Voyeurism has always been a part of human life, it seems, but it appears that our super-wired culture has made it ever more pervasive. The idea of being constantly watched without knowing it is the narrative crux of “13 Cameras” (originally titled, rather inappropriately, “Slumlord”), a tale of home invasion by electronic surveillance that adds a few twists to the rather simple plot, some of which, unfortunately, carry a strong dose of implausibility.
The boogeyman is Gerald (Neville Archambault), a thoroughly seedy, unkempt fellow who happens to own the attractive if somewhat isolated Southern California house he rents to young yuppie couple Ryan (P.J. McCabe) and Claire (Brianne Moncrief). Though she’s rather put off by the malodorous man, the place, complete with swimming pool, is entirely too good a bargain to pass up, and they’ve quickly moved in with their dog. Ryan regularly goes off to work in the city, while the extravagantly pregnant Claire begins obsessively decorating the room they’re turning into a nursery. Gerald, meanwhile, sits at a console of monitors where he, with even more determination, spies on their every move via the battery of miniscule cameras he’s situated in the place, using what he sees as an invitation to self-stimulation.
But the couple’s happiness turns out to be deceptive. Ryan is having an affair with his pretty assistant Hannah (Sarah Baldwin), and she’s getting impatient over his reluctance to dump his wife for her. Her insistence on calling him at all hours and even showing up at their doorstep makes Ryan increasingly scared that his current arrangement could blow up in his face. No wonder that his friend (Jim Cummings) urges him to end things with Hannah, while his wife (Heidi Niedermeyer) commiserates with Claire as she grows suspicious of Ryan. And Gerald is watching closely as everything slowly unfolds. But, of course, he doesn’t merely watch. As the situation develops he feels the need to intervene.
At the very least what Gerald does when Hannah decides enough is enough stretches credulity. It’s bad enough that Claire and Ryan moved into the house without questioning the need for Gerald to keep a locked “maintenance closet” in the hallway, but the way in which he now employs it not only borders on the ridiculous but crosses the line into absurdity with the addition of a few tacky bits of sound-proofing foam. And when things in that basement-posing-as-a-closet begin to go awry and an inevitable confrontation between Gerald and his tenants occurs, one not only has to swallow the notion that there are no neighbors within earshot to hear the shouts for help, but accept the cliché of cell phones that stubbornly refuse to function precisely when they’re most needed. An epilogue only accentuates the ludicrousness of the final half-hour.
There’s compensation, however, in the performances. Archambault is certainly creepy, and the fact that Gerald is a gruesome cipher only makes him more effective, while McCabe positively exudes callowness and both Moncrief and Baldwin prove pretty damsels-in-distress. One can also appreciate the tension that first-time writer-director Victor Zarcoff and his editor Derek Desmond bring to the first hour of the picture (the moody score by Paul Koch also helps), and the fact that except for a few instances, cinematographer Jess Dunlap eschews the jerky hand-held moves so overused in today’s horror flicks, opting for steady widescreen images that are well-framed, even occasionally elegant. And though the final act veers off the tracks, one can at least be grateful that the gore quotient is, compared to most today’s horror films, remarkably restrained.
It doesn’t so much remake formula as tweak it, but despite a few serious logical lapses down the stretch, Zarcoff’s slow-burning debut generates some genuine chills.