Monday, December 1, 2014

Do You Want To Play a Game?

Cheeky dark humor, likable characters, surprising plot twists, badass beheadings, AND Ron Perlman?

Folks, we might have a winner.

Quick Plot: Nice guy Elliot is a few days away from marrying his pregnant fiancee when he loses his insurance sales job for being too nice of a guy. Saddled with the debt of college loans, looming baby bills, and the financial responsibility of taking care of his elderly father and special needs brother Michael, you could say Elliot is having something of a terrible horrible no good very bad day.

It's about to get a whole lot worse.

A WHOLE lot. A whole lot as in 'eating a dead fly is probably the best of it.'

Elliot, you see, has been chosen as a contestant for a mysterious 'game' that makes Fear Factor look like as easy as Wheel of Fortune. A grandfatherly voice on his flip phone assigns Elliot a task to complete. With each successful finish, Elliot earns big money, so long as he completes all thirteen  progressively more challenging challenges. Digesting a household insect makes it a no brainer; making a child cry and sawing off an old acquaintance's arm are no regular Daily Double.

13 Sins is a remake of a very good Thai horror film called, depending on your translation, 13: Game of Death. Written and directed by The Last Exorcism's Daniel Stamm, 13 Sins takes what worked in the original and smartly adds plenty more, taking great care to craft its lead character as a realistic and sympathetic man in way over his head.

Elliot, played by Mark Webber, is easy to root for. The film establishes him very quickly as a good man taxed with big commitments he, like so many of us normal folks, can’t possibly fulfill. I know that it's something of a tradition to cast your token young pretty people in the horror genre, but as I watched 13 Sins a few days after Crowsnest, I was reminded just how hard I hate said tradition. The characters at the heart of Crowsnest (a typical found footage slasher) were early twentysomething upper middle class brats who had no redeeming qualities other than being human beings. 

Elliot is still a young guy, but he's a NICE young guy. A quick scene with his boss establishes, without overly complex exposition, that Elliot doesn't like to cheat people. He kisses his wife goodbye. He cares for his brother. It's not that he deserves to live because he's a human being, but that he deserves to live a happy life because he’s just a good, if not extraordinary man. See, young filmmakers? It's not that hard!

In addition to tweaking its protagonist's family life, 13 Sins also adds an intriguing subplot using the always intriguing Pruitt Taylor Vince and the always excessively awesome Ron Perlman. Vince plays a man whose past experiences with the game have led to an obsessive quest to uncover its secrets and reveal them to the world. It's a fun side story that gives us a taste of just deep the conspiracy runs (hint: it just might involve a grassy knoll). 

You know, I am more than happy to say that I really dug 13 Sins. Much like The Last Exorcism, the film toes a difficult line between comedy, satire, and true horror. It treats its characters like people rather than genre trope roadblocks (ironic considering the film is essentially about the powerful treating the powerless as pawns), making it easy and natural for the audience to be fully invested in the action. Despite being a remake of a fairly new film, it also manages plenty of surprises by altering the material more than enough for the same audience. 

High Points
Any film that begins with an elite benefit dinner being crashed by an honored elderly man's speech turning into a dirty joke and finger severing can't be bad

The original film involved poop eating. This one does not. For that alone, I am a happy viewer

Low Points

I like the balanced tone of the ending, but the completist in me is stuck wondering "so what now?" 

Lessons Learned
The more guests you invite to your rehearsal dinner, the more chaos you should expect to unfold at the toasting

Homeless men want nothing to do with ostriches

Shoot first. Ask questions after.

The hotter the nurse, the less effective the local anesthetic 

13 Sins is a fine way to spend 90 minutes of your life. The film manages to balance black humor with real stakes so that even if you might chuckle at the sight of mass decapitation, the fact that your lead character reacts to it like a person helps to ground the story in that very vital humanity. You can find the film streaming on Netflix Instant where it exceeds the quality and depth of most of its breezy peers. 

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