By Brother Bill / December 12, 2016
A wave of dark, violent horror films arrived in the early 2000s, all set in the present-day real world and centered on people caught up in deranged systems or subcultures. It seemed as though the lone psycho supermen of earlier decades (Hannibal Lecter, Max Cady, endlessly respawning Freddies, Michaels, and Jasons) were being supplanted by communities of people, either living together in isolated villages or connected through elaborate underground networks, within which evil had been codified and normalized. The so-called “torture porn” film Hostel (2005) and its sequel are perhaps the best known entries in this wave, which also includes Turistas (2006) and Borderland (2007), the “new French extremity” films Calvaire (2004), Sheitan (2006), Frontier(s) (2007), and Martyrs (2008), as well as the Japanese films Suicide Club (2001) and Three Extremes (2004), among many others. All of these films dealt in some way with horror as social movement, lifestyle, or commodity. Most, not all, depicted systemic or ritualistic torture and take place hidden within, or just beyond, the borders of so-called civilization.
Arriving right in the middle of this wave was first-time Georgian director Géla Babluan’s 13 Tzameti (2005). The film follows Sébastian, a Georgian immigrant (played by the director’s brother, George Babluan) working in France as a poor handyman, living hand-to-mouth. While working on a home remodel he overhears the homeowner, Godon (Philippe Passon), discussing a mysterious job offer he received in the mail promising a lucrative reward for a few days’ work, although the details of the assignment are not specified. When he dies unexpectedly, Sébastian steals the paperwork and appears in Godon’s place. He is soon on a treasure hunt of sorts, following clues to a locker key, a train ticket, and a motel room, before finally being instructed to stand at a particular street corner holding up a numbered card (13, or “tzameti” in Georgian), to be picked up by a driver carrying the same number.
Sébastian is hooded and driven to a crumbling building in a remote forest. After some initial tension when he explains to the event hosts that he is coming as Godon’s replacement, we learn the nature of the assignment and why it pays so handsomely. He is now a contestant in an underground Russian roulette betting circle, and, due to the illegal nature of the event, his participation is now compulsory. Thirteen men stand in a circle with a revolver aimed at the head of the person in front of them. A single round is loaded in each gun and the chamber spun while a master of ceremonies shouts instructions. Hanging from overhead is a light-bulb marked with dark lines. All contestants are ordered to stare at the bulb. When it lights, everyone pulls their trigger. Some live, some die. Sébastian survives the first round, but can’t bring himself to pull his own trigger on cue, causing “referees” (of a sort) to intervene and force him to complete his action. After the round, new bets are placed by the gallery of wealthy gamblers while the survivors “relax” in a makeshift lounge where various refreshments, including injections of lithium, are available. The next round begins with two bullets loaded in each gun, then three, etc., until there is only one survivor left.
Part of what makes 13 Tzameti resonate is the feeling of absolute authenticity. What could have come off as an unlikely horror fantasy becomes something akin to a documentary (although, note, this is not a “found footage” film). From the convoluted process of getting the player to the site, to the various protocols in place that facilitate the gameplay, to the weird etiquette that the mysterious bettors adhere to, the film has an eerie verisimilitude. While perhaps not the best known film of its kind, it received enough critical attention to be granted a big-budget Hollywood remake in 2010, landing Babluan on a very short list of directors who have remade their own films. Unfortunately, 13 (2010) is a pale imitation, devoid of what made the original so gripping, and is best left unwatched.
Upon first viewing of 13 Tzameti, it occurred to me that what the world sorely needed was a home version of the game depicted in the film. I grew up with board game adaptations of popular film and TV properties (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Hobbit, and Star Wars: Escape From Death Star, to name a few) and it’s a tradition still carried on today (Risk: Captain America Civil War Edition, The Walking Dead Board Game, etc.). But somehow 13 Tzameti seemed an unlikely candidate for a game adaptation. Deciding that it was up to me to run with the ball where the free-market had fumbled (Sébastian had done the same, after all), I set about making 13 Tzameti: The Game. But what kind of game would it be? A board game? Cards? Statistical/role-playing? It seemed clear that any game that did not involve pulling a gun trigger after a light bulb illuminated would be a cop out. So this would have to be an electronic game of some kind. Before proceeding, I should divulge that I have never worked with electronics before in my life, save for a single semester of high school “Electronics 1-2,” a class I barely passed but that taught me some of the basic components (resistors, capacitors, etc.) and concepts.
