To say that “13 — Fear Is Real” is superior to “Estate of Panic” — Sci Fi Channel’s recent attempt to reshape the conventions of horror movies as a reality TV competition — is the essence of damning with faint praise. Try as the producers (among them director Sam Raimi) might to gin up terror with grainy, shaky, “The Blair Witch Project”-style photography, it’s hard to escape the pervasive sense that this is just a grown-up camping trip with handheld cameras and a $66,666 prize. “Fear is real”? Puh-leeze. Hell, even the breasts aren’t real.
Raimi and his crew of creepy creatives (among them “Survivor’s” Jay Bienstock) bring various cinematic touches to the competition, unceremoniously dumping 13 contestants in the Louisiana bayou, where they are given instructions from a mechanically altered voice dubbed “the Mastermind.” He informs them that the plan is to “kill off” players one by one, though societal decorum and TV insurance policies ensure that’s merely a figure of speech.
And therein lies the problem. Because no matter how much the producers screw with the nubile young group, their “terror” isn’t much more compelling than watching someone navigate the haunted mazes erected as part of the annual Halloween festivities at Knott’s “Scary” Farm.
At one point, the contestants are bound, gagged and blindfolded, which, given the physical dimensions of some of the models and wannabe actors and actresses featured, perhaps distinguishes this as a show with the happiest production assistants ever.
Even nightvision lenses and up-the-nose video, however, can’t create a real sense of jeopardy until the final challenge, when two finalists are “buried alive.” At least that’s semi-interesting, though until then “13” is pretty much a snooze — more scatter-brained than scary.
Imitating popular movies has become a convenient if overused shorthand device for reality TV, but the horror conceit (unlike, say, romantic comedies begetting dating shows) seems to warrant serious reconsideration. Acting terrified by it’s not entirely clear what, one contestant announces to the camera, “God will take care of me.” He just might, but in terms of the CW’s prospects with “13,” the TV gods tend to best help those who help themselves.