13th Child (2002)

reviewed by
David N. Butterworth

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2002 David N. Butterworth
no stars (out of ****)

It's become a bit of a Halloween tradition to find films prefaced by the words "not previewed" in the theater listings around this ghoulish time of year. Time and experience have proven that that benign little phrase truly warns of the gravest of dangers ahead for unsuspecting moviegoers looking for a scary good time (as opposed to a scary BAD time).

Call it curiosity (or overconfidence!) but I pooh-poohed the fact that, unlike "Ghost Ship," the seasonal re-release of "Halloween: Resurrection" or, for that matter, "Jackass: The Movie," an intriguing-sounding little horror film called "13th Child" had been slapped with the ominous "not previewed" stamp (of disapproval?) upon its release this pre-All Hallow's weekend. I was initially intrigued by its complex full title--"13th Child: Legend of the Jersey Devil, Volume 1." I was intrigued by its full-page "Philadelphia Weekly" poster art with minotaur-like graphic and punchy tagline "no one believed... until now." And most of all I was intrigued by its mixed bag o' stars, with Cliff Robertson (Spidey's Uncle Ben), Lesley-Anne Down ("Upstairs, Downstairs"), Christopher Atkins ("The Blue Lagoon"), and "Benson"'s own Robert Guillaume heading up the roster.

It wasn't until five minutes into this sorry excuse for entertainment that I remembered the real reason most films "not previewed" are not previewed. They?re tripe.

"13th Child" is a colossal pile of tripe, offal, and other unpalatable sweetmeats, quite the worst film I've suffered through in many, many moons (well, since "The Sculptress" that is, another film "not previewed" on the verge of Halloween 2000). A look at the credits proves telling. First, that fascinating title is jettisoned to the end credits (it's simply known as "13th Child" up front--so much for the intrigue; pray there's not a Volume 2!). Second, if you can buy Lesley-Anne Down as the Garden State's Attorney General then I guess you can buy just about anything. She's only in the one scene early on, a long, drawn-out, talky sequence in which she spouts on about how her father supposedly met his demise at the hands of the Jersey Devil (there's a good reason Ms. Down's mantelpiece sports more dust bunnies than statuettes).

Not only is Cliff Robertson in the film he appears to have co-written it. That fact isn't a bad thing in and of itself (it's his second turn at bat--1972's "J.W. Coop" was ambitious if nothing else) but since the screenplay for "13th Child" is equal parts laughable, equal parts abysmal it proves problematic here. Robertson penned the story with someone named Michael Maryk. Maryk's previous credits total one: writer of the 1983 film "Spasms," based upon his novel "Death Bite." Oddly enough, the actress who plays the lead in "13th Child" (as the Assistant DA charged with investigating a rash of decapitations in the New Jersey pine barrens) is named Michelle Maryk. Coincidence? I think not. A Google search would no doubt link the two but I'm not going to bother. "13th Child" is her first "dramatic" role; director Steven Stockage is new to moviemaking also.

So what we have here is not, alas, some undiscovered gem of a slasher flick or influential "Blair Witch"-styled approach to the backwoods genre but some unintelligent lowbrow cheapie horror knock-off stitched together by a bunch of nobodies (and Cliff Robertson) with zero concept of how to make a movie (let alone a scary one).

Robertson and Maryk dip into the oft used trick-or-treat bucket of don't-go-into-the-scrublands-there's-a-big-hairy-thing-with-claws-like-razor-shells-out-there and comes a cropper big time. The plot is nonsensical, some skullduggery about Robertson's ponytailed Woody Shrouds protecting those misunderstood poisonous entities that society has shunned--snakes, tarantulas, deadly nightshade plants, etc, and the entire amateurish mishmash is so poorly made you wonder how the project ever got the go-ahead. Glaring lapses in logic and continuity get more screen time that the JD himself, a shuffling, horned, cloven-hoofed behemoth with drooling, "Alien"-like choppers that Shrouds affectionately refers to as Bruno (?) and Stockage keeps in the shadows. Benson pretty much keeps himself in the county lock-up, but is forced to become more involved through that favorite plot device The Flashback, which get so convoluted they lose track of the days!

Watching "13th Child" I was constantly reminded of a creepy little thriller, an infinitely superior creepy little thriller, from earlier this year called "Wendigo." "13th" Child doesn't even pay lip service to those elements--atmosphere, characterizations, pacing--that "Wendigo" nailed so effectively.

Hey, it wasn't just me. Audience members were heckling the characters on-screen almost constantly--"they?re STILL talking!?" someone commented when Stockage cut back to an already lengthy exchange between the blonde Kathryn (Maryk) and Shrouds... and notice how long it takes for a stock pair of libidinous teens to get it on (night actually falls before the guy gets his pants off!). More than a dozen people stormed out. More still could be overheard talking refunds as the end credits rolled.

America had come to its communal senses: "13th Child" bites the big one! And anyone who quickly denounced "Swept Away" as the worst film of the year is going to have to do some serious rethinking.

David N. Butterworth

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