Everybody loves a good urban legend. From the babysitter and the caller upstairs to the hook-handed killer stalking the local lover’s lane, there’s nothing spookier than a horrific tale that may have happened to a friend of a friend. Many of our most popular urban legends have been collected by Jan Harold Brunvand, immortalized in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and brought to life in the criminally underrated 90s slasher Urban Legend. However, new tales seem to be few and far between. One anomaly is the elevator game, a hellish challenge designed to open the doors to another world. Director Rebekah McKendry brings this sinister ritual to life by following the young cast of an occult web show hoping to exploit rumors of a local disappearance. Though the film suffers from an excess of harsh humor, the story of college students riding up and down in an elevator turns out to be surprisingly fun. The story never quite reaches the top floor, but Elevator Game is a spooky film that adds up to much more than the sum of its highly specific parts.
McKendry opens the film with a peek at the ritual itself. We follow Becki (Megan Best) as she uses her phone to document a solo experiment with the game that goes horrifically wrong. We then cut to an episode of Nightmare on Dare Street, a paranormal webcast hoping to make it big by investigating the occult. An episode in which they conjure the spirit of a dead serial killer introduces us to the crew: host Kris (Alec Carlos), paranormal expert Matty (Nazariy Demkowicz), tech guru Izzy (Madison MacIsaac), and researcher Chloe (Verity Marks). Attempting to wrangle this crew and hold on to their sponsors, director Kevin (Liam Stewart-Kanigan) insists they come up with a new episode on the fly. Luckily their new team member Ryan (Gino Anania) has an idea! Skeptical of his suggestion that they film themselves playing the elevator game, the reluctant team heads over to the office building where Becki went missing. As they begin to film, the innocuous series of floors and buttons takes on a sinister new tone. When Kris goofs around with the instructions, the irreverent crew inadvertently opens a doorway to another world and awakens a beast that thirsts for their blood.
Working from a script by David Ian McKendry and Travis Seppala, McKendry remains faithful to the ritual’s source. Likely originating in South Korea or Japan, the elevator game involves a sequence of instructions in which the brave participant travels up and down through a series of floors. If they can avoid interacting with the mysterious woman said to board the elevator on five, they will arrive at the tenth floor and open the doors to an alternate dimension. Careful viewers will be able to play along, though McKendry refrains from explicitly stating the game’s instructions. She also wisely avoids any mention of the tragic death of Elisa Lam, an unrelated mystery that popularized the game in the west. Fleshing out the backstory of this logistical legend, McKendry creates a horrific origin made more upsetting with its grisly simplicity. The only downside to this intriguing flashback is that it threatens to overshadow the main plot leaving viewers wishing the story of a nightmarish prank gone wrong was the focus of the film.
This upsetting origin story does lead to the film’s haunting monster. What could be mistaken as a typical J-horror villain feels relatively fresh with the addition of cracking bones and a contorted frame. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but McKendry makes the most of a small budget by keeping the 5th Floor Woman (Samantha Halas) mostly in the shadows and employing creative camerawork to imply her destructive power. Imaginative scenes of gore and carnage fill the frame as team members are bitten, impaled, and ripped apart by this murderous spirit. The Red World revealed by the tenth floor is also effectively spooky though it’s difficult to get a handle on the scope of this new dimension.
With a tiny budget and a virtually unknown cast, Elevator Game manages to surpass expectations regarding plot and special effects. However, a cringe-worthy script spoils a lot of the fun. Trying way too hard to be snarky, none of these characters are particularly likable or even enjoyable to hate-watch. They speak like a group chat come to life, callously dishing out reply-guy banter and clap backs never meant to be spoken aloud. They’re constantly at each other’s throats and it seems next to impossible that these scatterbrained kids could have pulled together a show of this magnitude in the few months since they’ve graduated high school. Riding an uncomfortable line between workplace drama and teen slasher, it’s difficult to care about their fates or take the stakes of their professional dilemma seriously.
Unwieldy characterization also proves to be the film’s achilles heel. A burgeoning friendship between Chloe and Ryan anchors the story, but the researcher’s character feels all over the place. She seems to be the most level-headed member of the team, but her passion for and overall belief in the occult vary from scene to scene. When Ryan earnestly asks for her help, she approaches the situation with a shocking lack of empathy given their previous interactions. We’re never sure if she’s going to help him find his sister or attack him with pepper spray. Demkowicz proves to be a bright spot with several humorous scenes, but his performance veers dangerously close to a Nick Kroll impression. It’s not so much that these teens are unlikeable–despicable characters are a staple of the horror genre–it’s that the film itself carries a deep undercurrent of mean-spirited humor. The young cast does the best with what they’re given, but the constant try-hard humor is both off putting and exhausting.
Before embarking on the elevator game, the crew worries that their episode will simply be a boring chronicle of people going up and down in an elevator–the only horror coming from hellish muzak. Faced with this same problem, McKendry manages to flesh out what could easily be a dull story to deliver a fun exploration of a fascinating legend. Not all elements of the film work and the grating characters nearly outstay their welcome. However, the fun of the ritual, plus a series of grisly kills allows the film to rise above its faults to the mid-tier levels of urban legend horror.
Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.