So, I knew in advance that this project would move at a snail’s pace while I relearned basic electronics and picked up tools like a soldering iron and a multimeter for the first time. I’d been reading about Arduino, a microcontroller that lets you connect multiple external components and control them with code written on a PC. This seemed like the perfect time to give it a try. But first I had to deal with a practical issue: I was going to need guns. Toy guns, of course, but they had to meet three requirements: they had to resemble revolvers (not semi-automatic or sci-fi), have a snap-action trigger for the players to pull, and be easy to snap apart. I lucked out immediately when I found a “Police Playset” at a dollar store, a blister-packed kit of foam and plastic junk, redeemed by one hell of a perfect toy revolver! Thirteen players wasn’t very realistic, so I settled on four, purchasing eight kits in case I wrecked a few while prototyping.
The game as played in the film was pure luck: players spun the chamber and fired at the person in front of them, having no control over whether they lived or died. Only the people placing bets were having any fun. I knew this wouldn’t work for my adaptation. I wanted a game of skill that would be fun for the participants. In my version, the first person to pull the trigger when the bulb lights is the winner. To make it a little more interesting and build anticipation, the bulb would flash red a few times randomly before finally lighting white. If a player “jumps the gun” and pulls his trigger on red, their gun is dead for the rest of the round.
So far, so good, but something was missing: danger! Any game hoping to capture the spirit of 13 Tzameti would require an element of danger to give it an edge. One useful trick I remembered from my high school electronics days was that you could produce a short, unpleasant electric shock by connecting a battery to a step-down transformer (the jolt actually occurs the instant you remove the battery from the transformer.) This is what I needed. If a player pulls their trigger too soon (before the bulb lights white), not only do they lose the round, but they receive an electric shock wired to the handle of their gun. (Parker Brothers, are you reading this?) To switch externally powered components, like the transformers, on and off, I used a nifty SainSmart 8-channel relay module, designed specifically for microcontrollers.
Each gun was popped open and wired with a snap-action switch behind the trigger, metal plates on the handle to conduct the electric shock, and a red LED to indicate the winning gun. (See short video demos of the assembled, LED-enabled guns here and here.) To create a flat surface to mount the switch to, I used a glob of Instamorph, a type of project plastic that softens in boiling water but dries rock hard.
The light bulb was not only an important practical piece for the game, but an iconic element from the film. I used a real light bulb, hollowed it out completely, then fed a red and white LED into it from below to get the necessary red light/white light functionality. I had to mount it to something, and I also needed a container to hold the electronic parts and the guns, so I used a trunk box from a local hobby shop that looked like something you might find in an old attic. By the time I got everything wired together and mounted in the box there was no room for the guns (and the approximate 100 feet of wire attaching them to the Arduino), so I just mounted holsters to the sides instead. Real holsters were cheaper than toy/costume holsters, so that’s what I used.
Total project time, from conception to completion, was around five months (much of that spent on research). Having since playtested the finished product with various numbers of “shooters,” I can proudly say the game is actually fun! Guns in hand, waiting through several false-start red lights for the bulb to finally light white, can get quite nerve-wracking, like the anticipation of a jack-in-the-box popping open. And seeing another player react in pain upon receiving an electric shock to the hand is strangely rewarding—wholly satisfying, even. Part of that feeling is simple pride of workmanship: the gratification of knowing it was my assembled components, connecting wires, and programmed code that produced the shock at the exact prescribed moment. But mostly, it’s just relief that I survived to the next round.
Brother Bill is curator of The Haunted Closet blog. He loves spooky children’s books and old Halloween records, and his taste for pop culture ranges from Rankin Bass to Russ Meyer.