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Cell 213: Locked into a senseless predicament

A scene from the Canadian horror film "Cell 213."


1.5 out of 4 stars


What's the first thing you're going to do after you read the movie ad for Cell 213?

Go to the Bible, of course. After all, this made-in-Canada horror/thriller isn't called Cell 678 or Prison Cell or even The Cell. It's called Cell 213, and since a helluva lot of titles for novels, plays, poems and movies are heavily indebted to the Bible (or Shakespeare), it's logical to presume the good book holds some clue to those digits' significance and, by extension, Cell 213's narrative.

Your first destination should be Revelation: Of all the books in the Bible, it's the most fantastical, apocalyptic and numerically rich. Sure enough, a quick flip to Chapter 2, Verse 13 gives you this: "I know where you live. Satan's throne is there. . . ."

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The "throne" here is South River State Penitentiary (the Guelph, Ont., Correctional Centre in real life), residence of one Michael Grey, former master-of-the-universe criminal lawyer who's behind bars for having murdered an imprisoned client. Only we know it wasn't murder but an especially horrific suicide.

Nevertheless, through a series of flashbacks, director Stephen Kay and screenwriter Maninder Chana reveal that Grey's incarceration represents a kind of cosmic justice: He isn't simply a feckless roué railroaded by circumstance but a dirty lawyer most heinous.

Naturally, South River State is a hellish kingdom of echoing footsteps, dripping ceilings and flickering fluorescent lights, of screams in the distance and things going bump in the night, populated by predatory inmates and sadistic guards (most notably Michael Rooker, star of the cult classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer).

Thrown - O, irony most cheap! - into the very cell (that would be Numero 213) of the man he was convicted of killing, Grey starts to unravel. Worse, at least for the audience, there's this rumpled, hardbitten, no-name warden/philosopher king played by Bruce Greenwood. He shaves maybe once every eight days, has an aversion to shampoo and, in an invariably world-weary voice, intones a steady stream of portentous pronouncements such as: "There's a path we all take that leads us to who and where we are," "You can't cheat death" and "Eventually, Miss Davis, we all pay the piper."

Miss Davis (Deborah Valente) is the crucifix-wearing cutie from State Corrections Services who arrives at South River State to investigate reports of "excessive force." In due course, she discovers South River has had an inordinately high number of inmate suicides, and Grey, whose rehabilitation program finds him working in the prison morgue, seems the next most likely candidate for self-extinction. Or should that be atonement?

No matter. For all its biblical references and moral and metaphysical strenuousness, Cell 213 is all pulp fiction, more macabre comic book than provocative rumination on evil and expiation. Yet even as a comic, it doesn't make very much sense much of the time, containing at least a half-dozen turns where Kay, faced with the intractable, simply plows ahead.

Kay - his previous credits include Boogeyman and The Dead Will Tell - and his screenwriter might argue their film operates less on real-world cause and effect than on the rhythms of dementia. But that would be a defence of last resort, akin to the dream gambit the Dallas TV series used to explain Bobby Ewing's death in the mid-1980s.

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No, Cell 213 is hokum, atmospheric hokum to be sure, but hokum all the same.

Cell 213

  • Directed by Stephen Kay
  • Written by Maninder Chana
  • Starring Eric Balfour, Bruce Greenwood, Audrey Davis, Michael Rooker
  • Classification: 14A
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James More

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