Synopsis: After a fire results in the death of the family matriarch and otherwise ruins situation normal, bewildered mathematics teacher and single dad Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) finds himself at a loss for a way to provide a real home for his daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth), son Bobby (Alec Roberts) and sassy nanny Maggie Bess (Rah Digga). Enter a lawyer with a will from long lost Uncle Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham). That will gives the nephew and his family a house and lots of money. It’s one hell of a house as well, a place with glass walls covered in lots of weird Latin. When psychic hunter Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) shows up with tales of Cyrus’s collection of captured ghosts, the Kriticos family meets his wild claims with skepticism. However, as a machine comes to life inside the house itself, changing room configurations and sealing them off from the outside world, the family starts to realize Rafkin might be on to something. When creepy glasses reveal the fact that a dozen or so ghosts are being released one at a time to stalk the halls and attack whomever they encounter, well, it is hard to keep up any skepticism whatsoever. When a ghost hunter called Kalina (Embeth Davidtz) luckily shows up in the nick of time to save Arthur from meeting the business end of a kill-crazy ghost, she seems like a godsend; however, she may well be hiding secrets of her own. The family has a limited amount of time and even less resources to solve the mysteries in Uncle Cyrus’s house before Armageddon arrives. First time director Steve Beck helms Thir13en Ghosts (2001), a remake of the William Castle/Robb White 1960 classic, working from a modernized script from Neal Marshall Stevens and Richard D’Ovidio (as well as uncredited script doctoring or early drafts from Todd Alcott and James Gunn).
Like the original William Castle version, Thir13en Ghosts is a funhouse ride pitting a decent family against a house infested with the supernatural as well as human evil. Unlike the previous entry, this one elevates slick production design and special effects/makeup to deliver a few gory shocks. Unfortunately, the shooting script also feels cobbled together from numerous drafts by different writers. The picture suffers from a lack of logic and characters that tend not to do much but look scared, run away, act bravely or die. Taken as a whole, it is a problematic picture that somehow wastes the talent it employs on screen. However, taken in bits and pieces there are some brilliant moments, some exceptional set design, and some eye-catching effects. It is a movie I wish was better than it manages to be, and as close to a guilty pleasure as I get.
Trista and I first caught this in theaters in 2001. After enjoying the hell out of the 2000 remake of House on Haunted Hill, I was expecting another fun little ride in spook house territory. What I got was . . . well, a bad mood. Later, I revisited the movie as a source of one-liners and fun moments when Lucian Soulban reminded me that Matthew Lillard was playing the hell out of his role. Which is absolutely true. So, this past September, Trista and I had a double feature on a Friday night, watching the original William Castle production and then this version.
I found the original to be charming as hell. A sweet, silly, but nevertheless subtle satire of the 1950s values leaking into the early 1960s media. It wasn’t terribly scary, but it was nevertheless entertaining with its gags and gimmicks and use of Margaret Hamilton as a witch/medium/creepy housekeeper who knows more than she lets on.
When we got into the remake, I tried to appreciate what the movie was giving me instead of what I wanted it to deliver. The experience was better than I had originally had during the original theatrical run, but the movie is still problematic at best. However, it is not quite the “stinking dog turd with no redeeming qualities” I originally estimated it to be when in my bad, bad mood. Let’s take an honest appraisal about what works and what does not.
A few of the performances really stand out. Matthew Lillard gives his all to the snarky role of Dennis Rafkin, and while he invokes some of the physicality and choices he used in both Hackers (1995) and Scream (1996), he nevertheless manages to deliver some good craziness and bring snarky joy to his portrayal. Likewise Rah Digga brings sass and attitude to her role as the nanny that can’t cook and loses track of the kids she’s supposed to watch over. Still, she has a couple of laugh-out-loud funny lines which have the pop and snap of good improv. F. Murray Abraham turns in a hammy, scene chewing villainous role that I can’t help but enjoy. Some of the ghosts also offer great moments.
The set design is pretty nice to look at. The house is a big old cube with sliding glass walls. Those walls each feature protection spells inscribed in the glass, which will limit the ghostly movements. These as well as individual rooms themselves are a triumph of design and set dressing. The place just looks and feels cool. When rooms alter thanks to the presence of ghosts—such as the bathroom getting a bloody facelift with scrawled “I’M SORRY” messages in bloody finger paint—the design is equally cool. Great marks for production designer Sean Hargreaves and set decorator Dominique Fauquet-Lemaitre.
The ghosts look freaking cool, as well. The blurriness of the previous version is gone. When the ghost viewing glasses are on, these things look ferocious, sometimes gross and often horrifying. High marks to KNB Effects, the makeup, costume design, etc. Although their backstories are not laid out in the feature itself (these show up in external materials, mostly), there are plenty of clues about who these people were in their look and activity. Nicely done.
