They Don’t Know Nothing About the Jersey Devil: 13th Child (2002)

Whenever I see the phrase “Inspired By,” I know I’d better not be too invested in the source material. Sometimes this is a good thing. In the case of 13th Child, which is subtitled The Legend of the Jersey Devil, I’m not so sure.

With the amount of star power in the cast, it should be a better film than it is. Oscar winner Cliff Robertson stars as Mr. Shroud. Emmy winner Robert Guillaume plays his opposite number, ex-cop and current Mental-Health Hospital inmate Riley. Familiar faces Lesley-Anne Down and Christopher Atkins do their best to move the plot along, Down in a scene as the New Jersey Attorney General and Atkins as the intrepid Ranger Ron.

Along with the rest of the cast, they manage to not quite equal the sum of their parts. Down is especially overwrought as the daughter seeking revenge by proxy for the murder of her father twenty years before. She gender-bends the fridging trope, which is something, I guess. The young Assistant DA she assigns to the case, played by Michelle Maryk (no relation to co-writer Michael Maryk), comes across as a kind of Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs-lite. Which lets Cliff Robertson do a low-key riff on Hannibal Lecter, complete with villainously flat affect and gnomic utterances (which he may have written himself—he shares the writing credit with Michael Maryk).

Or maybe he’s supposed to be the priest in The Exorcist, with the overcoat and the fedora, pacing ominously through shadowy settings. The Jersey Devil is a devil, after all, though whether that means a demon in the religious sense, or more of a horror-movie monster, is ambiguous.

Mother Leeds gets disappeared in favor of a Lenni Lenape named Matongwa (which ADA Tatum rolls her eyes at: “That’s a name to conjure with”). He is a shaman’s thirteenth child, and he has superpowers, including the ability to shapeshift. There’s a curse, and the Shroud family is linked with it, in the person of Cliff Robertson’s character. They’ve been connected for over 200 years; their ownership of the land predates the British.

There’s an echo of a variation on the legend, the story of the local girl who fell in love with a British soldier and bore a cursed child. Here, there’s no mother in the picture. We first encounter Matongwa at the end of his life, when a British major hanged him. He transformed into a monster and slaughtered the major. Whether he was born with the ability to transform into that shape, or whether it’s the hanging that precipitated it, we aren’t told.

This was the first murder of a centuries-long spree, which kind of points toward the latter possibility. The monster’s signature is “gruesome decapitation and mutilation murder.” He’s been doing it with apparent regularity since the day he was hanged.

The main plot involves ADA Tatum, who is investigating the gruesome decapitation with mutilation murder of an escaped convict, interwoven with the story of the AG’s father and his partner, Riley. Riley claimed to have seen the Jersey Devil, and became obsessed with finding it again. Officer Murphy finally agreed to help him hunt for it, but if they didn’t find it within a week, Riley would have to give up and move on.

After three weeks, Riley was found in the Pine Barrens in complete mental collapse. Murphy was never found at all. But we know that Riley did find his mutilated body, and a great deal of blood.

Twenty years later, Riley is now in the New Jersey Mental Health Facility (it says so on the sign), and the Jersey Devil is doing what he does. He gruesomely murders a deer hunter and rips up the deer carcass, and later he’ll go after a pair of kids having hot teen sex in a beat-up RV in the woods.

Riley claims to be the only person who knows the truth about the Jersey Devil. He has a meltdown after watching a television documentary on the legend (in which we learn about the major and Matongwa), and is hauled off to his very bare, very poorly maintained room. He’s injected with a sedative, over his vehement protests, and the staff take a small fur-and-bone talisman from him and hand it to the security guard outside.

The guard ignores it, but we see that it starts to glow. Later we’ll learn that it’s made from the bones of Indian ancestors (and we learn whose they are), and it protects him against the Jersey Devil.

We also see that he has company in the room. It’s tiny, but deliberately scary, if you’re phobic. Which Riley seems to be.

Or is he?

We’ll learn the answer to that by the end of the film.

There’s a whole lot of plot-foo in between, with a couple of decapitated torsos, an ongoing motif of deer carcasses, an occasional lake of blood, and plenty of weird witchy stuff in the Shroud house (which was built, Shroud tells us, in 1760). The barn is notably bigger than the house, full of drying bunches of (poisonous?) herbs and animal skulls and bones and the odd, very stinky snake carcass. There’s a tower, too, with alarming contents of the bleeding-offal variety.

Mr. Shroud is openly eccentric. He has a poison garden, because of course he does. He has his own vineyard, though the wine doesn’t appear to be toxic, and a collection of live reptiles. And he has a pet tarantula named Bruno.

“I study things shunned by man,” he intones. “I intend to protect them anywhere, any way.” That’s his life’s work, and his constant purpose.

We gradually get to see the actual Devil, at first by what he does to his victims, and then through shadows and glimpses. He ticks most of the boxes: bipedal, standing on hooves, with clawed hands, a torso consisting primarily of skeletal ribs, and horns (deer antlers in the opening scenes, bovine toward the end, which is either a continuity problem or a plot point that doesn’t come through). He has a T. Rex-like head with glowing red eyes and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, and he drools slime.

What is it with movie monsters and slime-drool?

I have to hand it to the film for giving us an unusual take on shapeshifting. The seven-foot-tall Devil is the form that gets all the publicity. The other one, which may be the base form, is not what you would expect.

Or maybe the Devil is the base form and the other one is what it turns into when it needs to fly under the radar. We never get an explanation. We just know that Shroud calls the Devil his “brother,” and he has devoted his life to protecting the creature from humans.

It’s humans who are evil, he maintains. They fill the world with their poisons and their unkindness. The Devil, like the rest of its deadly relatives, is only being itself.

One thing we do learn is that in Devil form, the creature is a five-way chimera. This is thanks to one of the more distinctive fantasy elements, the instant DNA analysis. Throw a claw in a jar, get your result: “Equal parts goat, bat, reptile, and are you ready for this? Spider, and human.”

It appears to be a clone. Instant DNA Tech declares that the two claws he analyzed (one from the latest murder scene and the other stolen from Shroud’s house by ADA Tatum) are identical, but one is 200 years old. Apparently he can do instant dating, too. Fantasy science for the win.

We get some Monster POV here and there, in case we were missing a chance to be the Devil. It’s blurry, red-tinged, and out of focus. Except when it zeroes in on a victim. Then we get it sharp and clear and in living color.

It’s just doing what it’s made (or cursed) to do. And Shroud is paying the price that his family was made (or cursed) to pay in return for the land he lives on.

Shroud has embraced his destiny. He’ll do anything to protect the creatures he regards as his own. Anything. At any cost. icon-paragraph-end

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