What to Watch Verdict
'Escape the Undertaker' is hopefully the biggest trick Netflix is hiding in its October release schedule.
⚰️ The Undertaker is back
⚰️ The New Day are fun together
⚰️ Limited interactive success
⚰️ No real horror
⚰️ Lackluster production value
⚰️ Leaves no impression
Escape the Undertaker hopes to engage the fandom crossover of horror's faithful and professional wrestling audiences as Netflix’s newest interactive at-home adventure. It’s a niche that demands fulfillment — no joke, the Venn diagram of “wrestling lovers” and “horror lovers” boasts a massive overlap you wouldn’t expect.
I rekindled an on-the-rocks relationship with the televised action sport this pandemic after the creation of WWE’s (far superior) competitor AEW, an attraction dormant since renting old WWF pay-per-view specials with my dad on Saturday nights from our local Blockbuster. I’d always gravitate towards The Undertaker’s casket matches — Survivor Series ‘94 when Chuck Norris protected the centerpiece purple-satin coffin while ‘Taker whooped Yokozuna — because I’m the exact horror-wrestling hybrid demographic mentioned above.
I say all this to paint a picture of my relationship with the crossroads that is Escape the Undertaker, and why subsequent disappointment hits so hard.
The premise is simple. WWE’s hottest superstars, The New Day (Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods), ring The Undertaker’s doorbell searching for his almighty urn. The Undertaker isn’t keen on visitors and has protected his mystical totem with spooky-scary safeguards, so he challenges The New Day to navigate his bargain-value haunted house. Viewers control how Big E, Kofi and Xavier approach The ‘Taker’s stalking fog or nightmarish transportations, all while the ghoulish mastermind sits behind surveillance monitors, eating bologna sandwiches on white bread with no condiments — the scariest occurrence in Escape the Undertaker.
These days, Netflix’s signature seems to be overblown budgets and unlimited creative freedoms, which does not describe Escape the Undertaker. Production designs amount to a Los Angeles Airbnb rental with barely any redecoration outside some deep purple LED lights and fog machines — an unspectacular mundanity ruins what could be this magnificently gothic backdrop for Mark Calaway’s iconic character. Costume continuity can’t even keep up with The Undertaker’s hair situation between wig changes and hat coveralls, while macabre trappings that "threaten" Big E's soul or mystify Xavier couldn’t be less frightening or inventive. It’s always the lowest-hanging horror fruit — tarantulas, claustrophobia and, uh, nothing else — that experience director Ben Simms never elevates.
None of the imposition or fiendish personification The Undertaker once shared ringside finds its cinematic equivalent.
Enter The New Day, whose acrobatic talents and enthusiastic embrace of “the power of positivity” are the light to ‘Taker’s darkness. They’re heroically charismatic as tag-teamers and admittedly carry themselves well outside the ropes. Still, the interactive gimmick continually separates three actors who are their most vibrant and hilarious when riffing off one another. Xavier Woods (Austin Watson) roasts horror tropes over a flame that wouldn’t even golden a marshmallow, but at least exemplifies Escape the Undertaker at its most enjoyable — a professional wrestler scoffs at longstanding horror tropes, then squeals when said stupidity backfires.
Interactive blueprints aren’t all that dazzling, as a single playthrough won’t exceed 30 minutes. It’s a miniature morsel of shallow-grave haunts and lackluster third-act fight sequences that doesn't incentivize viewers to crave a second round to flutter different butterfly effects. Nothing drastic or detrimental changes nor overcomes the feeling that WWE and Netflix partnered last-minute for what they’d assume could be an easy Halloween collaboration.
Simms hides a few nostalgic canonical callbacks, whether that be longtime manager Paul Bearer’s posthumous cameo or an “Issac Yankem” toe tag (Glenn Jacobs’ psycho dentist persona before Kane) — Escape the Undertaker is just never more than teases at something that’s buried six-feet below this shapeless mound of expressionless horror inspirations.
A myriad of underwhelming factors plagues this cruel trick to wrestling and horror fans, down to WWE’s insistence that their content remains “family-friendly” to a degree. Escape the Undertaker plays like a knockoff of the brands it’s interlocking and underserves its interactive ambitions. Both horror and wrestling fans aren’t given a reason to wander through The Undertaker’s functionally basic chambers more than once or watch The New Day attempt to sell terrors that aren’t even the slightest bit terrifying — can’t upset younger audiences, except you should because gateway horror is an important concept. Expect pillow-soft fluff that’s missing exceptionally festive Halloween spirits, which is a shame given the rich mythology The Undertaker offers Netflix. Maybe they’ll figure things out and provide the gargantuan gravedigger redemption next year with gamesmanship befitting a legend of spine-tingling wrestling lore — but I question whether Escape the Undertaker warrants another shot.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.
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