Buy, Don’t Rent: Skeevy “13 Cameras” worms under your skin

13 Cameras (2016)
87 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

“13 Cameras,” Victor Zarcoff’s feature writing-directing debut, is a compellingly unpleasant voyeur chiller that might also act as a paranoid cautionary tale against renting a home. The film opens with a double statement: “More than 30 million surveillance cameras have been sold in the last decade. Last year, over 8,000 people were watched in their homes without their knowledge.” The validity of those statistics may not be clear, but they certainly work in favor of setting a queasy tone. The elemental moral of the story? Buy your home; do not rent.

Relocating from New York to California, newlyweds Claire (Brianne Moncrief) and husband Ryan (PJ McCabe) rent a house that’s perfect for them. Their landlord, Gerald (Neville Archambault), is a little gruff in appearance and smells of feces, but otherwise, Ryan thinks he’s pretty harmless. Unfortunately, the couple is oblivious to what Gerald is doing under their noses, watching their every move with installed surveillance cameras all over the house, including the shower. Claire is pregnant, while Ryan is already having an affair with his assistant, Hannah (Sarah Baldwin), and that bit of information is seen by Gerald. What is Gerald capable of beyond spying with his little eye?

Sweaty, disconcerting but also technically assured, “13 Cameras” delivers the desired impact of feeling like someone is breathing heavily down your neck. Worse, when one of the characters comments that Gerald smells like “spoiled mayonnaise” or a “dirty diaper,” the viewer can smell him, too. As a compliment, sinewy character actor Neville Archambault has a face one does not want to see at night, and his perverted, smarmy Gerald can be added to the list of scary movie villains. There’s no explainable method to Gerald’s madness; his hobbies just happen to be of the unsavory, psychopathic variety. Aligning ourselves with the young tenants can be a little tricky, as Ryan is dishonest and selfish, while Claire is the one honest character to earn our sympathy. As these flawed characters—Claire has her whiny moments—PJ McCabe and Brianne Moncrief are natural and sympathetic enough.

“13 Cameras” breaks little ground, but as an exercise in how to put an audience into a vise-like grip and give them the creeps with the stench of grime palpable, it has done its job. Writer-director Victor Zarcoff takes his time, as it won't be until the final ten minutes or so that Claire and Ryan notice the cameras, but lays the cards out immediately. Gerald is oppressively creepy as soon as he walks on screen and doesn't have any charisma or personality to be a more fascinating character. Still, Zarcoff's handling of violence is never more gratuitous than it needs to be, as he never gets off on it but rather keeps much of it off-screen or utilizes the power of suggestion. It’s almost guaranteed that you will need a shower once it’s over.

Grade: B -