The Best 5 … Puzzle Movies (Other Than ‘Saw’)

Yes, this list isn’t including Saw. Why not? Preference perhaps? While Saw is an entertaining enough movie, here are some other puzzle-themed movies that are interesting in their own ways. I won’t say these are all equally good. In fact, I don’t say very much about one of them. However, they are all uzzling in their oqn, unique ways.

  1. Inception (2010)

My extended review (sarcasm): It’s a pretty good movie. Check it out. I haven’t watched it in forever, and only saw it once, but it’s good and it features puzzles and puzzling concepts.

  1. Zodiac (2007)

The brutal, random attack on Michael Mageau (Lee Norris/Jimmi Simpson) and Darlene Ferrin is memorable, as well as other freaky scenes. However, part of what makes this movie enthralling is that it’s really a giant puzzle full of puzzles. Much of this movie is about Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his ongoing, obsessive attempt to solve the case of the Zodiac murders, often involving deciphering the Zodiac’s strange coded letters to the media. Then again, some of the letters might just be from pranks…or could some of them actually involve murderrous copycats?

Graysmith risks relationships and even his job at the Chronicle to continue the investigation. The main focus is the Zodiac’s letters, but make no mistake that this is a psychological drama with soem definite thriller moments, as well as decent oerformances from the actors. During the course of the investigation, you get a whiff of many red herrings that lead investigators (including Graysmith) astray, while learning of suspects who look like they [italics[ might have been the Zodiac.

As the story evolves, it also becomes a sad drama. Melanie (Chloë Sevigny), the woman Graysmith was once romantically involved with, including marriage and children, eventually finds his obsession too much and leaves. Much of the film remains mysterious, including why the Zodiac had wanted to target certain people and not others (he started off targeting young couples but eventually attacked more randomly, including a taxi driver). Philosophically, it’s always startling to think of the many who have died for no apparent reason, other than someone’s excitement at killing (though, obviously, even something like a motorcycle accident death could seem random enough, from a certain perspective).

As the layers of mystery build, Graysmith realizes various Zodiac suspects are likely not actually the killer. Robert has ideas about who might have committed the murders, but he always falls short in definitively proving anything. We also get a sense of the Zodiac killer’s need to embarrass the police with his actions, including both the murders and taunting letters.

  1. Escape Room (2019)

Starring “Lost in Space’s” Taylor Russell, Adam Robitel’s “Escape Room” is a pretty fun, smart, inventive little psychological horror film. A group of people are invited to participate in a competition to solve some escape rooms, but it turns out to be a bigger challenge than expected. The rules of the game are not so simple, and the group is locked in various rooms which threaten their individual and group survival. With the clock ticking, they have limited time to find clues, escape each puzzle, and ultimately make their way to the outside.

The film ends up feeling like a video game with different special levels, and the entire film might as well be set in a mental asylum, because it gets pretty crazy. Also, as the different rooms unfold, we know that, somewhere, everything is being seen through the eyes of an informal warden (and presumably many others) as he/she/it/they eagerly observe the proceedings.

I won’t bother saying that “Escape Room” towers over other films, but it is engaging. As the group frantically searches for a way out, they become increasingly agitated. There’s also that sense of characters being controlled in a sick game, though I wouldn’t compare this film that much with “Saw” (in fact, I scandalously didn’t even include any of that series on this list!). “Escape Room,” asks the viewer to imagine themselves in these character’s places, and it’s more constricting because it’s so puzzling, especially if you know you wouldn’t be as smart as some of these characters. Like a set of handcuffs placed on one’s brain, one begins to be unsure that freedom is possible. I began to wonder if the characters are supposed to be in reality, or if they’re part of some visions or some labyrinthine Hell mythology.

There’s another dynamic, too: You know these people signed up for this. It’s a reminder to be careful what you apply for, lest you be dragged into an unforeseen problem (though, fortunately, that usually won’t be a series of hellish escape rooms or even some building’s basement. Though not everyone likes “Escape Room,” I think it successfully conveys an almost overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, abandonment, solitude, and anxiety, while oddly still being fun. For me, this was immediately established as an actual classic. The pressure of the competition is overwhelming. By the end, you realize not every movie needs a concrete villain like Jason, Freddy, or the rest. This horror is psychological and situational, and I love it.

