Dark Castle Entertainment, which is dedicated to updating older horror
films for modern day audiences, have returned after their unsuccessful
stint with 1999's "House on Haunted Hill," to remake William Castle's
1960 chiller, "13 Ghosts." The 2001 version, "Thirteen Ghosts," is
wickedly gory, tautly paced, has one of the most amazing production
designs ever glimpsed on film, yet manages to only be marginally better
than "House on Haunted Hill." While there are intermittent scares and
suspense to be had, the seemingly rushed screenplay (by Neal Stevens
and Richard D'Ovidio), overly schmaltzy climax, and too-short running
time bogs the final product down.
Arthur (Tony Shalhoub) and his two children, teenager Kathy (Shannon
Elizabeth) and younger Bobby (Alec Roberts), are down on their luck.
Several months ago, Arthur's wife perished in a fire that burned their
nice house down, leaving them with no money and a crummy, new abode.
Their bleak fate seems to change when the family, including live-in maid
Maggie (Rah Digga), are visited by a lawyer (JR Bourne) that tells them
Arthur's wealthy, distant Uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham) has died. If
Arthur wishes to accept, Uncle Cyrus has left him a guarantee of lifelong
financial security and the key to his house, an awe-inspiring masterpiece
of architecture that is made completely out of unbreakable, soundproof
glass, making it resemble a carnival "House of Mirrors" maze.
Once inside the house, the family, along with Uncle Cyrus' worried former
partner, Rafkin (Matthew Lillard), become hopelessly trapped within its
walls. It seems that Uncle Cyrus' house isn't really a house at all, but
a meticulously constructed machine powered by the dead--namely thirteen
angry ghosts that are nearer to them than they think. Each time the walls
move and the machine reconstructs itself, another ghost is released from
its glass-encased cage. Suffice to say, its walls are quickly growing
too small to hold everyone.
After a rotten prologue that suggests what a horribly ill-fated movie the
viewer is about to endure, "Thirteen Ghosts," by first-time director
Steve Beck, wastes little time setting things up and gently finds its
groove. The middle 45 minutes are easily the picture's best--for half
the running time, "Thirteen Ghosts" is an exciting, admittedly cheesy,
horror flick that most closely resembles a scary funhouse attraction.
The action is almost relentless in its willing delight to pump up the
heart rates of the audience members, and for a cursory time period, it
Unfortunately, the opening and closing sections are so weakly planned and
unevenly carried out that they inadvertently make the successful parts
seem like a fluke. The melodramatic finale is especially disappointing,
and the attempted poignancy of the closing scenes fail miserably. When
one goes to a horror movie around Halloween, they want to be on the edge
of their seats throughout, not witness something violent and gory
transform into live-action Disney movie corn.
The performances are about on par for this sort of genre feature, which
is to say that they are generally poor, but acceptable. Worse is Matthew
Lillard (2001's "Summer Catch"), hamming it up and doing it unconvincingly
as Rafkin, a worker of Cyrus' who has feelings of guilt about going along
with his diabolical plans for so long. Faring best of all, coincidentally,
is the debuting cast member, singer Rah Digga, as sassy housekeeper Maggie.
Digga is clearly a natural-born actress, and she brightens up every moment
she is on screen with a laugh or an honest emotion. Everyone else is just
fair, with Tony Shalhoub (2001's "Spy Kids") making a bland hero; Shannon
Elizabeth (2001's "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back") doing what she can
with a slim part; Embeth Davidtz (2001's "Bridget Jones's Diary"), as a
ghost expert, playing below her abilities with a one-dimensional character;
and Alec Roberts (2000's "Traffic") proving to be a purely unctuous child
performer I hope never makes another movie.
The star of "Thirteen Ghosts," more so than the human actors or even the
creepy-looking ghost characters, is the glass-shrouded house/machine
itself. Sean Hargreaves' mesmerizing production design is so exact and
atmospherically rich in every one of its details that, despite being in
just a slasher movie, fully deserves to win an Academy Award. Director
Beck also has fun with the specially-made glasses the characters wear
that gives them the ability to see the ghosts; without them, they have
no idea how close the ghouls are or what dire trouble they are in.
"Thirteen Ghosts" has enough solid moments to be a diverting entertainment,
but not enough to feel like time well spent once it's over. With the
ending credits comes a response of dissatisfaction and emptiness. Surely
more could have been done with this original premise, and aside from a
pair of bloody, surprisingly innovative moments of grisliness, the death
scenes can be counted on less than a full hand of fingers. "Thirteen Ghosts"
tries hard to involve the viewer from beginning to end. Ultimately, it
isn't hard enough to overcome the film's several fatal flaws.
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman