Producers: Michael Philip, Jason Moring, Emerson Moore, Evangelo Kioussis, Simon Baxter and Andrew Davies Gams   Director: Emerson Moore   Screenplay: Emerson Moore, Joshua Dobkin and Sean Wathen   Cast: Jordan Claire Robbins, Theo Rossi, Elena Juatco, Julian Feder, Tarirah Sharif and Shane West   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade: D

Emerson Moore, the writer-director of this supposed horror thriller, has a cameo in the movie, but he has the good sense to pop up for an instant and disappear almost immediately.  The rest of the cast isn’t so lucky.  They have to stay for the duration of his tedious, violent, and ultimately pointless puzzle pic.

It starts like “The Hunt” did a couple of years ago—with a group of characters unacquainted with each other waking up in a remote field, not knowing how they got there or why.  The first shown asleep on an empty patch amid the apparent miles of cornstalk rows is Sam (Jordan Claire Robbins), dressed in nurse’s garb.  She no sooner is up and about than Tyler (Theo Rossi) comes along, and after some trepidation on her part they join together in search of a way out.  They soon stumble on another small band consisting of swaggering ex-soldier Ryan (Shane West), preppy Ethan (Julian Feder) and half-dressed Denise (Elena Juatco).  Soon they’ll be joined by bespectacled Cameron (Tarirah Sharif). 

Each of the bunch has found one item left for them—a pistol with a single bullet, a compass, matches, a flask of water, a lantern, a knife—which will eventually be revealed as either clues directing them to necessities, like a water spigot, or as clues to a path that might lead them out of the mazelike field.  They amble along, encountering, among the fences creating divisions in the field, hulking scarecrow-like figures with big, bulging eyes, as well as a weird-looking tree.

So they stumble along as a fearful collective, groping to understand the uses of the various items, all of which, it turns out, have imprinted on them the symbol of that unusual tree.  Through them they hope to find a means of escape from their predicament.  Of course in the process some either disappear, are accidentally killed, or change into warriors; there is, you see, some grisly thing rustling around in the corn, ready to pounce, as they continue along their way.

“The Hunt” courted controversy not only because of its combination of comedy and violence, but because of its satirical political message.  “Escape the Field” attempts no such ambitious agenda.  It appears to want to be a clever puzzle, in the vein of the first in the “Saw” franchise, but with physical clues rather than verbal ones.  But since the clues are so random and so implausibly linked to graphics and ciphers, it’s almost impossible to follow how they’re supposedly linked and how the characters figure out their purposes.  And given the dark setting (Michael McShane was production designer), murky cinematography (by Stephen Whitehead) and alternately static and hectic editing (by Mitchell Martin), it’s often hard simply to see what’s happening.  Adding to the overall tedium is a score by Will Musser that could be interchangeable with those of other cheap horror flicks today—groaning foghorn tones endlessly punctuating frantic skitters in the upper registers.

In these circumstances one can’t expect anything of the human performers, none of whom are likely to give any prominence to this effort on their résumés.  All are pretty bad, but West, who has to put on muddy war paint and go full berserk, and Sharif, who spends the movie giggling maniacally in fear like some female version of Stepin Fetchit, come off worst.

The ultimate requirement of a puzzle movie like this is that it at least provide some intelligible closure, however far-fetched.  But this one doesn’t, except for the message that “There is no escape” and a vague suggestion that the entire business is part of some idiotic experiment—a nod, presumably, to our conspiracy-addled society.  The viewer who’s stuck it out comes off worse than the characters—and most of them are dead–and a suggestion of a sequel adds insult to injury.

This is Emerson Moore’s first feature.  It does not bode well for his future career, though perhaps a remake of “Children of the Corn” would be a suitable follow-up.  He could reuse the field, perhaps to better effect.