Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13th Unit' (2014)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Yet another example of a direct-to-video movie retitled with the number 13 to make it sound more menacing (or maybe just more memorable), The 13th Unit originally had the much more evocative title of The Darkness, the Rage and the Fury. Maybe it's better that it ended up with a blander title, because there's no way this cheap-looking, repetitive, poorly acted and incoherently plotted movie could ever live up to something as grandiose as The Darkness, the Rage and the Fury. Clearly inspired by the filmmakers' access to a single location (a labyrinthine self-storage facility), Unit introduces some nonsensical mythology as an excuse to slowly kill off a variety of annoying characters wandering around this vast complex (yet rarely ever encountering each other).

Opening title cards explain that this site was previously a warehouse where a group of criminals gathered following a museum heist, only to be mysteriously slaughtered, with the artifacts they stole never recovered. After that, there's a prologue featuring various irritating characters at the storage facility, being targeted by an entity of some kind (indicated by sinister POV shots, mostly). Then there's an opening-credits sequence of a shadowy figure engaged in some sort of demonic ritual. And then there's yet another set-up scene of our three main characters explaining the exact same background that was detailed in the opening title cards (complete with terrible fake-looking vintage newspaper articles).

Finally, the movie begins, although there's really not much to distinguish the main action from what happens in the prologue, other than that we get to spend more time with these particular annoying characters and hear them whine about their back story. Maybe the demon that killed the criminals back in the 1930s is back? Maybe it was summoned by the ritual during the opening credits? Maybe it's unleashed when the three dumb protagonists open the box that those criminals stole decades ago (which they find in like 10 minutes after apparently no one could locate it for years)? Maybe it's not a demon at all, but a kind of infectious ooze that causes people to go crazy and turn on their friends?

The answer to all of those questions is an indifferent shrug, and writer-director Theophilus Lacey haphazardly posits various half-formed explanations for what's happening. Some of the characters clearly do end up possessed by some black goo and turn violent, but other characters are clearly killed by some sort of monster that never fully appears onscreen. Both the demonic summoning and the discovery of the artifacts occur around the time of the attacks, but some attacks seem to start before either of those things happen. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, since these grating characters, who spend almost all of their screen time yelling at each other about either their personal squabbles or their deadly predicament, totally deserve whatever gruesome fate they encounter, by whatever means.

Plenty of low-budget horror movies have made great use of a single available location, and the storage facility has lots of potential (anyone who's been in one of those places late at night can attest to its inherent creepiness). But Lacey doesn't capitalize on any of that potential, just having his characters literally cover the same ground over and over again. Onscreen titles meant to convey where each character is only add to the confusing inconsistency (levels are variously referred to as "lower level X," "sub-level X" or just "X levels below"), and there's nothing narratively unique about the setting. It's the ultimate squandered opportunity in a movie that drops the ball at pretty much every possible chance.