Nightmare on the 13th Floor 1989
Directed by: Walter Grauman
Starring: Michele Greene, James Brolin, Louise Fletcher
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
It’s easy to understand why making a TV horror movie is immediately a tougher task. You can’t rely on gore when you have to stick within suitable viewing material regulations and you need a deft touch for building suspense through imagery and music. Of the many slasher movies that you’ll read about on this site, very few are truly scary. The rest are either complete rubbish or have utilised extreme gore or other such methods that are unavailable when you’ve shooting for a TV audience.
That’s not to say that you cannot make a decent horror flick with restraint. Littered throughout the slasher grouping, there are a few fine examples for your perusal. Firstly, Dark Night of the Scarecrow from 1981 is a very good thriller with a sympathetic synopsis and some brilliant shocks. The same can be said for Chimera, which isn’t even a feature-length title and was actually a miniseries that fitted nicely within the category. It was later released in a condensed film version under the title, Monkey Boy. Also, would you believe that Home for the Holidays was planned initially only for broadcast? For every Mila Kunis there’s a Paris Hilton and the likes of Too Scared to Scream were begging for an injection of x-ratedness. Nightmare on the 13th floor was a very late entry to the slasher wagon and being released on the heels of censorship’s most stringent decade in the Western world meant that the odds were stacked heavily against it.
A bubbly and ambitious columnist travels to the West coast to do a review on the Wessex Hotel. When she arrives, she witnesses a murder after bumping her head in the lift, but later cannot be sure if she imagined it or not. Soon after, people begin disappearing and the young woman believes that it could have something to do with the concealed 13th floor. The Police do not believe her stories, so it’s left up to the journalist to convince them to solve the mystery…
I have mentioned a few times on this site that aside from being a slasher fanatic, I’m also a mad Gooner and for those who live outside the UK that means I support the soccer team, Arsenal FC. At the time of writing, Barcelona are the most consistently successful team in Europe and they’ve broken records for their scintillating football and ability to retain possession of the ball. Arsenal used to win stuff too, but nowadays due to a dictator-like ownership and a coach that has gone insane, we are going through a dry patch and are more renowned for our slick passing. Because of this, we have become known in some sectors as Barcelona-lite. Nightmare on the 13th floor could share that labelling, as what we have here is summed up perfectly as ‘slasher-lite’. It’s one of those that I wasn’t sure about adding to this site, but it does have an unseen axe-murderer and a whodunit plot outline, so I guess it just about makes the grade. 13th Floor boasts a really interesting cast, which includes James Brolin, Louise Fletcher and John Karlen. I watched this with a female companion many moons back when I was at school and I remember us really enjoying it. Obviously, it is much easier to impress youthful eyes and this time around I was interested in finding out if my opinions had changed after so much time or if I was just a good judge of motion pictures during my teenage years.
We get a real mix of classic horror styles here, which range from obsessive satanic cults to an obvious stalk and slash homage, but it is most definitely closer aligned to a murder mystery than anything else. What the story does do very well is keep up a decent pace throughout the first three-quarters, by offering various twists and a puzzle that helps to keep you intrigued. The viewer is aware that people are getting killed and is alert to the fact that there is something sinister happening behind the scenes with the staff, but the real motive is unravelled neatly. Despite the fact that there’s a whole heap of dialogue and investigative stuff that we need to sit through, quite a few victims get trapped on the 13th floor with the madman and so I didn’t find myself struggling to remain transfixed. There’s one stand out scene that was extremely creative, when a short-sighted girl loses her glasses and we see various POV shots of her blurred vision as she stumbles around and into the hatchet-wielding nut job.
Floor XIII has great gothic set decorations and the director utilises a specific period tune every time that an unfortunate someone stumbles on to the deserted corridor. I liked the idea that there was no escape for the prey once the elevator doors close and an impressive level of claustrophobia was sustained. I also felt that the synopsis was fairly mean-spirited with its choice of psycho-fodder, because some genuinely nice and undeserving characters get murdered; – gruesomely. I guess that Walter Grauman was the perfect director for this type of picture, due to his previous work on notorious TV murder mysteries such as Columbo, Murder she Wrote and Scene of the Crime. It is quite clear that he had sat through a few slashers before beginning this project (check out the Halloween homage. I’ll give you a hint: one of the character’s names.) I must also mention that the runtime is sharply edited, has some workable dialogue and even transcends its limitations to become slightly creepy on occasion.
I mentioned earlier the decent cast, but they’re not really given enough to work with and there isn’t a great deal of chemistry or energy in their performances. The attractive Michele Greene was charming and alluring in the lead without being particularly convincing, and Louise Fletcher was wasted in a nonsense role. The real credit goes to Brolin and Karlen who brought weak characters alive with sharp delivery of their lines. I have noticed that other critics have said that the film was slow-moving and boring, but I completely disagree. I found myself to be wrapped up in the mystery for the majority of my viewing.
Unfortunately, things begin falling apart in the build up to the finale, due to the fact that the script runs up blind alleys and becomes cheesy and in effect, unforgivably stupid. Now I could clearly remember who the killer was, which makes it unfair for me to comment on the success of hiding his identity. However I will say that the person that I watched it with didn’t guess right up until the big ‘revelation’. I did like the idea for the motive , which makes sense when you keep in mind that there are many bizarre sects in the world like the Skoptsy (скопцы) from Russia that used to castrate themselves to prevent from sinning. The problem though is that we have a conclusion that can only exist because of a sheer lack of logic from everyone involved and a heap of coincidence. Too many of the players are far too dumb in their actions to be believable and the suspense is ruined because the villains are equally as woeful. A lot of time is wasted watching them give chase down never ending corridors without putting one foot in front of the other in rapid succession. Otherwise known as ‘running’…
The net result is a feature that should never have been made for TV audiences. There’s enough here for a really engrossing and intriguing slasher spectacular and with a bit of a bigger budget it could have been a hit. Personally, I would take the story, the idea of the lead character, the satanic sheen and the creepy music and remove all the silliness. Then I’d add a bit of gore, some better performances, a director who could deliver suspense when needed and I believe it’d be a classic. Still as it stands, you won’t hate me for telling you to watch it, but you won’t particularly thank me either.
Final Girl: √√√