Sunday, May 8

The Wal-Mart Effect: The Unwarranted Trashing of 13 Seconds (2003)

During recording sessions in old empty warehouse, a band begins experiencing bumps in the night. Disappearances turn murderous by terrifying axe-wielding creatures in strait-jackets. Tensions arise between those still alive desperately searching for the missing while something sinister is preventing anyone from fleeing...

"The Wal-Mart Effect": When an innocuous horror indie lands on the shelves of the world's largest retailer, getting nationwide exposure, and then gets unfairly lambasted by buyers who wouldn't even give it the time of day otherwise.

There's going to be one big spoiler within this write-up, but it's almost helpful to be aware of it before going in. Judging by the plentiful used copies on Amazon and absolutely vicious reviews on the IMDB, this effect is exactly what happened to writer/director Jeff Thomas's 13 Seconds. This shot-on-video indie was part of their $5 Halloween DVD promotion two years ago. I'm sorry that I didn't give this one a whirl sooner because there's much to offer in this patchwork creeper despite the wave of hatred toward it. 

Now, before I get charged with merely defending the film to go against general reception, I'd be to the first to admit 13 Seconds has problems. Most of the Wal Mart horde probably immediately got turned off by the production values. It's obvious from the start we're entering ham sandwich territory: shot on consumer video equipment, dodgy on-location sound, and all dialogue dubbed later during post. Although this shouldn't be of much concern to horror fans who have any grasp of how difficult such grassroots filmmaking is for those starting out.

My only real issue is the incredibly stilted acting. The cast barely registers fear, dread, or much of any emotion at all. There's a substantial stretch in the first half of little dialogue or character interaction as Thomas (who also plays the lead) crafts a real foreboding atmosphere from well-timed darting shadows and shock sound effects. Then everyone stops exploring and/or getting chopped in the cavernous spaces of the abandoned building and start talking to each other. Suddenly, it's like the air gets sucked out of the room and 13 Seconds becomes a struggle to watch. As Tom Savini says on The Prowler's commentary track: "People talk too much in movies."

But here's where the spoiler arrives. Long before the conclusion, I kept thinking of how the rapid head movements of the gory beasts echoed those seen in Jacob Singer's visions in Adrian Lyne's excellent Jacob's Ladder (1990). I'm not going to directly state the obvious climatic twist; however, if you've seen Lyne's film...well, it's apparent Thomas has as well. The idea of a "dying purgatory" is many decades old in cinema so I can't totally accuse Thomas of theft. The revelation also works in making you re-evaluate the actions and nonchalant attitude of the characters around the lead in 13 Seconds. Suddenly, what seemed like really bland acting driven by strange motivations becomes well-reasoned in hindsight.

Every other aspect, in spite of budget, deserves praise. The always mindful direction, sharp editing, never faltering lighting, creepy sound effects, and lingering score are truly a tour de force for this level of horror filmmaking. These things kept me watching and most of the utter contempt aimed at 13 Seconds seems to be from a gaggle of pricks who must not be appreciative of much of anything. I'll just say this: if you think this is the "worst" horror film ever, watch more horror movies and then get back to me. Give this one a try sometime, especially with all the dirt cheap copies over at Amazon.

(since I can't find a trailer, here's a few spooky stills)

1 comment:

Wednesday's Child said...

Great article! People need to realize that we have to judge super low-budget horror on a different scale. Creativity without money beats having it the other way around. Also, I kind of want to see 13 Seconds now. you dare tread upon the staircase?

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