Saturday, April 26, 2014

13 SINS...

Take a character down on his luck and in desperate need of money. Add a mysterious character who offers him millions of dollars to carry out a series of tasks, some of them unspeakable. Shake and stir. See what happens. You might get something like Cheap Thrills, a good dark thriller that came out a few months ago. Or, you might get 13 Sins, which wants, in some ways, to be a statement about the hard times we live in, where average men are pushed into being monsters. In the end, though, even if its message is a little too broad, 13 Sins is another good, dark thriller.  

Elliot (Marc Webber) has just been fired from his sales job. His boss says he's simply not vicious enough. You see, Elliot is a decent fellow, soon to be married and with a child on the way. He also has to look after his younger, heavily medicated brother, and his bigoted father who is also facing financial problems and is nearly homeless. Elliot is at the end of his rope with all of these people counting on him. As we're promised in the press notes, he receives a mysterious phone call from a stranger who seems to know all about him. The stranger identifies himself as the "Golden Toad," and offers Elliot some major cash prizes if he will take part in a game consisting of 13 challenges. Do  you really think Elliot will say no?

You may not be surprised to learn that the tasks range from the gross (swallowing a dead fly) to the outright crazy (these movies usually involve a limb being chopped off). Elliot likes seeing how each challenge is reflected in his bank account - we see the results on his smartphone - and he also seems to grow more confident as he accomplishes each task.  It's fun to see him use his intelligence, and when he starts showing a little swagger, we almost applaud him. He's earned it. Yet, we know this sort of story can not come to a good end, and that a shady character like the Golden Toad isn't going to give Elliot money without putting him through some serious paces.

There are a couple of subplots that don't quite pan out. Ron Perlman is a cop following Elliot, and Pruit Taylor Vince plays the local eccentric who happens to be an expert on this "game." Vince carries a scrapbook with pictures of the Kennedy assassination, as if Lee Harvey Oswald was just another dupe working for the Golden Toad. But these two plots don't really add anything - I think the movie might have worked better if it just focused on Elliot. By the time Vince starts yapping about "the game" being a way for wealthy people to have fun at the expense of poor people, I started tuning out. Sometimes I'd rather not know what's going on, than to be given a half-assed explanation. 

The movie is directed by Daniel Stamm, who gave us The Last Exorcism a few years ago.  I think this is a slight improvement over that one, and I'm glad he's broken away from the found footage gimmick. Sometimes 13 Sins reminded me of certain short stories by Stephen King, back when King was in his prime and wrote as if he wanted to conquer the world. 

By the end, we learn that the Golden Toad has pitted someone else against Elliot in this series of challenges. Whoever finishes first gets the money. The other guy probably goes to prison. While this created some additional drama, it also changed the tone of the movie, and I don't think for the better. It was interesting to see how far Elliot would go to make some money to save his family, and it was fun to see him thinking on his feet. To see it turn into a game of beat the clock is a let down. There are a few more twists and turns, skillfully rendered by Stamm, until it eventually seems that everyone in the movie has, at one time or another, been part of the Golden Toad's scheme. Somehow, the more complicated it gets,  the lighter 13 Sins feels. In a way, it's 'horror light,' a low-cal treat for those who want the trappings of a horror movie, but don't want to be too scared. 

There will be inevitable comparisons to Cheap Thrills. For the record, I think Cheap Thrills is a stronger movie, and I had a much greater empathy with its main character.  But 13 Sins is solid. Maybe some day both movies will be studied together as examples of how this era's financial anxiety inspired at least a couple of good suspense flicks.

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