When GSN released a trailer for its promising reality competition Hellevator, my response was basically: “Hell no.” As much potential as horror-themed reality TV still has, I have no interest in torture porn, and the desperate cries of a contestant did not sound like entertainment.
Yet if the first episode, which debuts tonight at 8 p.m., is any indication, the actual series is nothing at all like that. Instead, it’s a haunted house as a reality show, more fun than truly terrifying, and it’s a format that works well.
In the format, there are echoes of the early, underrated MTV reality series Fear, which abandoned a group of contestants in a scary, allegedly haunted location, and then asked them to explore the place and perform challenges, such as lying in a morgue drawer or burying a fellow contestant alive in a coffin. Most of the scares were psychological.
The power of suggestion plays a role on Hellevator, too: In the elevator, contestants are told a scary-ish story accompanied by graphic images, and then have to walk through creepy spaces by themselves, following dim lights to their challenge location. (It very much appears as though the elevator actually stays on the same floor the entire episode, and the contestants are just led to different areas of the location.)
As they exit the elevator alone, that’s when their imaginations—and some producer-driven scares—take over. They have radios and their friends in the elevator can sometimes watch them on a monitor. Eventually, they reach a location and are given a task. The challenges in episode one are very basic and straightforward, but also challenging enough. Of course, they’re made more difficult by the environment and scares.
It’s pretty standard haunted house stuff: sudden noises, screams, jump scares, fake limbs, gross things. The production design, from the elevator itself to the challenges, is not American Horror Story: Reality Show Edition, but is strong enough, reminiscent of a haunted house and probably a lot more terrifying in person than it is on television. (Tangent: Someone tell Ryan Murphy to make next year’s edition American Horror Story: Reality Show.)
The contestant has five minutes to complete their task and return to the elevator. Along the way, the show and its editing—with jump cuts, effective b-roll/stock footage, and a combination of footage from both camera operators and locked-off cameras—keeps viewers right there with the contestants.
I was surprised at how caught up in the moment I could get; it’s scary/exhilarating, in the same fun, we’re-not-in-real-danger way as a haunted house. Hellevator works very well, except for its one major flaw.
Hosts who make you want to take the stairs instead
Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, who go by the “Twisted Twins” and are horror film producer/director/writer/actors, have been cast as the hosts. Beyond giving instructions for each challenge, this does not work. At all.
They sit in a pretend control room and act as if they’re the ones controlling the game, and pretend as if it’s their money that’s going to the contestants. Whether they’re making puns, expressing annoyance, or taunting contestants, what may be intended as a creepy voice comes off as flat and scripted, like when one of them says, “I thought you were afraid of the dark.”
Why are they doing this? We don’t know; there’s no story. They’re not Jigsaw stand-ins, nor are we given any reason why they’re doing this or watching. Their role makes little sense.
Worse, they are are used poorly by the editors. Early in the premiere, a contestant is scared by something, and the editing cuts to them giggling at him. That has the effect of minimizing the tension; we’re constantly pulled out of the action to cut to their unconvincing control room.
Whatever they’re there for, they actively root against the contestants, high-fiving when someone trips, for example, or cheering and high-fiving when someone fails. One says, “I really hate” a contestant. That’s just unnecessary and ugly—and with no story to back it up, makes them come across as a proxy of the producers, since they’re the ones truly controlling the game.
The one thing you don’t want when you’re in a haunted house is to be reminded in the moment that this is all fake. That takes the joy out of the scares, which feel very real no matter how fake or safe they are. When it embraces its inner haunted house and ignores the people behind the curtain, Hellevator is a hell of a lot of fun.