A most dangerous game indeed tempts a meek, straight-laced insurance salesman to embrace the beast within in “13 Sins,” a creepy little diversion that ultimately unravels long before its hero’s fragile psyche does. Having made a commercially successful foray into religio-supernatural horror with 2010’s “The Last Exorcism,” German-born director Daniel Stamm here applies his relatively slick, straightforward genre smarts to a template provided by the 2006 Thai thriller “13: Game of Death” (also known as “13 Beloved”). The resulting remake achieves a modest degree of tension and dark humor before tilting into gory overkill, while its diffuse central ideas — about materialism, the dangers of playing God and the latent human capacity for violence — never really take plausible shape. Intriguing enough to appeal to younger thrill-seekers but unlikely to match the B.O. spoils of Stamm’s previous picture, these “Sins” will be paid for primarily through streaming and other home-viewing services following brief theatrical exposure through Dimension Films.
The film begins with a bizarre breach of social decorum, a startling act of violence and a blood-stained cell phone, in an Australia-set prologue whose tangential connection to the rest of the narrative will soon be made clear. Stamm and David Birke’s screenplay hurriedly catches us up with the life of New Orleans native Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber), a kind, mild-mannered young man who’s happily preparing to marry his pregnant girlfriend (Rutina Wesley). But when Elliot is fired for being too principled and insufficiently aggressive for his sales job (in the words of his sneering supervisor, he “lacks the balls to lay it on the line”), his future debt seems endless, with a wedding to plan, a baby on the way and $10,000 in student loans to pay back. Nor does it help that much of his income went toward care for his mentally challenged younger brother (Devon Graye) and their cruelly misanthropic father (Tom Bower).
One night, Elliot receives a mysterious phone call from an apparently all-knowing, all-seeing voice that playfully offers him a series of challenges — 13 total — the successful completion of which will make him a millionaire. But there are many catches: At no point can he tell anyone about the game he’s playing, or attempt to interfere with those administering it. And then there are the challenges themselves, each one a little nastier and more outrageous than the last in a film that suggests a bizarre hybrid of “The Game,” “The Truman Show” and “Fear Factor”: The easy, early rounds find Elliot literally harming a fly and making a child cry (the latter a task borrowed from the Thai original, although mercifully, that pic’s feces-eating dare didn’t survive the English translation). But soon he finds himself committing arson, dragging a corpse through the streets in broad daylight, running afoul of the police and turning his own wedding rehearsal dinner into a social disaster for the ages.
The most satisfying aspect of “13 Sins” is the sight of Elliot gradually but decisively shedding his upstanding image, to the point where even he’s surprised by his own killer instinct. Webber (“The End of Love,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) makes a very appealing Everyman protagonist, nicely capturing the strain of a guy whose initial mortification at his actions gives way to a sort of devilish satisfaction; at the same time, both actor and script avoid turning Elliot into a complete monster, leaving no doubt as to who the real villains of the story are. And there is more than one villain, it turns out, as the picture grows increasingly murky and unfocused, dissipating the tension by cutting away from Elliot’s ordeals to the investigations of a cop (genre-movie stalwart Ron Perlman) and a mysterious onlooker (Pruitt Taylor Vince) trying to piece together the game’s sinister, possibly Catholic Church-related origins. (The film’s working title: “Angry Little God.”)
By the time Elliot finds himself amputating someone’s arm with a handsaw, whatever “13 Sins” may be trying to say — about the lengths to which some people will go to secure their fortunes, or the intriguing possibility that the entire game might have been dreamed up for the entertainment of the bored One Percent — seems far less of a priority than the vigorous bloodbath the audience presumably paid to see. In screenwriting terms, Elliot’s own backstory turns out to be as rigged as the game itself, turning the committed performances by Graye and Bower in particular into little more than attention-grabbing stunts. The rug is pulled out from under Elliot and the viewer in due course, but the whole carpet is pretty threadbare.
Stamm, who made his pre-horror debut with the 2008 SXSW-premiered documentary “A Necessary Death,” does lean, efficient work here, and Zoltan Honti’s cinematography and James Gelarden’s production design capture an underlying sense of desperation and decay in the picture’s New Orleans locations. Sound plays a key role, from the incessant, unnerving sound of Elliot’s circus-theme ringtone (when he has time to charge his phone is one of the film’s numerous offscreen mysteries) to the disembodied voice spurring him onward, though whether due to technical or venue issues, that voice at times sounded garbled and unintelligible at the SXSW world-premiere screening attended.