2023, NR, 94 min. Directed by Rebekah McKendry. Starring Megan Best, Alec Carlos, Gino Anania, Madison MacIsaac, Liam Stewart-Kanigan, Nazariy Demkowicz, Verity Marks.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 15, 2023
I have what I must admit is a weird gripe about the Insidious films. It's that one of the main tricks used for scares – just changing the color of a light bulb – seems so cheap. It's not that it's bad: indeed, far from it. It's more that these multimillion-dollar-budget studio flicks wasted what would be a perfect mood setter for a much lower-budget shocker. Honestly, I'd been waiting for a smaller horror to liberate this effect from the tools of the oppressors. Mercifully, someone has finally carried off the heist and the end result is the giddily gruesome Elevator Game.
Director Rebekah McKendry follows up her deliciously disgusting Lovecraftian rest stop comedy Glorious with a feature that doesn't have quite the same twisted ingenuity. Instead, she focuses on good, old-fashioned scares.
The story definitely has a familiar rhythm, with a ghost-hunting show finally finding something truly supernatural and quickly ruing the day. However, there's neither the found footage feel of the Grave Encounters series, the livestream nightmare of Followed, nor the mockumentary style of Noroi: The Curse, a 2005 J-horror that has recently undergone a well-deserved resurgence of interest. Instead, McKendry uses a more conventional dramatic format, and the lack of POV trickiness enhances the time spent with the characters. As a result, there's almost an It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia feel to the interactions between the team: not in a cheap, knockoff way, but with the same sense of bubbling weirdness, especially from Demkowicz as the increasingly frazzled co-host Matty, complemented by a suitably raucous performance from MacIsaac as brusque techie Izzy.
As for the titular elevator game, it's one of the modern urban legends that seemingly seeped out of South Korea just after the millennium: Press the right buttons in the right order on the right elevator, and you may just summon a ghost who will ride with you to a spirit realm on the 10th floor. Desperate for a topic as their sponsors are about to pull out, the team should probably be more suspicious when newly hired intern Ryan (Anania) convinces them to go to this one particular hotel and summon the spirit of a dead college student from the Red Zone.
If any of this sounds derivative, then it's actually far from it. McKendry is not only a filmmaker but an academic when it comes to horror (literally: Her day job is as an adjunct assistant professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts) and here she delightfully proves the wisdom of that old saying about how good artists copy, but great artists steal. When she switches the bulb and heads into the Red Zone, it's subtle and effective in a way that the hyperbolic Insidious films could never manage. It's a flicking of the switch that transitions Elevator Game from a fun comedy-horror for its first half into a ghoulish chiller for its closing act.
Elevator Game debuts on Shudder on Sept. 15.