Although it sounds like a break-neck car chase picture, 13 SECONDS is a languorous, dream-like chiller that draws on the more surreal fictions of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci in which the operatic INFERNO (1980) and poetic THE BEYOND (1981), prove the major influences, but as filtered through a DIY, indie aesthetic.
The film begins with its sleeping protagonist, Davis (Jeff Thomas, also the film’s director), experiencing what seem to be several layers of consciousness. We see him having sex with his girlfriend, as well as suffering cryptic black-and-white memories, but things take a turn for the worse when his sleep deepens.
As a fog creeps outside, all hell rips loose: the front door rattles on its hinges, and a bald, feral, semi-human creature with bat-like ears and vampire fangs roams around the house. As Davis reluctantly follows the monster, it turns around and ‘kills’ the protagonist, who promptly seems to wake up in what appears to be the real world.
We next see Davis at a gathering with his rock group Night Gallery; consisting of Colin, his girlfriend Karen, Mac, Sidetrack, Gage, Talia and mysterious late arrival Shapiro, who may or may not have been invited, and whose involvement with the group is unspecified. In order to avoid studio recording they plan to produce their CD in an abandoned boarding school.
Right off the mark unusual things happen. Sidetrack finds some human teeth, the edgy Colin won’t stop bickering with Karen, and Talia discovers records of a boy called Martin Soloman, who was killed by a druid-like sect. Davis continues to have nightmares, and Mac wants to “get the hell out of here”. The group discover an art gallery, decorated with surreal and macabre paintings, featuring images of Gage, Colin, and Mac being killed.
In separate sequences, the above are murdered in outrageous fashion – Gage is ‘folded’ backward at the waist when pulled under a bed, Colin is impaled by a monstrous arm thrust up from under his mattress, and Mac is tied upside down, his hands nailed to a wall, gutted, and then strangled with his intestines.
The group are bemused by the disappearance of their friends, and decide to leave immediately. But the car engines have ‘gone missing’, so they find themselves stuck, unwilling to trudge through the dense, fog-shrouded woods. Night Gallery decide to hold a séance - performed by Karen and Talia - in order to ‘root out’ what would seem to be a supernatural force, and Sidetrack prepares to record the session.
The séance, conducted through an Ouija board, confirms that the Soloman boy was murdered and dumped inside the boiler in the school’s basement, and that he is now a vengeful spirit. Loud footsteps are suddenly detected moving downstairs, seemingly in the basement’s direction. Davis and Karen go downstairs, then, and decide to barricade this lower level. A struggle abruptly ensues, in which a strange force behind attempts to force the secured wood.
After a brief reprieve, Davis and Karen confront Sidetrack upstairs for not coming down to help them. But Sidetrack is in shock, having listened to the recording. Although the séance was quiet, his equipment picked up ghostly voices and chattering. Sidetrack violently cracks up, and after tying him to a chair; the group decide to explore the lower level further…
13 SECONDS, perhaps in tribute to its surreal Italian horror antecedents, attempts from the start to immerse us in a soporific atmosphere. Director Jeff Thomas demonstrates a decent eye for composition and lighting, using large areas of darkness punctuated by hazy spot-lights.
The prominence of darkness, which swallows up the characters -as well as the numerous images of beds and bedrooms -, gives the impression of a world enclosed by sleep, and the soft lighting provides the film with a strange, nightmare texture, an intangible quality that is the film’s greatest asset.
The film has been justifiably criticised for its acting style, which is blank to say the least, but this is deliberate: characters wear frozen, mask-like expressions giving the appearance of sleepwalkers, or perhaps of somebody ’lost’ within a nightmare, and is not dissimilar to Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) and his masterpiece INFERNO. Nevertheless, not all the ’dream-like’ acting appears conscious, and is partly due to the inadequacies of the cast. The delivery of dialogue is especially banal, as the actors wade through the clichés as if they were reading from a shopping list.
The dialogue is quite dismal. Viewers will listen either in disbelief, or possibly amusement, when Colin tells Karen “Let me get this disc recorded, and I promise I’ll never let any distraction come between us again”, after she complains that he never puts her first. When Sidetrack finds the box of dentures, he shows them to Mac. Mac looks in the box, and asks, “What’re those?” Sidetrack predictably tells him “Those are teeth”.
