Premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET on the CW
That *beep*, *beep*, *beep* sound you’re hearing is the dumptruck full of money backing into Sam Raimi’s driveway. Raimi is the most prominent of a host of producers on the CW’s new reality show 13: Fear Is Real, and I’m guessing the amount of time he’s spent laboring over it is roughly equal to the time I’m going to spend writing this review. Anyone pining for the Evil Dead 2 of reality television—if such a thing is even conceivable—will have their hopes dashed quickly and repeatedly throughout this labored hour of cheesy atmospherics and sub-Survivor scheming.
Borrowing shamelessly from The Blair Witch Project and the Saw movies, the show dumps 13 “guests” into a dilapidated cabin in the middle of the Louisiana bayou. (The accommodations are supposed to be the furthest thing from the lavishly appointed digs on the network’s America’s Next Top Model, though it’s a toss-up on which décor is scarier: The shack with the dried blood and cobwebs on the walls or the house plastered with blown-up Tyra Banks cover photos.) Each week, a guest will be “killed off” until the last one standing takes home a terrifying prize: $66,666. (The final figure will no doubt seem less devilish once taxes are deducted.) Their nemesis is a sinister Jigsaw-esque puppetmaster who goes by the name “Mastermind,” and communicates via microcassette messages, hidden amplifiers, and cryptic notes composed of clip-out lettering. Mastermind and his minions present them with various challenges designed to prey on their biggest fears, and the losers of these challenges are forced to go head-to-head in the “execution ceremony.”
The first night has all but one of them pairing off into teams. (The one who agrees to stay back at the cabin, a mohawked horror nut named Cody, is given a pass for his bravery.) Half of them are blindfolded, strapped to chairs, and hidden in the woods; the other half are tasked to find their partners, free them, and bring them back to the road. The last-place finishers are pitted against each other in the execution ceremony, where one of them will go home. A lot of Blair Witch first-person flashlight action ensues, though no one seems frightened so much as mildly inconvenienced.
I’m not convinced that a horror reality show could ever work, and there’s certainly nothing in 13: Fear Is Real to persuade me otherwise. There's just too big a difference between a horror movie and a horror reality show: Yes we know that everyone on screen made it out alive (and we will too), but in a fiction, you have an investment in the characters and the narrative that allow you to slip into the mindset that, for lack of a better phrase, the fear is real. But the clunky apparatus of a reality show is too transparent to suspend disbelief; we know that camera crews are following these dumbasses around at all times and we’re acutely aware of the safety nets in place to keep them out of harm’s way. And hard as the producers try to goose up the atmosphere with flashcuts, ambient forest noises, and other standard-issue shock tactics, it can never be as enveloping as truly effective horror fiction.
The one semi-interesting wrinkle is something called the “death box,” an object that the Mastermind has locked in a birdcage near the cabin. Whoever possesses the death box will have the power to be “the killer” and eliminate three contestants of his/her choice. The only catch is that the box has to be picked up in secret and its possessor must never have his/her identity revealed, or else they’re automatically sent to the execution ceremony. The pilot episode doesn’t get into the paranoia and distrust this gimmick is supposed to instill in the contestants, though at least it prompts them to use the feeble brains attached to their magnificently cut bodies. But if a non-horror element is the best thing your horror show has got going for it, that’s not a good sign.
• The Jigsaw connection is obvious, but the other disembodied villain that “Mastermind” recalled was The Banker on Deal Or No Deal. Both are loathed simply for carrying out the dopey machinations of their shows.
• Nasser touts himself as a rapper, but his freestyling (“Sitting with these people/ trying to avoid the evil”) is short of dope.
• In the nighttime, terror. In the daytime, gratuitous boob shots.