Agritainment was a big deal in small town Ohio. Small town, like the town was a circle, and then corn fields. Circleville, Ohio, in fact, is the name of the town where I was partly raised. Raised not quite on a farm but always the general vicinity of one. I would go over to a friend’s house for a hay ride. You just sit on some hay and it’s pulled by farm equipment. There was a very small corn maze which felt like entering The Shining (1980) hedge maze but with the increased stakes of maybe getting trapped with some rednecks. Best of all, when the autumn spirit reached the farmlands of Circleville, Ohio, there was the town’s prized event: The Pumpkin Show. Absolutely incredible, a fair that takes up the entire town. Pumpkin everything. Even the town water tower was a damn pumpkin. Just a remarkable little place hidden in the corn fields. Remarkable for a week of every year and intolerable the other weeks. But it struck a lasting chord with me, this idea of prideful agritainment as the central facet of town commerce. It’s just about the only thing I remember fondly besides trips outside the town, so I hold onto it tightly.
Combine the goofy splendor of heartland farm activities with the silliest of inner city activities and you get corn maze escape rooms. Escape the Field plays into the tepid present phase of escape films. There aren’t very good ones or a lineage to point to as the way of doing it right — Cube (1997) remains the accidental primary example, not chasing a trend, but perfecting it before it was a thing and maybe Squid Game (2021) is a positive post-escape room example of gamified captivity — and so it’s easy to view new entries with a kind of cynicism. Does it have to be cynical? Here, the budget is so small it wouldn’t warrant reporting, after-all. Doesn’t a microbudget picture escape our criticism of studio directives? Emerson Moore just likes horror movies like we like horror movies, so his movie is not a target of possible spiritual disdain. It is not bankrupt the way the Escape Room (the franchise) movies are. It’s just a dude who loves The Shining hedge maze like you do and also probably loves that other Stephen King movie, Children of the Corn (1984).
What is it? Six ordinary folks are dropped into a maze. They all have amnesia (duh) and have awoken with no direction and more questions than answer. As they meet up and band together, they journey through the ceaseless rows and columns of endless corn maze. There is no end in sight. What the movie does well with this conceit is to play into the claustrophobia of the tightly-bound corn hallways the film entirely takes place in. Where it misses with this single setting is when the camera pans out. We just see the vast endlessness of it all several times over the course of the movie and realize our crew isn’t getting anywhere. It feels like a dead end at this point.
As our crew stumbles through and learns to trust each other, and only a couple of them develop personalities beyond their outfits, we have a little fun with it all. The concept is just an easy entry point. Uncomplicated. Doesn’t have to do very much to meet a successful definition of what a simple low budget maze horror movie could be like. It just has to do that and have this team work out their aggressions with each other and learn something about themselves or die trying. Along the way find a small selection of gear (what is this, a videogame?) with fairly obvious functions in the maze. Sometimes a creepy scarecrow looking mannequin pops up and none of the characters know what it is, which is also funny of them.
Agritainment ought to be the subject of more study. It makes for a fun sub culture of places that don’t get to have a lot of other kinds of fun. That makes it immediately peculiar, fun to explore, and to extrapolate into fuller bodied ideas. Something like Escape the Field doesn’t make any real mark or evolution of the usual horror escape template. It’s not without the most basic of appeals — it essentially tells you all this in the title and doesn’t have any regrets about being just exactly that movie. It’s simple, then. If your town is circle-shaped and surrounded by corn, maybe every day feels like a metaphorical corn maze. That’s just how it goes in the Midwest of America. And maybe, if you feel stuck like that, the way I once felt (frustratingly, arrestingly stuck), such escapes are all you have, and films like Escape the Field offer a short reprieve from the feeling you may never escape that field yourself. Meanwhile, it’s also hard to escape a dozen other options just like this one.