13 Ghosts
review by Gianni Truzzi, 26 October 2001

Spook shows are an art more often low than high. For every piece of graceful footage in Sixth Sense there are miles of testosterone-driven flicks like Hellraiser, Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street series and the countless slasher stories that exploit teen sexual anxiety. No testament to the American love affair with gore speaks louder than the hundreds of straight-to-video vampire and zombie movies made on a shoestring by enterprising hacks.

Cheesiness has always been a part of the genre's appeal. I miss the days when Saturday afternoons guaranteed a really bad Spanish vampire movie or a piece of B-grade hokum like The Tingler on television, regularly hosted by a middle-aged goof in heavy makeup and Count Dracula tux. A prior generation could rely on a cheap weekend matinee, or even a live "ghost show" that would at least startle if not scare, to ensure a successful arm-clinging date.

Thirteen Ghosts is a remake of William Castle's 1960 film of the same name, and although it has a much higher budget, it maintains the original's low ambitions: to make you twitch in your seat and enjoy the experience. Tony Shalhoub (of Big Night and the sitcom Wings) plays a father of two who lost his wife when their house caught fire and now lives in reduced circumstances with his teen daughter, grade-school son and housekeeper. He receives news that his black sheep Uncle Cyrus has died and left him his extravagant home. When they go to claim their remote inheritance (at night, when else?) the house, whose walls are made of glass etched with Latin incantations, soon begins its grim work. It is, they discover, not a house but a machine "designed by the devil and powered by the dead," and they are trapped inside.

As Cyrus, F. Murray Abraham fulfills his broad caricature, waving the stock prop of evil genius, a silver-handled cane, in the gale. He commands a  team that looks like a hazardous materials team crossed with a squad of undertaker commandos, and a smart-mouthed psychic (Summer Catch's Matthew Lillard) to capture the violent ghosts that will fuel his house. When he's cautioned that he's playing god, he answers in an oily drawl, "play is for children." Later, when he proclaims that the world is shaped by "men who will do anything for greatness," he reminds you of Salieri without the inconvenience of conscience.

Castle's films were adventures in marketing as much as terror, and set new standards of hucksterism with their wacky stunts. Ghosts' plot gimmick of special glasses that allow the living to see the spirits  pays tribute to "IllusionO," the cardboard, red/blue glasses Castle gave to the audience to (supposedly) allow them to see the ghosts onscreen. In truth, the glasses never really worked -- you could see the ghosts without them -- but what fun. (If you're curious, the DVD release of Castle's version of Ghosts comes with a set of "IllusionO" glasses and an alternate track for using them.)

With such tacky roots, don't expect the remake to transcend them.  Ghosts uses every stock trick to build up tension, including the old kid-alone-in-the-dark-basement bit.  Shalhoub and his family aren't alone in the haunted house; the attorney, the psychic and a PETA-style activist for ghostly freedom (ectoplasm rights, I suppose) are there to aid or thwart the house's purpose to open the "Eye of Hell."

Okay, so it's not Citizen Kane. It's a comic book, and, accordingly, it's heavy on stunning visuals, light on credibility and soft on intellect. In fact, it's an EC comic, the 1950's William Gaines publishing enterprise that scandalized parents with its grisly drawings and amoral but often funny storylines. It shouldn't surprise, then, that the Ghosts is produced by Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silver, who are also responsible for the Gaines-inspired Tales of the Crypt cable-television series. (Gaines also founded Mad Magazine.)

The credits of first-time director Steve Beck are primarily in the graphic arts, as a visual effects designer for George Lucas' groundbreaking Industrial Light and Magic, so its no surprise that Ghosts strongest feature is its art direction. The house is a masterpiece of glass and steel, and the infernal machinery at its heart has the filigreed look of drawings out of DaVinci's notebooks. Equally fun are the skilled prosthetics that create the twelve ghosts that compose Cyrus' "Black Zodiac," which seem to be heavily influenced by Tod Browning. Where Beck is weakest is his flash-cut, MTV style edits which don't give sufficient time for understanding, probably a holdover from his work directing commercials, where every fraction of a second is costly. But do watch for a wonderfully seamless (certainly CGI-assisted) rotating pan in the film's opening credits that transitions from past to present.

As the Rolling Stones said, it's only rock and roll but I like it. Sure, it's not fine cinema, but if Halloween puts you in the mood for a big-screen diversion that furnishes just the right blend of silliness and fright, Thirteen Ghosts is perfect. See it, enjoy it, and then go out for a burger and chocolate malt.

Directed by:
Steve Beck

Starring:
Shannon Elizabeth
Tony Shalhoub
F. Murray Abraham
Rah Digga
Matthew Lillard
Embeth Davidtz
J.R. Bourne
Matthew Harrison
Alec Roberts

Written by:
Neal Marshall Stevens
Steve Beck
Todd Alcott
James Gunn
Rich d'Ovidio

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent
or adult guardian.

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