Judge Michael Nazarewycz thinks the 13th sin, like the 13th donut, should be free.
You don't play the game. It plays you.
After happening upon the wonderful surprise that was last year's Resolution, I've been keeping my eyes open for similar fare: small, relatively unknown entries in the horror/thriller genre. I have just found another.
Facts of the Case
Elliot (Mark Webber, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) should be reveling in his pending marriage to Shelby (Rutina Wesley, True Blood) and the arrival of their baby. Instead, his life is falling apart. When he loses his job, it sets forth a series of financial events that force his autistic brother Michael (Devon Graye, Legendary) to lose his spot in a comfortable healthcare facility, and his father (Tom Bower, Die Hard 2) to move in with him and Shelby. (Oh, and Shelby is African American and dad is a racist. So there's that, too.)
One night, while sitting at a red light at a desolate intersection of his hometown of New Orleans, Elliot receives a mysterious phone call inviting him to play a game. The Gameshow Host (voiced by George Coe, Kramer vs. Kramer) offers Elliot money to complete a series of 13 challenges. With each subsequent challenge comes more money, with the overall potential for millions of dollars to be made. The challenges start small but quickly escalate in audacity and severity, and take to an extreme level the question, "What would you do for a lot of money?"
The immediate hurdle that 13 SINS must clear is twofold. Hurdle One is that the general premise has been portrayed on film many times before (variations of which range from 1932's The Most Dangerous Game to the Saw franchise). This calls for a level of creativity that will keep the story fresh for people who are familiar with past efforts, yet not so outlandish for those who are new to the premise.
Hurdle Two is that you can't just design and execute 13 challenges and put them onscreen and call it a movie; you have work them into the construct of a 92-minute film with a story that works for and with the challenges. Consider most other films, the conflict they introduce, and the ramifications of that conflict within the context of story. This film must consider all of that while slicing its conflict into 13 pieces. It then must make sure those pieces—as well as the collective whole of those pieces—work within the film's construct.
Director Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism) easily clears both of those hurdles. He and co-screenwriter David Birke (Kiss and Tell) create a series of challenges that, at a high level, are structured to lure in Elliot (with easy money) and then lock him in (with legal ramifications if he fails/quits). They also cleverly manage to double-up on a couple of challenges to allow themselves some breathing room on the film's run time.
At an individual level, the challenges are what you would expect them to be: varying degrees of both clever and interesting. I hesitate to list them here because the discovery of them is a joy unto itself. They not only test Elliot's moral mettle, they test his logistical skills, too, as many challenges have a short clock assigned to them.
As for Elliot, he is the heart and soul of this movie, and Mark Webber does an amazing job playing him as the everyman caught in a bad situation that is made both better and worse by his own decisions. The rest of the primary cast is excellent, including Ron Perlman (Drive) as the cop on Elliot's trail; and Coe, who reminded me a little of John Forsythe, but there are no angels to be found here. I must also mention the fantastic job done by Graye as the autistic Michael. He is a scene-stealer if ever there was one.
And now the toughest part for me: the ending. Quite simply, it is one of the most deliciously twisty endings to a film I've seen since ever. The tough part about that is that I cannot tell you anything about it. Just trust me. It is.
The 2.40:1 (1080p) presentation of 13 SINS (Blu-ray) is excellent. Zoltan Honti's rich cinematography is displayed with sharp clarity regardless of setting or lighting conditions. The DTS-HD audio track also performs well, although there are many quiet scenes where noises don't compete. The best sounding scene, though, involves a bone saw.
In addition to a Feature Commentary audio track with Stamm and actors Webber, Perlman, and Graye, there are four other extras on the 13 SINS (Blu-ray).
* The Making of 13 SINS (8:38)—The good news is that a lot of people speak on this featurette, offering a lot of viewpoints. The bad news is at less than nine minutes, they can't say a whole lot. Most of the offerings are standard BTS fare, but I found it interesting that Stamm specifically calls out how many scripts collapse in the third act and this one doesn't. (It doesn't.) Look for additional input from producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones; stunt coordinator Stanton Barrett; cinematographer Honti; production designer Jim Gelarden; and actors Perlman, Webber, Graye, Bower, Wesley, and Pruitt Taylor Vince (Constantine).
* Deleted Sequence (5:50)—This entry is a complete challenge scene, from initial phone call to completion, that was scrapped and replaced with a different challenge. I think they made the right call, as the challenge—involving receiving oral sex from a stranger—feels like it's going for sleazy shock points.
* Alternate Ending (2:01)—What I enjoyed about this alternate ending is that it isn't what I thought it was going to be. Even with an unused scene, the filmmakers threw in a delicious twist. (I kinda wish they had used this ending.)
* Anatomy of a Meltdown (2:42)—This is so unique. Stamm talks to the camera about how extras focus on the finished product and how everyone raves about what a great time it was shooting the film. Here we are treated to snippet of a Skype call between Stamm and Birke after Stamm has told Birke he wants to scrap the oral sex scene entirely. Birke is not pleased.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a subplot featuring Pruitt Taylor Vince as a man who has been in search of the truth ever since his wife died when she was playing the game. He's got a great conspiracy theorist vibe to him, but he seems to be built entirely for the purpose of a big reveal late in the film (that I won't spoil here). His performance is fine, but his character feels like he's forced here.
There's also a challenge involving Elliot obtaining an ostrich. He completes the challenge, but you never know how he gets the ostrich. While I might give this a "just go with it" pass in other movies, the entire premise of this film is both the growing outlandishness of the challenges and how he pulls them off. That does not allow for cheating.
Once again, I've gotten lucky when taking a chance on a small horror/thriller. While this one has a Weinstein connection and is not quite as small as Resolution, it is still a gem of a find and worth adding to a horror collection.
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