This article was corrected on July 14, 2003.
Produced as part of the Australian Film Commission’s initiative to encourage first-time directors to make low-budget films running approximately one hour, “The 13th House” shows the potential talent of writers Shaun Duncan and Scott Richards and director Shane McNeil. This mixture of Kafka and “The Twilight Zone” is a tasty little yarn — both a cautionary tale about the perils of being too ambitious, and a pungent satire on the machinations of big business. TV buyers should be interested, and further fest exposure is also indicated.
Mark (Damon Gameau, the young actor who made an impression last year in Rolf De Heer’s “The Tracker”) and his friends Jay (Paul Connell) and Vicki (Tahli Corin) are humble employees in a large corporation that apparently deals with travel packages. An Aquarius, Mark is mildly intrigued when his horoscope predicts “new opportunities — but you will be tested.”
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Soon, Mark is instructed to go to the 13th floor (where he has never been) to report to members of the company’s board. Here he meets Minerva (Rebecca Havey), an icy receptionist, and a man known simply as Sir (Shaun Micallef), the apparent boss of the corporation.
Telling Mark and 12 other lucky contenders “you were made for greater things,” Sir assigns them tasks as part of a competition, with the winner to be given a place at the boardroom table. Among the contenders is David (John Scott), who becomes Mark’s chief rival.
Mark’s first assignment is to check the locks on the toilet doors in the rest room. Later, he’s ordered to fire Jay, steal ties from a department store and deliver a package — which he suspects might contain a bomb — to a conference of travel agents. In-between, he enters into a torrid affair with Minerva, though she remains a deeply mysterious character.
Bizarre little story unfolds with plenty of grim, deadpan humor. Little by little, information is revealed about the strange corporation, and disturbing clues — drops of blood on the floor, for example — suggest that something is terribly wrong. Ever-present video cameras record everything that goes on in the building, as the hapless Mark becomes more and more obsessed about becoming the winner of the ugly contest.
McNeil makes skillful use of an intricate soundtrack filled with whispers and strange noises, and slow dissolves to create an atmosphere of menace.
Gameau is very good as the Everyman who finds himself increasingly involved in a nightmarish situation. Excellent, too, is Micallef as the unctuous Sir.
Pic concludes with a clever twist involving a character played by actor Nicholas Hope (star of De Heer’s “Bad Boy Bubby”), and the film’s final image is powerful. Throughout, the filmmakers have made a virtue of the evidently limited funds at their disposal.