Let me preface this review by saying I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Last Exorcism, so I was really rooting for Daniel Stamm while watching 13 Sins. As a filmmaker, Stamm certainly displayed visual prowess and keen cinematography, as I blamed poorly paced storywork for my general disinterest in his previous demonic endeavor – but could his latest release provide atonement? Adapting the Thai film 13 Beloved, Stamm’s voice is more prevalent given his input into the screenplay, and he creates a better film for it – balancing hints of horror with a game show thriller. While sins are sins, could you rationalize illegal actions with dangerous implications if they benefit those you love? Does a blurry line between good and evil exist when backed into a corner? The true horrors of 13 Sins aren’t exemplified through violence or murderers, but a philanthropic puppet master taking advantage of those who simply can’t say no.
Elliot (Mark Webber) is an expecting father, future husband, and plays caretaker to his mentally disabled brother – and he’s just been fired from his job. Without any source of income, our luckless hero is forced to downgrade his wedding and possibly send his brother back to a special facility – until he receives a surprise phone call. A voice on the other end of the line explains that he’s been selected to play a game, a reality show of sorts. As long as he follows the rules, he’ll have cash wired directly to his account. Skeptical of the chance to win millions of dollars, the voice offers $1,000 if he’ll swat the fly in his car. Doing do, Elliot is immediately alerted to a $1,000 transaction in his bank account. Game on, right? Without thinking, Elliot accepts the voice’s terms and sets out on his 13 challenge adventure – unaware of the mistake he just made.
13 Sins is psychologically haunting, suspenseful, dangerous – yet inconsequential. Anarchy reigns supreme as Elliot is forced to cause chaos throughout a normal city setting, but his continued adventures become a little zany at times considering such a non-stop charade. It’s blasphemous to believe any one person could commit so many crimes yet run free, as we watch Elliot walk around with a corpse, urinate on flowers, and even accidentally shoot a police officer, only to advance challenge to challenge with a certain ease. While I firmly stand behind my classification of “dangerous,” it’s hard for one to embrace heart-pumping excitement after our protagonist pulls so many coincidental vanishing acts.
Stamm’s update on 13 Beloved swaps out more darkly comedic tones for purer suspense, and a few shining moments of horrific brutality emphasize the disturbing nature of Elliot’s game. Starting off with a simple fly swatting, 13 Sins is about Elliot transforming from a meek, passive man struggling to maintain normalcy into a ballsy alpha male gaining control of the life he wants. Feelings are hurt, people die, and Elliot does everything in his power to stay morally straight, but horror fans are gleefully gifted a few memorable, squeamish scenes involving traps and sicks minds. One moment of motorcycle madness might even go down as one of the best death scenes of horror 2014 – but only Father Time holds that answer.
Mark Webber plays Elliot, our “fortunate” contestant, possessing all the charms of a captivating, doomed leading man. Approaching the game first with excitement, then with palpable fear, Webber exhibits believable levels of discomfort while being “forced” to do something as sinister as making a small child cry, but we bask in Elliot’s soulless exploitation. Of course, when interacting with his brother (Devon Graye) and repulsive father (Tom Bower), we trade fun for drama, something a little too overplayed between Elliot and Mr. Brindle. Later used as a twisted plot device, Mr. Brindle is a boisterous, vile human who audiences will have a hard time accepting, as Webber’s acting is better off when imitating Weekend At Bernie’s.
13 Sins is a thought-provoking and mysteriously entertaining film until a certain point that actually unwinds previous intensity – a soft, borderline uneventful ending. Bloody, finite, and conclusive no doubt, but also somewhat unfulfilling. In a way, there are no lingering implications, no threats – only a confusing reaction on Elliot’s face like a breath of fresh air that doesn’t exist in the tightest thrillers. A weighty decision is made that basically negates everything Elliot experienced, making the pain, sacrifice, and loss all for naught – exemplifying personal do-gooding and sappy self-assessing. Heartwarming, but I mean, damn – even after the horrors faced? Even after squaring off against Ron Perlman?
While my pro-Stamm stance has spiked a satisfied grin, I do wish 13 Sins had a little more scripted grittiness. Visually, the brutality exists – there’s no doubting rolling heads – but Elliot’s more upstanding decisions end up exhausting the true horror of his situation. Despite an almost Jigsaw-like game afoot, complete with a circus ringtone and cheery ringmaster spouting instructions, without a necessary, lingering dread, 13 Sins goes out on weaker moment than anticipated. There’s still an intriguing watch to be had, and I do recommend it, there’s just a missing piece to the puzzle that never quite completes Stamm’s twisted game.
13 Sins may not be the most dangerous game, but Daniel Stamm's Jigsaw-inspired contest presents plenty of moral conundrums worth experiencing - because you're not the one answering them.