The programming at SXSW Midnight is often filled with low-budget, earnest, and unique visions of the horror and thriller genres. These are the independent voices in genre filmmaking we desperately need in today’s world, filled with remakes, reboots, and otherwise just plain bad mainstream horror films from studios. So it’s always a bit disappointing when an otherwise earnest attempt fails to launch here. I was even more distraught to find the first midnight-er I saw at SXSW this year not only dull and uninteresting, but also without an original thought in its head.
13 Sins marks Daniel Stamm’s first film since his 2010 sleeper hit, The Last Exorcism. While that film was not a huge critical hit, it was an unexpected box office success, and at the very least showed promise of a horror filmmaker with talent to watch for. Unfortunately, his latest film is a mish-mash of ideas cobbled from older, better films, and executed with nothing new or interesting to add to a sub-genre of thrillers that is growing increasingly in need of a shock to the system. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a man unhappy with his life is contacted by a mysterious group that is apparently watching his every move, promising him untold fortune if he completes a series of tasks, each one more out of character than the next, and increasingly sinister.
Not only is the film a remake of a Thai film by the name of 13: Game of Death, but also cribs thematic elements from David Fincher’s The Game, as well as plenty of others. We’ve seen this done before, and better. The film starts strong, presented with a somewhat self-aware air of comedy interjecting the mystery, but quickly gets into a much more serious and dull mood, perhaps to reflect Elliot’s (our protagonist) current state of mind.
The problems arise when the film tries to have anything meaningful to say about its characters or moral plight of Elliot. Sure, we understand that he’s a guy facing financial problems, particularly in the face of getting married and with a baby on the way. But why is his father a vindictive racist? Why is his family struggling so much on the economic side of things? The film gives us a lot of basic information to set up the events that follow, but rarely a reason to care.
This might be forgiven if the film had a more effective atmosphere, but there’s never any real sense of tension or dread. There are hints of a shadow organization pulling all the strings — the “1 percent of 1 percent of the population” — who are functionally gods that must get easily bored, but never any satisfying idea of who or what they actually are. There’s a fine line between over-explaining and under-explaining, with 13 Sins leaning ever too much to the latter, focusing instead on a protagonist as flaccid and thin as the blatantly cheap digital photography.
In a film filled with so many limp ideas, it comes as no surprise that the cast is criminally under-utilized. Rutina Wesley, the firecracker from True Blood, barely gets a moment to make an impression, with Mark Webber and Tom Bower taking center stage, but never getting a chance to truly show off their god-given talents as character actors. It should be very near illegal the way Stamm and co. make Ron Perlman dull, but they somehow manage to pull off a feat so Herculean in scale that I almost have to applaud the sheer accomplishment. But alas, the film arrives so dead on arrival that there’s nothing even worth mustering that kind of passion behind.