13 SINS (2014)
Review by Paul McMahon – “The Distracted Critic”
The first time I heard of 13 SINS, it was part of a 2014 list of “best horror movies.” I’d never heard anyone mention it, and knew nothing about it. Just my type of film.
The movie opens in Perth, Australia. There’s a posh banquet and the emcee is praising their Professor Solomon. She finally steps aside, giving him the microphone. He is old, and makes his way to the mike, and then tells an off-color joke. Nervous laughter throughout the hall. They can accept this joke if it leads to a point of some kind. Instead, the professor moves right from the punchline into a very off-color limerick that makes the hoity-toity folks squirm and gasp in their seats. The emcee approaches and asks if Professor Solomon is okay, and he apologizes to her, then grabs a knife off the table and cuts off one of her fingers. While the patrons scramble out of the hall, a security guard comes in, wielding a gun. The professor puts the severed finger on a plate, but when he reaches into his coat for his cell phone, the guard shoots him. The poor professor dies still reaching for his phone.
The credits roll over a map of the world. Skull pins are placed in cities everywhere, and connected with twisted wire.
Next, we hear a string of phone messages from bill collectors. A warning that the electricity is about to be shut off gets interrupted by someone picking up and promising to pay up later in the day. “I might be about to get some good news,” he says.
We see Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber, GREEN ROOM, 2015) letting his wife, Shelby (Rutina Wesley, Tara Thornton on TV’s TRUE BLOOD) tie his tie. He’s excited about being called into the big bosses’ office, thinking it means he’s going to get a promotion to senior sales representative. Instead, he’s fired because he’s too nice. His boss is livid that he talked an elderly lady out of their “Gold” plan to sell her something that better fit her life and income. Elliot pleads for his job, citing his disabled brother and the certainty of him being institutionalized if Elliot loses his health insurance. His boss moves to the edge of his desk and calmly tells Elliot that the qualities that make him a terrible salesman will also make him a terrible husband and father. He says Elliot has no balls and will never do what it takes to provide and protect for his wife and future child. The boss leaves, telling security to throw Elliot out.
Michael Brindle (Devon Graye), Elliot’s brother, makes Elliot promise that he won’t be sent back to Bayview hospital. Elliot sighs and promises. Next, Elliot’s Dad (Tom Bower, TRUE BELIEVER, 1989, and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, 2006) spouts racist crap and bitches about being thrown out of his apartment. He tells Elliot that he sealed all their fates when he went for a liberal arts degree instead of trying for something that would make money.
On the way home from driving Michael to his job, Elliot stops at a red light. There’s absolutely no one and nothing around. Just him and the red light. He swipes half-heartedly at a fly buzzing around his face… and the phone rings a very familiar circus tune (called “Entry of the Gladiators,” something I didn’t know until I researched it for this column). The voice on the other end of the phone knows all the intimate details of Elliot’s life, and offers him $1,000 to kill the fly. When Elliot responds by asking questions, the voice taunts his inability to take risks by saying he’s still sitting at the same red light and losing to a fly. Elliot kills the fly. The voice immediately offers a second challenge. “Eat the fly.” Even for $3,622, Elliot hesitates. He drives home and checks that his bank account shows the transfer of the first grand, and when he sees that it does, he eats the fly. Immediately, his bank account grows by the promised sum.
You can see where this one is going. Elliot is to play “the game,” which consists of 13 challenges, of which he has already completed the first two. When he agrees by saying, “I will dance with the golden toad,” he is told to get a good night’s sleep and then don a good pair of walking shoes.
The challenges, as you would suspect, grow in complexity and illegality as the game goes on. Each worry Elliot expresses gets him the promise that if, and only if he completes all 13 challenges, any and all legal charges and problems will “go away.” Before long, Elliot’s attempts at winning attract the attention of Police Detective Chilcoat (Ron Perlman, HELLBOY, 2004 and 234 other acting credits on IMDb), and a seemingly crazy person named Vogler (Pruitt Taylor Vince, THE DEVIL’S CANDY, 2015) who starts dogging Elliot’s every move.
13 SINS is directed by Daniel Stamm, who wrote the screenplay with David Birke. They based their story on Thailand’s 2006 dark comedy 13: GAME OF DEATH, written by Chookiat Sakveerakul and Eakasit Thairaat. Even this film isn’t original, either, as Richard Laymon already explored this type of game in his 1994 novel IN THE DARK. Different versions of the idea have been used in many books and movies, like 2012’s excellent WOULD YOU RATHER and even the SAW franchise.
That’s not to say you’ve seen this one before. Without seeing the Thailand film, I can’t compare the challenges and how they pan out, but there are some truly compelling scenes in 13 SINS. There’s something horrifying about watching a good person slowly and deliberately ruin his own life because he’s promised that in the end it will bring a blissful end to all the problems faced by himself and his loved ones. It’s riveting to watch someone timid and concerned with what people think of him pushing at the boundaries that have kept him down, and then pushing them some more, forcing himself into a place where he doesn’t even recognize himself.
This is also not to say the movie is without flaws. There’s no explanation of who The Golden Toad are, and their motive for doing these things is only guessed at by Vogler at one point. Add to that the fact that in order to see the challenges completed as they’re happening in the remote and closed off places that they happen, the voice on the phone would have to possess godlike powers of omnipotence and manipulation. Not to mention magical technology that can broadcast the events to an undisclosed number of “viewers” in real time.
The thrills come fast and furious throughout. Mark Webber infuses Elliot with a conscience and a deep-seated desire to do good. You can feel his thought process throughout. As Detective Chilcoat, Ron Perlman doesn’t really have a lot to do, but he still makes the role his own, playing the detective as only he can. Pruitt Taylor Vince does great with what he has, and I would really like to see him in some larger roles.
All together, this is one of those “leave your brain at the door” type movies. You’re going to feel the suspense most of the way through the run time, and at the end of it, you’re not going to be able to hear “Entry of the Gladiators” again without thinking of this film.
I give 13 SINS three and a half knives.
And one time out!
© Copyright 2017 by Paul McMahon