13 Sins: Film Review

Creepy enough to get the job done, but not sufficiently extreme to fulfill the initial setup.

Mark Webber stars opposite Ron Perlman in Daniel Stamm’s horror suspenser.

In his first feature outing since 2010's The Last Exorcism, Daniel Stamm does serviceable work on horror-thriller 13 Sins, based on the 2006 Thai film 13: Game of Death. Less a remake than a reinterpretation, Stamm and co-writer David Birke have adopted the original's premise and reworked many of the details, but the arc of the two films remains very similar.

Produced by Automatik Entertainment and Blumhouse Productions, Sins will face off at the holiday-weekend box office against another Blumhouse title, Relativity's holdover Oculus, which placed third at the domestic box office last weekend. Some cannibalization may be inevitable, although Sins got a jump on theatrical release with VOD and digital download made available starting Mar. 14.

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Recently fired from his New Orleans insurance-sales job (he wasn't ruthless enough), Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber) puts up a brave front with his pregnant fiancee Shelby (Rutina Wesley), even though he’s facing nearly $100,000 in personal debt with no means of repayment. Besides planning an expensive wedding, he also has to support his mentally disabled younger brother Michael (Devon Graye), who faces re-institutionalization if his insurance plan lapses. So although an unexpected phone call offering to pay him ridiculous sums of money – over $6 million if he’s a winner -- to participate in a "one of a kind" hidden-camera game show seems particularly random, Elliot has no problem completing the first challenge for $1,000 – swatting an annoying fly buzzing around his car.

With the disturbingly gleeful voice of the show host on the other end of the call promising to "make all your problems go away," Elliot's online bank balance gets bumped up accordingly, so he reluctantly accepts the second task – eating the dead fly. But he'll have to complete 13 "challenges" in total within 36 hours to win the multi-million-dollar prize, as the game quickly becomes very complicated. After following instructions to harass a young girl whose mother becomes irate at his shameless display of cruelty, and nearly burning down a church, even Elliot realizes it won't be long until the cops are onto him. According to the rules, however, he'll lose all his winnings if he fails to complete any stage of the game.

Subsequent tasks involving a dead body and a severed limb earn awards ticking up above $100,000 apiece, but quickly bring him to the realization that winning the competition will require unbridled transgressions, which could clearly cost him his upcoming marriage, his family relations and his own liberty. Meanwhile, detective Chilcoat (Ron Perlman) is closely tracking his moves, as well as a determined conspiracy theorist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who's trying to determine the shadowy origins of the contest. Elliot's discovery that he may be competing against another contender for the game's winnings adds a twist that could reveal why he was initially selected for the show, but seems destined to play out with savage determinism. 

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Although it's never quite clear how a widely distributed video network can keep Elliot constantly on-camera, his increasingly brutal crimes are witnessed by plenty of horrified bystanders. The very public exposure of his depravities not only recalls a certain genre of reality TV competition that specialize in creeping audiences out, but also allows Stamm and Birke's script to persuasively explore how indulgence in violence can often amplify vicious behavior, as Elliot elatedly gains more and more satisfaction from earning prize money for his criminal outbursts. The true objective of the game, we're told, is to demonstrate that "anyone can be turned into a monster."

Webber, who's been sticking to more indie-oriented projects lately (including his own 2012 The End of Love), gets Elliot's rapid transformation from timid insurance salesman to manic outlaw right, but never achieves the level of all-out ferocity that the game's relentlessly competitive scenario seems to require. Perlman, whose roles often go well over the top, appears here to be mostly going through the motions required to provide sufficient conflict to frustrate Elliot's progress, although Tom Bower as his bitter, vindictive father might have been a better option to convey those plot developments.

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On The Last Exorcism, Stamm stuck to a consistently insistent verite technique -- Sins dials things back to a more restrained observational style that nonetheless doesn't shirk brutality and gore, while his regular cinematographer Zoltan Honti's notably besmirched lensing paints an appropriately grimy pall over the most extreme scenes.

Again working with a brand-name horror producer (swapping Exorcism’s Eli Roth for Jason Blum on Sins) could further boost Stamm’s credentials, although more deference to the film's unnerving Thai predecessor (represented on Sins by industry veteran Somsak Techaratanaprasert, a producer on the original) might have yielded more distinctive results.

Opens: April 18 (Radius-TWC)

Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Automatik Entertainment

Cast: Mark Webber, Ron Perlman, Devon Graye, Rutina Wesley, Tom Bower, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Director: Daniel Stamm

Screenwriters: David Birke, Daniel Stamm

Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Steve Squillante, Kiki Miyake

Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Jason Blum, Carsten Lorenz, Somsak Techaratanaprasert

Director of photography: Zoltan Honti

Production designer: Jim Gelarden

Costume designer: Marcy Rector

Music: Michael Wandmacher

Editor: Shilpa K. Sahi

Rated R, 93 minutes

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