13 Ghosts

Movie Information

Genre: Horror
Director: Steve Beck
Starring: Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, F. Murray Abraham
Rated: R

This is a shlocky reworking of an even shlockier 1960 William Castle picture of the same name – something that a lot of critics seem to be overlooking in their headlong rush to tell everyone how very bad the new 13 Ghosts is. While no one is — blessedly — trying to claim that the original was anything but a classic bit of Castle huskstering, very few seem to bother recalling that the original was neither very scary, nor very good. Okay, I’ll admit that the trailer for Castle’s film scared the pants off me when I was five years old, but the movie itself was strictly competent kiddie stuff kept afloat by its pure kitschiness and the shrewd casting of the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, as the housekeeper of the mansion with the enumerated spooks. At bottom, it turned out to be a late-in-the-day rehash of the old defraud-the-heirs by scaring them — or murdering them — out of the house. It was fun junk. Taken in that spirit, the new one isn’t that much of a disgrace. It’s junk, too, and while maybe it’s not as much fun as the original, neither does it disgrace its parent. The set-up is roughly the same: a down-at-the-heels family inherit a house from a strange uncle, who turns out to have spent his life collecting ghosts, which, of course, are imprisoned in the house. There are differences — some of which don’t make a lot of sense. Arthur (Tony Shalhoub, Spy Kids), heir to the house, is here a grief- and guilt-stricken widower. The idea appears to have been to add some depth to the proceedings, which is a bizarre idea anyway. After all, this is the cinematic equivalent of a funhouse ride, not Ibsen with entrails. In any case, it would have worked better if the film had bothered to make Arthur’s guilt a little more understandable. It hardly matters, since what we’re here for are the ghosts, the gore, and the cheesy thrills. Whatever else may be said about 13 Ghosts, it does deliver those. It also boasts gorgeous production design in the form of the centerpiece haunted house — a bizarre glass-walled structure that proves the old adage, “A house is not a home.” In this case, it isn’t even really a house, but a fantasticated machine “designed by the devil and powered by the dead.” The idea is more interesting than the execution, but at least it’s interesting. Also of merit is the hammy delight of F. Murray Abraham as Uncle Cyrus, builder of the house in question and collector of fine spirits. The spirits themselves are a bit obviously inspired by the alternate universe monstrosities of the Hellraiser films and it might be best not to question just exactly what the hell some of them are too closely. I’m willing to buy that ghosts might retain whatever appearance they had at the moment of death, but it’s hard to imagine some of these specters were ever alive in any world of our acquaintance in their over-the-top monstrousness. The question then is: Are they frightening or even creepy? Well, yes, they’re certainly not cuddly, and first-time director Steve Beck gets the good out of them for shock effect purposes. Subtle the film may not be, but it does know how to make the audience jump. It isn’t a good movie. It doesn’t pretend to be. It’s just a straightforward thrill ride for the Halloween season. Take it for that and you might have some fun with it.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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