Similarly, upon entering the gallery, Talia asks, “What’s this”. As the camera cuts away, you know what’s coming. Shapiro, ever the genius, tells her “It’s a gallery”. For a film that is supposed to be dream-like and unpredictable, it is disappointing to hear such threadbare straight-forwardness.
THE BEYOND, as well as INFERNO, benefited from superior, underrated screenplays. They used dialogue as an integral part of the atmosphere, heightening the skewed logic with epigrammatic phrasing and surreal juxtapositions of words. Unfortunately, in 13 SECONDS, everything is denoted all too clearly, and this ultimately hurts the film.
Director, Thomas seems to demonstrate an odd affinity with silent Hollywood cinema of the 1920’s. Whenever a set-piece occurs, we are subjected to archaic, jaunty piano music, not unlike live accompaniments to old feature films. A couple of chase sequences are staged in the manner of D.W. Griffith (BIRTH OF A NATION, 1919) and utilize the basic technique of speeding up the cutting as the scene goes along to increase tension levels (metric montage). Unfortunately, in Thomas’ case, the music soon becomes grating. There are no variations on the theme, so it quickly becomes repetitive.
As well as reminding one of silent Hollywood film, the director makes one think about Soviet cinema of the 1920’s, particularly the work of Sergei Eisenstein (BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, 1925). Eisenstein ’invented’ rhythmic montage, when the movements of characters and objects within the frame matches the speed of the editing, a more sophisticated variation of Griffith’s style. The director utilizes this in the opening dream sequence, when Davis spots the vampiric intruder in his home. The editing becomes faster, and in one brief shot Davis knocks his cell phone from the kitchen table to the floor. The abrupt fall matches the fast cut, and contributes a potent aura of fear and panic.
Eisenstein famously issued his ’Statement on Sound’ in the early ’30s, in which he warned of the ’danger’ of introducing sound in film. He felt that the pure pictorial elements of film would be sidetracked, and that we would be left with little more than "pictures of people talking".
Thomas may or may not be interested in the great filmmaker-theorist, but the unsuccessful, stretched out dialogue scenes outlined previously force him into the very trap Eisenstein was so wary of. These silent cinema analogies may seem a little forced, but when one considers that the makeshift recording room featured in the film was "a silent move theatre" that had never been "wired for sound", perhaps these observations aren’t so pretentious after all.
Returning to the film’s set-pieces, one towards the end proves intriguing both in its execution and its contribution to the film’s meaning. When Davis and Karen tear off the barricade and explore the basement depths, they find themselves pursued by startling creatures with long arms, blood-spattered aprons (reminiscent of the excellent DARKNESS BEYOND), twitching heads, and unformed, snarling faces.
Following several ill-advised Kung Fu and axe-wielding moves in which Davis becomes an Errol Flynn ‘athletic hero’ type scaling walls and saving the girl, the film redeems itself somewhat by treating us to a fascinating awareness of its dream world. As Davis struggles through an air vent, he sees the grotesque vampire from his original nightmare. Our protagonist flees into a dead end and, in panic, pushes at the wall, forcing his hand through its soft, malleable surface. As he emerges on the other side, we discover that he has moved through one of the premonitory paintings. The relation between the basement (which creates) and the paintings (which become) is a fascinating one. The impression is of a concentrated nightmare that is shaping and inventing itself - and thus reminds one of Mariano Baino’s masterpiece DEAD WATERS (1994). 13 SECONDS, then, could be viewed - at least in intention - as an interesting work of surrealist art.
A pity then, that instead of letting the subjective/nightmare world run its course (as does INFERNO, THE BEYOND, and DEAD WATERS), 13 SECONDS shuts it off and explains it away neatly as part of its disappointing plot twist, relegating it to the cop out level of the M. Knight Shyamalan school of ’nothing you’ve seen can be trusted’.
Directed by Jeff Thomas
English Language / USA / 2003 / 93 mins / Colour
A Rainstorm Pictures DVD Screener
Region 1 / NTSC / mono / Original ratio 1.33:1