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Review: Smart Horror Flick '13 Sins' Tests Our Moral Mettle (TRAILER)

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood March 31, 2014 at 11:48AM

Smart horror flick "13 Sins" asks what would we do for the right price? Or even the “right” reasons?
'13 Sins'
'13 Sins'

There’s an old joke, attributed to everyone from Winston Churchill to W.C. Fields, which goes as follows:

Man: “Would you sleep with me for $1 million?”

Woman: “Yes.”

Man: “Would you sleep with me for a dollar?”

Woman: “What do you think I am?”

Man: We’ve established what you are. We’re negotiating a price.”

The story is funny, and sexist, which are hardly mutually exclusive. But the anecdote has stuck around because it transcends gender and asks questions about morality and human weakness – what would we do for the right price? Or even the “right” reasons?

Daniel Stamm gets it. And we hesitate to call his latest Dimension release, “13 Sins" (which debuted at SXSW and opens April 18) too intelligent, lest he lose some of the more single-issue horror fans to whom he’ll be appealing with his smattering of severed limbs and severed heads. But Stamm also has a track record: The German-born former Northern Ireland peace negotiator made one of the more intelligent horror films of recent years, “The Last Exorcism” (a mockumentary that had been preceded by the similarly structured suicide thriller “A Necessary Death”), and he knows his way around the genre. But once again he’s channeled some familiar tropes toward something beyond corpuscles -- the simple if somewhat counterintelligent conclusion that the horror film is always a morality tale.

In “13 Sins,” Stamm takes the desperate-man approach in a set-up that imposes on the viewer the same sense of disorientation experienced by the film’s protagonist. Elliot (Mark Webber) is about to be married, have a child with his pregnant fiancée Shelby (Rutina Wesley) and fired from his sales job at an insurance agency, where he’s told in no uncertain terms that -- because he lacks the balls to screw grandmothers out of their pensions -- he’ll be a lousy husband and parent, too. He has a mentally-impaired brother (Devon Graye) and a vicious old father (Tom Bower, who seems to specialize in playing grizzled old b******s) who’s being forced to move in with him. Then Elliot gets a mysterious phone call from an unknown source telling him to kill a fly. Which he does. At which point a thousand dollars is deposited in his bank account.

Eat the fly, he’s told; his balance grows by a few more thousand. The amounts – and the tasks – are going to accelerate from there (“make a child cry,” he’s told ... uh oh). We don’t know why. We don’t know who. But once Elliot is on the crime-and-humiliation-for-money track, it’s hard to get off.

Ron Perlman is his usual wryly mischievous self as the cop on Elliot’s increasingly messy trail; Pruitt Taylor Vince is delightfully unhinged as the hermit/conspiracy theorist who knows something about something. What’s also compelling about “13 Sins,” though, is the way Elliott is not only manipulated financially, trying to get himself and Shelby out of the hole they’re in, but the way he’s made more than happy to execute the plan at hand. In fact, he starts to take a rather malicious glee in his acts, especially when the victim is asking for it, either figuratively and literally. There are a lot of dramatic echoes in “13 Sins”-- some historical, some political, some cautionary. The overall effect is enormously amusing. And haunting as well. 

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Dimension Films (The Weinstein Co.), Ron Perlman

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.