Look, let’s be honest about this: Unless a network decides that it’s willing to kill contestants — and I’m pretty sure even those 50-page waivers don’t cover that — the idea of a haunted-house competition show lacks a certain sense of peril and suspense. So it is with “Estate of Panic,” Sci Fi’s stab at “House on Haunted Hill” meets “Fear Factor,” which precedes the CW’s upcoming “13: The Fear Is Real.” Simple-minded players endure a parade of silly stunts and contests, but this cheeky hour is mostly an ordeal for viewers.
As in “Fear Factor,” Endemol USA pushes the torture-the-players line about as far as it can, but even all that dramatic music (and yikes, does it work overtime) can’t elevate this premise beyond a pretty good run through a theme-park horror maze.
Seemingly determined to channel Vincent Price, host Steve Valentine vamps it up and then some as the show’s mwa-ha-HAH host. As for the seven aspiring SAG members (er, sorry, participants) — who play off to a single winner in each hour — they immediately dive into challenges such as seeing how much money they can retrieve in a room rapidly filling with water (and snakes!) or from a spooky garden where they’re subjected to electric shocks.
The snakes aren’t poisonous, and the producers seem unwilling to drown someone. Other than maybe choking on all the smoke effects, where exactly is the panic in that?
Having already enjoyed modest success with the prank show “Scare Tactics” — a more realistic conceit, inasmuch as the unwitting marks are genuinely startled — Sci Fi is perhaps to be forgiven for attempting an encore. Even so, it’s hard to imagine this sustaining a young male audience’s interest for long unless the snakes return draped around Salma Hayek, a la “From Dusk Till Dawn.”
“Estate of Panic” is actually Sci Fi’s second reality-competition entry to make its debut this week, the other being “Chase,” which — apparently recognizing that reality producers have nearly exhausted movie genres — is patterned after a videogame.
Although it’s easy to sympathize over the difficulty of dreaming up bold new ideas, the horror well seems especially shallow. When elimination time finally rolls around, Valentine — who is flanked by a silent butler — oozes macabre charm, announcing, “Sadly, for one of you, this will have been a long night of terror for nothing.”
Those of us duty-bound to watch until the finish hear you, Steve — only minus the terror part.