Frightfest 2010: 13 HRS review

Is 13 Hrs [sic] a film? It's a serious question. Jonathan Glendening's haunted house slasher flick feels more like a cheap and cheerful piece of late-night British genre television, only with more blood and guts thrown in than even post-watershed programming usually allows.


There's the largely attractive young cast most of whom speak in clipped, public school diction; the ex-soap star plainly there to show off her curves; the slightly guilty handling of sexual content and profanity; the threadbare effects, beyond the one big set piece that used up all the money...


The first third or so doesn't suggest it's going to be anything more cinematic. Sarah Tyler (Isabella Calthorpe) arrives back in England to find her family's stately home crumbling into ruin, her parents' marriage falling apart at the seams and the bills mounting up unpaid. Her siblings and their friends are drinking and smoking themselves into oblivion when something comes crawling in from the darkness outside and sets about slaughtering them one by one.


The dialogue is laughably stilted, the backdrops clearly on loan, the scene-setting or back story (initially) facile in the extreme and the direction competent at best. There doesn't seem to be much reason anyone should care what happens beyond the typical baying audience eager to see the cast of these things finished off as gruesomely as possible.


Yet give it time, and 13 Hrs becomes oddly compelling stuff. This isn't Stockholm syndrome; the film never entirely shakes off the impression it's targeted primarily at fourteen year old boys surreptitiously watching the small screen at two in the morning, but it tries a lot harder than first impressions would have you believe.


After the first kill, Sarah and the gang escape into the roof space, where they alternate between trying not to panic and weighing up their options. It's in this terrified, moment to moment planning that Glendenning begins to pay more effective tribute to the classic genre productions he so clearly admires.


The narrative slowly starts to develop into something more affecting. With the initial petty bickering out of the way, thrown into harm's way the cast become far more well-rounded. Writer Adam Philips clearly understands the need to give everyone a flaw, and despite the intermittent howlingly awful line he does resist the temptation to have everyone baldly state what side they fall on for all the little arguments that crop up.


While no-one ever quite comes off as a fully rounded human being Philips and Glendenning do manage to evoke some degree of empathy even for the most reprehensible of the principals. And with the stakes raised that much higher, the cast do give the material a surprising amount of life.


The roles are pretty simplistic - the arrogant brother whose insecurities come raging to the surface under pressure, the innocent child, the best friend (ex-Hollyoaks star Gemma Atkinson) whose sense of self-worth revolves around how attractive others find her. Yet 13 Hrs is still entertaining enough that once everything inevitably goes from bad to worse not only does each death warrant at least a little sympathy, but every shift in the group's dynamics comes across as genuinely tense, vicious, even blackly comic. One key moment around the halfway mark is a far wittier riff on one of Samuel L Jackson's most famous roles than movies with ten times the budget have managed.


Most importantly, the justification for all this actually turns out to be fairly good. While the story is far from original and attentive viewers may well see the Big Reveal coming, it offers a surprisingly poignant explanation for everything which manages to set things up for a sequel without insulting anyone's intelligence.


Glendenning clearly understands his film - and Philips' script - turns on the reason why all this happened, so creditably he not only holds back the big creature moment until the last few scenes, he's obviously given it most of the money. It's a commendable piece of design and a satisfyingly tense climax, bleak, yet moving rather than pointlessly nihilistic.


This is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's perfect for some undemanding genre viewing with a little more depth than usual. Those unwilling to overlook the shoestring production values or general air of 'Let's put on a show!' won't get anywhere with 13 Hrs, but for anyone who can cheer at the low-budget splatter and appreciate the moments of intelligence and pathos as a bonus, it comes cautiously recommended.

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