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The surprising British horror thriller “13 Graves” is a gangster/folk horror mashup that sounds like it shouldn’t work — but somehow, it really does.

13 Graves is a low budget genre mashup, which takes its influences from films as diverse as The Blair Witch Project, The Wicker Man, Kill List, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and even Goodfellas. Written and directed by John Langridge and distributed in the UK by Evolutionary Films, it’s the first feature from Sussex-based production company Drop Dead Films.

13 Graves begins in the middle of a brightly lit woods, which quickly become dark, overcast and foreboding as an unsettling score helps establish the ominous tone. Suddenly, the setting sun gives way to the rising dawn, becoming a bright light that turns the screen white. We then find ourselves outside the woods in the morning light with four very well dressed gangsters. The boss is a cold, ruthless woman named Maddy (Terri Dwyer). She’s joined by her son, Billy (Jacob Anderton), and her two hired guns, Frank (Kevin Leslie) and Terry (Morgan James).

Billy has brought them to this spot to do some business with a contact of his. But it’s really a double cross, and Maddy is several steps ahead of her duplicitous son. Without mercy, she orders her hitmen to march Billy into the woods, to the location of a mob graveyard the family has used for years, where he is to be executed and buried. Before Billy is sent off to his grisly fate, she callously informs him that she has no feelings for him — and that she was responsible for killing his father.

Once in the woods, it becomes clear that there are no innocents in this film.

Billy begs for mercy from Frank and Terry, two men he’s known since he was a boy. He confesses he’s been skimming off the top for years and running counter operations, which have made him very wealthy. He offers the men 11 million pounds if they let him disappear. After giving Frank and Terry the key to the storage unit where they money is hidden, he thinks he’s being let go. But they betray him and march him to the site of the burial ground where he is ordered to dig his own grave.

While he’s digging, a large man shows up looking dirty and disheveled as if he’s been living in the woods. He offers the killers a choice: finish what they set out to do and kill Billy, or let him go and cleanse their souls.

He tells them they have a chance to save themselves and embark on a new path in life. They scoff and shoot the woodsman dead. Meanwhile, Billy has escaped into the woods.

As he’s running, Billy comes across a handmade hut surrounded by dead animal carcasses and a shrine of rotting meat. Up ahead, he spots a small home nearly obfuscated from view by overgrown trees and foliage. He enters the dilapidated home, seemingly abandoned home, which immediately feels reminiscent of the dread-inducing Sawyer residence in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

On the wall, written in blood, are the words, “Thy Judgment Cometh”.

As day turns into night, Frank and Terry find themselves hopelessly lost in the woods and hunted by some real or supernatural force, while their sinful past is revealed in brief black and white flashbacks.

Consumed by fear, the two heartless killers finally begin to reveal a bit of their humanity, but their chance for redemption may have already passed them by.

A film that becomes exceedingly more interesting and engrossing as it goes along, 13 Graves culminates in a very satisfying third act, with a surprisingly emotional and effective reveal I didn’t see coming.

Though Frank and Terry spend much of the film as one-dimensional goons, both men shine in the final act when they are forced to confront who they are and what they’ve done. Langridge makes great use of his limited budget, and his obvious affection for the genre shines through.

In addition to some great dark humor, the film also delivers an unexpected amount of heart as it grapples with ideas of karmic justice, guilt and absolution, and the idea that there is no such thing as good guys and bad guys — only choices we make and the consequences we face.

I love a good indie film, but I typically go in to these micro-budget productions with low expectations, willing to make plenty of allowances for a lack of resources. Success is often defined by effort, rather than by entirely effective execution.

However, 13 Graves delivered much more than I bargained for, keeping me thoroughly invested throughout and succeeding where so many other horror films often fail: ending on a high note.

It’s a film I’m happy to recommend, and I’m eager to see much more work from Langridge in the future.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies)

If you’re in the UK, you can watch this film for free on Amazon Prime. Unfortunately, it’s not currently available to stream in the US. But it is available on DVD and Blu-ray, distributed by Monarch Home Entertainment. You can pick up the DVD for under $15.

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