When DVDs gained popularity in the early 2000s, the 80s “direct-to-video” craze came back full force. Eye-catching horror art on the DVD cases of these indie movies were so enticing, and the movies were usually priced at about half the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster. This made impulse buying to expand your home movie library very tempting, especially if you came from a time when VHS tapes used to be like 60 bucks a pop. Needless to say, I have A LOT of early 2000s crap in my collection.
Two that I missed back then recently appeared on one of those questionable “great movies you haven’t seen” lists horror sites like to compile. The films were in good company from the perspective of my indie horror taste, so I checked them both out….
13 SECONDS (2003)
13 Seconds is written by, directed by, and stars one Jeff Thomas. The movie is mostly a big mess, but there are some damn good standout aspects of it that suggest he could make one hell of a scary horror film if he had the resources—and if he recognized what went wrong here.
The basic plot is one of my faves. A bunch of friends—this time, a rock band looking to shoot a video—comes to an old abandoned location. The building is confusingly referenced in various ways, but from what I finally understood by the conclusion of the film, it had been a school (?). Anyway, members of the gang start acting weird and being killed off by some sort of threat that often looks like various different threats.
The opening dream sequence immediately shows the strengths of Jeff Thomas’s work—he can visually set up a fantastically eerie situation, deliver scares, and thrill us with creepy-assed demon monsters. Those are exactly where all the highlights fall in the film. The lighting and camera angles in the creepy location are classic horror movie stuff, recalling the look and feel of Night of the Demons and even tapping into the atmosphere of early 80s Euro horror. The winning scene for me has the cutest guy in the bunch (who dies way too soon) getting his crotch grabbed by a demon hand, before being gruesomely dragged under a bed.
There are actually several chilling moments early on in the film, and great gore effects as well. While the members of the band don’t turn demon (although one gets possessed), there are several great creatures presented; unfortunately, they don’t come to the forefront soon enough.
The problems with the film are the acting and the plot. It’s not unusual for indie films to have shaky acting, but 13 Seconds is shaken and stirred. I’ll never understand why indie filmmakers don’t thoroughly audition to hold out for wannabe actors who can do an even halfway decent job. Of course, Jeff Thomas himself is the lead, and while I watched the majority of the film thinking he was not so good himself, I realized something that might not have been intentional but could catapult him in a different direction. There are moments in which the dry delivery of his lines comes across as very purposely funny. If he wasn’t going for a comic tone, he might have accidentally tapped into a big strength. I think he could really shine as a comedy horror hero if given the right script.
Beyond the acting, the biggest weakness here is the plot. It is confusing, disjointed, and simply throws in way too many unnecessary elements that cause it to lose focus. There’s an art gallery in the building, and as people disappear, a painting depicting their demise appears on the wall. Cool idea…but not fully explored. There’s that sudden random possession. There are demons, mostly presented at the very end of the film. There’s a book that reveals the history of the building, yet they also have a séance with a Ouija board to get to the truth. Jeff Thomas’s character is plagued by nightmares, and eventually, there’s a sudden twist out of the blue involving his character’s childhood. The script needed some serious streamlining. When you have a group of people and a bunch of demons together in an abandoned building and you clearly know how to set up some wickedly frightening sequences, you really don’t need to attempt a complex plot.
DARK REMAINS (2005)
Dark Remains is a much more polished indie loaded with creepy moments and jump scares, but it also tends to meander and lose focus—partially because it’s attempting to be one of those “horror mysteries” like The Ring, yet wants to bombard you with scary ghost appearances to ensure that you remain on edge.
After their little daughter is mysteriously killed, a couple moves to a secluded cabin. Conveniently, there’s an abandoned prison nearby, and the wife is a photographer who finds inspiration in visiting it. She also begins seeing ghosts in her developed photos and the ghost of her daughter around the cabin. Meanwhile, there is also some sort of domestic abuse subplot involving the neighbors. Plus, the cabin has a morbid history. In one of the creepiest scenes in the film, a visiting friend is terrorized by a demonic ghost that looks like Cheryl from the original Evil Dead. In fact, most of the supernatural entities roaming around the cabin look and act like deadites.
Again, there’s just too much going on here, so when the husband begins digging into the cabin’s past, rather than becoming more intriguing, the plot gets more confusing. But damn are the scary scenes really scary. These are the kinds of ghost appearances that would be exploited a few years later in numerous Hollywood ghost movies like Insidious and The Conjuring. And Dark Remains is just as guilty of overdoing the ghost pop-ups. They are so frequent that they begin to lose their potency halfway through the movie, especially considering most of the time, we can see the ghosts, but the characters can’t, one of the biggest problems with ghost films today. We’re constantly being reminded that there are scary ghosts all around the characters—ghosts that either just stand there looking spooky or dart past the screen to give viewers a jump scare.
One final thing to note is a tense sequence in a barn. The visual style of this scene is almost identical to scenes from Ti West’s The Roost, which came out the same year! Great horror minds film alike, I guess.