The ghosts are given a context. In the previous version, the ghosts were pieces in a larger collection. Here, however, they are archetypes written about in a Necronomicon like book of the damned. They represent something called The Black Horoscope, and play a role in the infernal machine humming along in the background that serves as the ticking clock for this supernatural thriller.
The sound design is pretty good, as well. There are blends of voices heard hissing whispers throughout the ghostly scenes. Helpful advice, sinister suggestions . . . A mishmash of words and sounds lend those parts of the movie some real ambiance and eeriness.
Now, we get to what doesn’t work.
So many screenwriters, credited and not. One has to assume they all turned in several drafts getting notes and whatnot. All those scripts, and this is what they shot? The lines are generally dull and the characters are flat. Some of the actors imbue these things with real passion and character, but I don’t think that’s from the script itself. I see this as a result of the actors doing some impressive damned heavy lifting. A lion’s share of the actors just deliver the lines they were given. They don’t have much to work with here and they don’t leave a lasting impression. The plotting is straightforward. The twists are . . . unconvincing. Some of the fault for this can be laid at the feet of the scriptwriters; not all however.
The director is clued into visual spectacle. He seems competent at getting things that look neat. However, his visual storytelling is not quite there yet. I get no sense of the geography of the place this happens in. Sure, the house changes configurations over time, walls sliding shut and opening elsewhere. However, the geography from moment to moment could have been clarified from scene to scene, but . . . alas no.
The editing relies on lots and lots and lots and lots of speedy cuts. Sure, this can be used to great effect in small doses, lending some off-putting elements to weirder moments. Unfortunately, the technique is used all the freaking time, and it helps erase any sense of geography or action. It drains suspense and leaves a viewer like me recalling the joke from HONEST TRAILERS about John Wick‘s lack of cuts during action scenes. That joke hinges on Liam Neeson climbing fences in the Taken movies, showing how the one simple act most kids accomplish in ten seconds required like sixteen different cuts. The editing in Thir13en Ghosts is distracting at best. It is aggravating at worst. It drives me up the wall through a large part of the movie.
The budget is decent, but the whole feature feels rushed. I am guessing the producers wanted product out to get some of those House on Haunted Hill dollars, but that’s just suspicion. However, the movie starts out well with a prolonged prologue that features the capture of a ghost named Breaker. That character gets a brief spot in the actual rest of the movie, leaving me to wonder what hit the cutting room floor (or got left behind in various script drafts). The movie has a lot of head scratching elements that make me wonder if the producers sent regular notes to amp up certain qualities and tone down other ones. The movie builds to a sequence that feels very video game-like, as Arthur must beat a whirling blades trap to save his kids. Or really just to get to them so they can all wait around like idiots for the plan to fail on its own. I mentioned the movie is problematic, right? Talk about deus ex machina.
Unfortunately, female characters don’t do all that much. They run, they get victimized, they look scared. Embeth Davidtz’s ghost hunter character gets to brood and maybe save a guy, but she ultimately gets her fangs pulled well before the movie is over. Shannon Elizabeth gets to be present for a bit, and her big moment gets her assaulted by a lunatic ghost called The Jackal, but then she disappears for the length of a bible, reappearing in jeopardy at the end. The family matriarch gets some lovey-dovey lines in the beginning, gets to offer some advice from beyond the grave later on, and for the finale she gets to look with pride over her still living, strained-but-not-broken surviving family. Maybe Rah Digga gets some fun quips, she gets to mess with the machine at a point when the plot demands someone do it, and she gets to drop one of the flick’s two songs (she performs “Mirror, Mirror” on the soundtrack); however, she is otherwise pretty much useless. Of the ghosts, a nekkid female with slices all over her body gets the most screen time (gee, I wonder why). She gets to menace and yearn, and then the camera and plot move on to something else until she shambles into frame again. Compare this to the 1960s version where the women have agency and actions that matter in more than one place. The mind boggles.
The movie is a mess of fun moments afloat upon an ocean of WTF, and while a good stiff drink can help a viewer like me endure the torrents of irritation and frustration in order to enjoy the sparkling moments of delight embedded within, one has to wonder what script got greenlit. What script could have convinced these actors to agree to make this picture, and what happened along the way to deliver such a muddle. It had to be interesting, or maybe it was a mercenary choice of money or go hungry.
In the final analysis, I would not recommend the movie as a whole. The high points are worth catching, the low points are worth skipping, and the only way to watch this movie is to have a finger on the fast forward button during the heavy duty doses of WTF. It is one of those movies to watch with friends where you can RiffTrax or MST3K the bad parts, going quiet for some of the better moments, and then having more fun at the flick’s expense. Otherwise, what a waste of talent and time.
Next up, we check out Lake Mungo, a shockumentary (my term for a horror movie masquerading as documentary) about an Australian family that loses a daughter and gains a ghost. Or do they? This subtle, chilling film is available in DVD and streaming editions.
“SHOCKtober Movies: Thir13en Ghosts” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image taken from IMDB.
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