4. Cube

4.  Cube (1997)    

Who is your favorite “Cube” character? I choose one of the obvious ones: Joan Leaven (Nicole de Boer), whose math skills for addressing the cube room’s riddle are perfectly complimented by Kazan (Andrew Miller), whose “Rain Man-esque” mind can rapidly calculate
the sequences of prime numbers. Ultimately, Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube” functions almost like an R-rated “Twilight Zone” homage, and in the best way possible, as a group is forced to solve a puzzle they’re involved in, seeking to have control over the area.

With this one, I don’t quite understand the critics. Maybe I could agree “Cube” is short of being a masterpiece, but it gets pretty close. Sure, I might wish this little detail had been different, or maybe that one, but if wishes were horses, we might be tied to them too much and ripped apart accordingly.

Of course, the film wouldn’t be the same without its other characters, and especially Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), whose domineering nature ultimately makes him a villain. Throughout the movie, many a viewer will hope that someone walks in and stops him, and maybe defeats (or solves) the puzzle in the process. At the same time, Quentin isn’t just some stupid villain with no traceable motive. However, as impartial witnesses to the whole situation, we choose for ourselves whether we should enter the character’s headspace or not. Baiscally, Quentin’s hyper-survival mode puts everyone in danger, and exaggerates our question of who will live to tell the tale.

Of course, I will allow that “Cube” isn’t a perfectly constructed movie for everyone. For some, it might be better if one enters sucha deadly puzzle voluntarily, perhaps already hearing the message “Prepare to die” beforehand. However, I’m fine with the mysterious dynamic, and with grasping for answers like the characters do themselves. I would not say “Cube” begins to dig a hole too deep for itselkf, and I will always be fairly satisfied by the time the end credits begin to roll. It was written by André Bijelic, Graeme Manson, and Vincenzo Natali, and I challenge anyone to write a puzzle-themed movie that’s much better than this one.

  1. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

It may be a stretch, and maybe a sign of bad writing, but how about a puzzle that practically no one would ever be able to solve? Thiat’s why this is more of a guilty pleasure selection, especially when it doesn’t have that much to do with a puzzle (that is, mystery) the audience could hypothetically solve. Still, it features a little more of a puzzle concept than the first “Hellraiser” film. Though directed by Tony Randel instead of Clive Barker, “Hellbound: Hellraiser II” does a fairly impressive job of capturing the strange mood of the original film, while introducing fresh layers of madness to that already deranged universe.

Much of the freakishness is courtesy of Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who opens a portal to hell when he places a frantic self-mutilator named Mr. Browning (Oliver Smith) on the bloody mattress that Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins) was murdered on. It’s already a bit of a weird story right? Well, Browning’s death brings Julia back to life, and somewhere in the story, the puzzle box called the “Lament Configuration” comes back into play, as does Kirsty (Ashley Laurence). As before, she alternates between scenes in the hospital, basement-like environments, or hellish labyrinths, and it seems like fate’s doing all it can to make her kill her stepmother Julia.

It’s never quite clear exactly how the puzzling world of Hellraiser functions, but it’s clearly built around pieces of fractured psyche’s and darkest desires, and is only a game in the loosest, dirtiest sense. One example might be what we could call Frank’s living room, which operates almost like Frank’s notebook of twisted desires, while simultaneously being a strange torture dungeon. Basically, he is forever tempted by sex that he can never partake in, which isn’t exactly his personality type. There’s a sense that, when it comes down to it, suchy unfulfilled fantasies are like a bloody dagger pointing at the world. Well, obviously, Kirsty has no intention of completing the chain of events of his diary, as they’d surely involve depravity.

Also, there are a few weird images thrown in, though it’s never too clear how much Kirsty comes face-to-face with them before grappling with Julia. Still, one assumes they’d end up haunting Kirsty’s nightmares for years. The hellish universe of this film is difficult to fully explain, which is exactly why I’ll count it as a puzzle movie. It is perhaps insoluble and ever-changing, rooted in esoteric whims and desires.

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