When I was 16 years old, I couldn’t sleep for an entire week. The reason? MTV’s Fear, a reality show in which group after group of young idiots went into allegedly haunted places—Eastern State Penitentiary, Fairfield Hills Hospital—and disturbed the spirits who lived there for fun and (very little) profit. Hellevator, a new show on GSN, tries to capture that same spirit—but while it’s somewhat enjoyable, the haunted house game show falls flat in the scare department.
The show, which premiered Wednesday night, is fairly simple in its premise: Three people an episode go into an amusement park-like haunted house and compete in progressively harder challenges while being taunted by the Twisted Twins, a set of Canadian filmmaker sisters who control the action and continuously threaten the contestants with “the labyrinth,” which is each episode’s final challenge. For this, the contestants can win up to $50,000, which is shared amongst the “surviving” players at the end of the episode. It’s a great idea and one that’s been exciting me since ads for the show began running, but there were a few major problems that kept the show from reaching whatever full potential it’s going for. As Flavorwire points out, it’s “nothing more than your run-of-the-mill game show, except with a lot more fake blood.”
The first major issue is the presence of the Twisted Twins—writers and directors Jen and Sylvia Soska—who offer very little to the production except for the use of their names (which, if you aren’t already a horror buff, you wouldn’t recognize anyway). While the idea is that they’re in a control booth running the entire haunted house, it’s very clear that they’re controlling nothing because the scares are all pre-planned. And while this could be forgiven if the twins were in any way interesting to watch, their disaffected “we’re so goth, we’re basically dead” delivery is more annoying than anything else. “Stop saying YOLO,” one of the twins monotones at a team in the premiere episode, her tone mimicking every Hot Topic employee who ever judged you for not knowing what Tripp pants are. Yeah, it doesn’t really scare the contestants, either. (At least not like the creepy computer-augmented voice on Fear did).
The Twisted Twins are not the main issue, however; it’s the way-too-planned nature of the scares that really makes the show suffer. Yes, there were a few moments when I jumped during the premiere (which is why I’ll keep my season pass and hope it gets better), but unlike Fear, which made viewers’ hearts race due to the found footage nature of the show and the knowledge that something horrible might happen (check out this episode where everyone straight-up quit and they had to do a do-over), on Hellevator you know the scares are coming, making them a little “meh” when they actually do arrive. In fact, at one point, I turned to my husband (who was watching the show with me because I was sick and he couldn’t refuse) and commented on how attractive the guy playing the murderer was, which led to an interesting conversation about which fictional serial killer would be the safest to date. (None of them.)
While the show does suffer in several departments, it’s really the contestants that bring it back to life. Team YOLO (the competitors on the first episode) were fun to watch and I found myself rooting for them, even though I knew that none of them were in any real danger. But basing the entire show on contestant reactions is a dangerous gamble. On Fear, the challenges (which were random in terms of scare levels) were the star, making it irrelevant if the contestants were likable because you were more interested in whether someone could stay in a purportedly haunted secret room in radio silence for hours, or whether a contestant really would perform a challenge that could potentially end in a hanging or a spiky death (both of these ended up being safe). On Hellevator, the challenges are fun-ish, but nothing that you wouldn’t expect at a haunted attraction at your local amusement park. “Keep telling yourself it’s just a game,” the show’s ads insist, but it’s nothing you’re ever really going to have to do as you watch the same tricks you’ve seen for years on YouTube—lights go out, scary creature appears when they come back on—be repeated.
On its own merits, Hellevator is a B-level show that deserves at least one viewing. Compared to the horror shows that came before it, however—yes, including Murder in Small Town X and the misguided 13: Fear Is Real—Hellevator isn’t living up to the expectations that a heavily hyped horror game show in 2015-especially one helmed by scaremaster Jason Blum—promises.
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