Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: '13th Child' (2002)

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

Although it looks like it was shot for a budget of around $100 wherever the filmmakers could grab locations, horror movie 13th Child boasts a cast that includes Robert Guillaume, Lesley-Anne Down, Christopher Atkins and Cliff Robertson, whose co-writing credit may explain this inept indie production's ability to attract so many recognizable actors. None of them are doing their best work here, and Down's role, at least, is little more than a cameo. But Robertson throws himself into the part of a strange, wealthy recluse living in rural New Jersey, delivering his lines with the kind of devilish menace that he probably imagined in his head while he was writing the terrible dialogue. If nothing else, 13th Child gives a veteran character actor a chance to realize some sort of bizarre personal vision (Robertson's only other writing credits are a 1962 episode of TV Western Outlaws and the 1971 cowboy movie J W Coop, both of which he directed), in one of his final onscreen roles.

Robertson aside, 13th Child is your basic no-budget horror movie, with a story based around the urban legend of the Jersey Devil, a creature that haunts the Pine Barrens, the vast forest area of southern New Jersey. The movie gives the Jersey Devil a back story as the 13th child of a Native American tribe who clashed with early English settlers, although the Wikipedia entry doesn't mention anything about Native Americans. Also, for some reason Robertson's Mr. Shroud calls the monster "Bruno," which does seem like a very New Jersey name for an evil entity. Mr. Shroud turns out to be the English priest who initially ordered the Native American man put to death, or at least I think that's what the movie's ending implies. He's definitely not quite human, and he has a supernatural bond of some kind with the Jersey Devil.

That all sounds a lot more exciting than the movie actually is, since the bulk of the story is about Kathryn (Michelle Maryk), a somewhat snarky investigator for the New Jersey attorney general's office, who's looking into the case of an escaped convict who's been mutilated by some kind of creature deep in the woods. It's not clear why the regular police aren't part of the investigation, and Kathryn teams up with a forest ranger (Atkins) and an officer "on loan" from the NYPD to look into the attack. The trio mostly stand around making awkward jokes and blatantly violating the chain of evidence, at one point leaving a bag of body parts in their car overnight before taking it to a coroner. This is the kind of movie that has the coroner's assistant perform some sort of magical, instantaneous analysis on a strange claw found at the murder scene that can identify it as a combination of multiple types of animal DNA, as well as date its existence back 200 years.

The other main plot strand involves Guillaume as a mental patient obsessed with the Jersey Devil, and the movie's confusing timeline indicates that his ravings about the creature while locked up in the world's dingiest, most poorly staffed mental institution come after the main events of the story. Most of Guillaume's dialogue is delivered in what sounds like voiceover while director Steven Stockage shoots him from a curiously distant angle, like they just got some random footage of Guillaume stumbling around his cell and then added whatever audio they needed later.

Really, though, these scenes are no more disjointed or clumsy than the rest of the movie, which includes things like one character struggling to put on a jacket in the foreground of the shot while two other characters have a conversation next to him. The monster barely ever appears onscreen, and the killings are mostly just quick splashes of blood before Stockage cuts away. A disclaimer at the end of the credits states that all of the dead deer seen in the movie (the preferred bait for the Jersey Devil, apparently) were repurposed roadkill, which is just the kind of thrifty yet distasteful technique that exemplifies this odd mess of a movie.

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