Few things are as terrifying as the present state of the economy, and horror cinema is always at its most powerful when it reflects our current reality. The Purge had NRA gun culture firmly in its sights while Citadel presented a zombified version of ‘Broken Britain’ and when society broke down in Contagion, the government’s response was like watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A big part of the challenge then, for filmmakers holding a funhouse mirror up to society and showing the distortions of our times, is not just eloquently embedding a social commentary but doing it before anyone else.
It’s bad luck in this case for The Last Exorcism director Daniel Stamm, whose follow-up, 13 Sins (a remake of the Thai film 13: Game of Death) is robbed of much of its pertinency and power, arriving in US cinemas and on demand just weeks after E.L. Katz’s superior Cheap Thrills. The uncanny similarities between the high stakes set-up of both films and their disturbing descriptions of economic desperation are unavoidable; the most crucial difference being that Stamm’s protagonist is forced to go it alone.
In Thrills, two destitute friends are put through a progressively twisted series of dares for money; in Sins, a struggling salesman who loses his job just as he’s about to get married and have a baby, gets involved in a game that promises substantial financial rewards for completing thirteen tasks, each more sinister than the last. It starts innocently enough with the swatting of a fly, but quickly escalates as our ‘hero’ goes from making a small child cry in the park, to desecrating a corpse.
The plots of each film run parallel but are charged in completely different ways by the character’s proximity to their cash prize. In Thrills, two old schoolmates befriend the guy who dangles a green carrot right in front of their noses in a scuzzy bar over shots, the smell of money and drunken lack of inhibition bringing out a fierce competitiveness that pits them against one another. In Sins, the distant voice on the other end of the phone has the smarminess of a game show host but a distinct tone of underlying threat, backed up by the strict time limit placed on each task and how inflexible he is when it comes to the rules. Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber, Goodbye World) could well be talking to Jigsaw with a different voice changer.
Thankfully, Stamm isn’t wholly reliant on squelches, splatters and rips as with the Saw franchise. 13 Sins is more a fraying-of-the-mind thriller than it is torture porn, subjecting the audience to the same derangements Elliot is experiencing; defiling his humanity the same way it does human flesh. Watching the effects of assault, arson and grand theft reflected in the eyes of a law-abiding citizen, the spectacle of transformation is far more unpleasant than any of the heinous crimes committed. A decent person turned into a monster by unbearable financial pressure, Mark Webber’s suitably appalled reactions to Elliot’s behaviour speak to the impossibility of the character- and actor playing him – disassociating themselves from truly harrowing violence, and by extension, the audiences who appear to dispassionately consume it.
The dazzling disintegration Webber achieves is no doubt informed by his history of playing malcontents whose lack of options and poverty of spirit pushes them over the edge. In Storytelling and Bomb the System, he played angry young men seeking answers to questions they couldn’t work up enough energy to ask themselves, and on the London stage in David Mamet’s American Buffalo and Neil LaBute’s The Distance From Here, he memorably portrayed products of a system who were relegated to the margins of society and hopelessly resigned to that fact. Following this line of losers to its logical conclusion, the trail of mayhem blazed in 13 Sins is that eruption of extreme violence, which occurs when there’s no room left in those margins.
Perhaps what makes Cheap Thrills ultimately more horrifying, is that either of them can walk away whenever they want, no harm, no foul, and that they continually choose to disgrace themselves, whereas once Elliot agrees to play the game, he has to see it through to the end. What Webber manages to do is make 13 Sins the much more identifiably human of the two films, even as the increasingly convoluted carnage and ever-darkening absurdities of the plot place it in a far less grounded reality than Katz’s film.
As well as a baby to raise and a wedding to pay for, Elliot also has to support his recently evicted father (Tom Bower), and now that’s he’s lost his job, he’s unable to afford the cost of assisted living for his mentally handicapped brother (Devon Graye). Seeing them more as a responsibility than a burden, it’s one Elliot takes on without question, and he does so lovingly. He could just as easily hand his brother over to the authorities, and given that his wife-to-be (Rutina Wesley) is a black woman, he’d be better off without his racist, abusive father, but impoverished as he is, family’s all he’s got. There’s a strong sense of connection to this aspect of the story detectable in Webber’s performance, having grown up himself homeless on the streets of Philadelphia with his Mother, an experience that directly informed the theme of fractured families in both of his directorial efforts, Explicit Ills and The End of Love.
13 Sins is sick, twisted and more than a little gory, with writers Stamm and David Birke continually upping the ante on this perverse premise with diseased relish. It’s a little too outrageous for my tastes, but as a longtime Webber fan, it’s great to see him taking a long overdue lead in a more action-oriented role .
Regrettably, the film ends on a note of irresponsible optimism, but Stamm redeems himself by not allowing us to get too caught up in the depraved rush of Elliot taking blood money to replenish his bank balance. It’s a contract Elliot enters into with the best intentions, never realising he’s the one paying out by selling his soul.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on April 20, 2014