One thing you can say about "13 Seconds" -- it does NOT peter out at the end.
Most first-time horror films peter out at the end. The monster dies, the credits roll. But Jeff Thomas, the writer/director/star of "13 Seconds," decided to turn every horror cliche upside down -- including the ending -- and the result is one of those technical tour-de-forces that might be a little too complicated for general consumption.
Is it a haunted house movie? Maybe. Is it a teenagers-go-into-the-woods movie? Maybe. (Although they're twentysomethings, not teenagers.) Is it a revenge movie? Maybe. Is it a ghost movie? Probably. Is it a satanic possession movie? Possibly. Is it a zombie movie? Yes and no. Is it one of those dream visions told in flashback where the guy wakes up raving in a lunatic asylum in the last scene? It may even be a variation on THAT.
What we've got here is the finest rock-band, nightmare, cat-and-mouse, supernatural thriller ever filmed in Monroe, Mich., and it's got so many creepy moments -- there's a scare of some sort about every 15 seconds -- that it doesn't really give you any breathing space. Even Jason occasionally breaks for lunch.
A burned-out rock band heads for an abandoned boarding school to record their next CD, thinking the place will give them an "essence" they couldn't possibly recreate in the studio.
OK. We'll suspend disbelief on that one.
As we know, any building that's been abandoned in a horror movie still has all its furniture and nothing has been stolen -- especially the strange journal with weird writing in it. Unfortunately, the band members and two girlfriends get to the abandoned boarding school so quickly that I'm not even sure exactly how many of them there are or what their relation to one another is. From the very beginning we've got slamming doors, crashing sounds, jostling knobs (on the doors, not the girls), phantom shapes moving across the middle distance, and the occasional slavering bloody-mouthed monster.
There's an attic, a basement, a library, a child's grave outside, and, of course, the spirit-obsessed art gallery where the paintings change and transform in a "Twilight Zonish" way in order to depict how people are going to die or how they just died.
In other words, it's Spam in a cabin, but you're not sure whether the killers are zombies, ghosts, or just some really mean, local dudes who got tired of hanging out down at the pool hall and decided to play "I Spit On Your Grave."
It also doesn't help when two of the band members decide to shoot some heroin before they settle down for their attic recording session, and by the time the needles are empty, some mutated slime monster is disembowelling, garroting, and using a meat ax on various members of the attractive cast. Director Jeff Thomas, who looks a little like Luke Wilson, plays the leader of the band and the one you assume MUST survive because he's got that "demons don't mess with me" look on his face most of the time.
All the dialogue is delivered in a kind of disembodied, emotionally distant way, which makes sense for the world he's created, but sometimes doesn't give you a chance to fasten onto exactly where the characters are going or why. One thing the ghostly presence does is steal the engines out of the four cars parked outside -- not the cars, the ENGINES of the cars -- and so you start thinking, "Well, maybe it IS just rednecks."
It's not just rednecks. I won't give it away, but this movie is disturbing, surprising, and mostly PROMISING. If Thomas can slow down his jarring quick-cuts -- he makes commercials and industrial films so he has the same problems with full-length narrative that Ridley Scott did in his early films -- he might just be on his way to a horror career.
Let's take a look at those drive-in totals:
Eight dead bodies. No breasts. One army of ax-wielding zombies. One demonic epileptic fit with blood spitting. Wall of blood. Four monster attacks, including one guy cut in half. Crowbar through the stomach. Garroting. Upside-down block-and-tackle disembowelling with sword. Bloody Jackson Pollock paintings. A whole lot of wandering around. Body-chopping. Melting cell phone. Ax to the stomach. Giant wolfman attack with pickax. Head rolls. Heroin Fu. Ouija-board Fu.
Drive-In Academy Award nominations for April Cole, as the weepy girlfriend who says "Nothing's grown here for years;" Esa Scott, as the weird beard Shapiro, for saying "It doesn't have to be painful, Dave;" Robert Miller, as Sidetrack the sound guy, for saying "If it moves, I'll hear it;" Daniel Rowe, as Adramalech, for saying "Blasphemy is just so damned convenient;" and Jeff Thomas, for writing, directing, starring, and doing things the drive-in way.
Three stars. Joe Bob says check it out.
"13 Seconds" Web site: rainstormmedia.com.
(To reach Joe Bob, go to joebobbriggs.com or email him at JoeBob@upi.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)