Idly watching game shows like Fear Factor, Wipeout or The Bachelor -- which gleefully demand contestants surrender their integrity in exchange for flashy prizes -- it's easy to wonder what people wouldn't do for a grand enough reward. This curiosity is explored in 13 Sins, director Daniel Stamm's follow-up to the celebrated possession thriller The Last Exorcism. The answers are totally twisted and sickly satisfying.
Mark Webber stars as Elliot, a meek man with a lot of responsibilities, but a pitiable income. He's getting married to his pregnant girlfriend (True Blood's Rutina Wesley) in a few short days. His mentally handicapped brother (Devon Graye) requires a lot of patience, not to mention expensive outpatient care. Plus, his racist, abusive father (Tom Bower) has been evicted and is pushing his way into Elliot’s already cramped home. On top of all this, Elliot gets fired. But then a bizarre blessing comes out of nowhere when a mysterious phone caller offers Elliot $1,000 to kill a fly.
After accepting this minor challenge, Elliot learns that he has joined a game show where the prizes are big, juicy deposits into his bank account. All he needs to do is complete 13 challenges without telling a single soul why. The game makers and its audience are unknown to Elliot. But with so many people depending on him, he doesn't hesitate to jump in to this dubious set of dares. As you might imagine, things escalate quickly. Too late, Elliot realizes there is only one way out of this game show. And it won't be pretty.
Unfortunately for 13 Sins, this is a plot very similar to the recently released horror-comedy Cheap Thrills, where a flat-broke family man took on insane dares to amuse bored but very rich people, all to secure cash rewards. But while their loglines are nearly identical, their tones make for very different movies. Though decidedly demented, Cheap Thrills is a comedy at its core. 13 Sins is an unrepentant horror-thriller, stoked with tension and grim revelations. This protagonist's pain is never played for laughs.
The story itself is more ambitious than Cheap Thrills, as well, which was mainly set in a single house. By contrast, 13 Sins runs its mayhem all around New Orleans, and teases a conspiracy that crosses decades, traversing the entire globe. In this world, the 1% not only don't care about the poor, they mold them into monstrous puppets for their own amusement. Elliot races from one locale to the next, each time stepping up the levels of chaos he's willing to cause for a higher payday.
Webber proves a solid leading man here, deftly handling each turn of Elliot's downward spiral. This mild-mannered man begins as a reluctant player. But as he tackles one challenge after another, his confidence and thirst for thrills grows. But these game makers don't play fair. Before long, he's not just playing for money, but also for his freedom. The threaten that if he should quit, he will not only lose all his prize money, but also be forced to serve decades of jail time for his accrued crimes. Webber likewise handles these moments of threat and terror with an electric tension that keeps the journey suspenseful, despite its bumps.
Regrettably, the supporting cast is offered very little to do aside from sketch thinly drawn characters like the concerned girlfriend, the conspiracy nut (Pruitt Taylor Vince), or the steely cop on the case (Ron Perlman). Frankly, it feels like a waste of Wesley and Perlman. Wesley is forced to deliver terribly written lines like, "Your extremely strange behavior is extremely strange," and "You look rather snazzy." And Perlman is relegated to a subplot that feels lazily constructed, intruding on Elliot's journey to deliver heavy-handed exposition and kill the climax's mounting tension.
The dialogue and story structure are certainly flawed and unfocused, which can make the second act feel episodic at times. However, I still found 13 Sins to be compelling and creepy. It was a bold move of Stamm to go from his intimate found footage offering to a conspiracy thriller with this many moving parts. Some of its construction is slipshod, but overall 13 Sins unfurls enough disturbing scenarios and demented plot twists to make it a solidly entertaining choice for horror movie fans.