wrong. Except for the gas-station sushi. That was wrong on many levels.
I am 100% that person who subconsciously appends Electric Boogaloo to any film title with the number “2” in it. I’ll show myself out.
Life goals: To be rich enough to build a secret torture complex under the streets of a major city without anyone being aware. Wait: Do you not?
One could argue that a film depicting an actual escape room experience in real time would be the most horrifying hour in film history.
Ironically, because they are bad puzzles they are often harder to solve. A well-designed puzzle can be challenging. A poorly-designed puzzle can be well-nigh impossible to solve, because it isn’t so much a puzzle as a collection of random shit.
As with everything, your enjoyment of escape rooms probably varies according to how much alcohol and other substances are involved.
If you’ve never been, it’s the same energy you feel when trapped in a 3-hour meeting that could absolutely have been a series of brief emails.
I’m currently a member of an Ominous, All-Powerful Global Organization of Evil Thousandaires, but we can only afford to Zoom prank people.
This film is the Rosetta Stone of bad films, and would be required viewing in a truly civilized world.
Which leads to the fascinating question: Since most people would like to be billionaires, do they imagine they would be the “good” sort, or do they just accept that the moment their net worth ticks over from $999,999,999 to $1 billion they’ll suddenly develop a taste for human flesh and a desire to see how far you can push some regular people before they begin murdering each other to survive? In my case, the answer is: Definitely yes. Which I can only assume is why the universe keeps me poor. DAMN YOU, UNIVERSE, LET ME BUILD MY TORTURE ROOMS.
This is also how QAnon works.
This is one of many ways that The Cabin in the Woods quietly changed horror movies forever: We now expect to see the sausage being made.
Is “Crawling Up Its Ass to Oil the Mechanism” the new title of my memoir? Yes.