In the fall of 2001, Dark Castle entertainment debuted their second film. In keeping with the homage to William Castle, this film was also a remake of his fun, gimmicky film. This is my Sunday with…Thirteen Ghosts.
Release Date: October 26, 2001
Run Time: 90 minutes
Starring: Tony Shalhoub
Director: Steve Beck
Robs Score: 6.5/10
“It’s not a house, it’s a machine, built by the devil and powered by the dead.”-Kalina
Cyrus Kritikos (F. Murray Abraham) is a collector of many different things. His oddest collection may in fact be the spirits he houses. Accompanied by his psychic yes-man Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard), the film opens with Kritikos and his team in the process of collecting the twelfth ghost of his collection. This spirit is huge and murderous and before the ghost is captured he kills half of the team. It also appears that Cyrus himself has been killed. The movie then flashes back a few years prior and we see that Arthur Kritikos (Tony Shalhoub) and his happy family are torn apart by a house fire that left the man a widower and his children motherless. Now in the present and Arthur, his daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth), his young son Bobby (Alec Roberts), and the nanny Maggie (Rah Digga) are all living in a small cramped apartment. A few moments later there is a knock on the door; the family fears it is a debt collector, however it turns out to be Ben Moss (J.R. Bourne). Moss is the estate lawyer of Arthur’s recently deceased uncle Cyrus. The family is told that their uncle has left them his house, and all of the immense wealth he has left behind. The family is overwhelmed with excitement, but Arthur takes the news with a grain of salt. As the family and the lawyer arrive at their new property, a new age house made almost entirely of glass, Dennis is there disguised as an electrical worker to greet the family. He demands access to the basement. As they enter the house the family is awe struck by everything they see, however Dennis recognizes the writing on the glass walls as barrier spells. Dennis is given access to the basement as the family explores the house. Arthur and Ben are going over the will as Kathy, Bobby and Maggie slip away to look at the other floors. In the basement Dennis realizes the entire floor is made up of the containment cubes that he and Cyrus caught and housed the ghosts in. He is then hit by a psychic vision that shows him the horrors to come. Dennis runs upstairs to warn Arthur, and as expected he doesn’t respond with belief to this news. As the two argue over the matter Ben sneaks into the basement to receive his money from a big “control” room. When he lifts the bag of money a handle is released that starts a count down. As the countdown begins the house starts to change – halls and the cubes in the basement begin to open. Now in a frenzy, Arthur, with the help of Dennis, must find his family and attempt to get out of the house. But, where is the lawyer, and what is really hiding in the basement?
Thirteen Ghosts, for me personally, was a much more solid, fluid film than House on Haunted Hill. While it was still over the top in premise as well as dialogue, the film itself gelled smoother and was a step in the right direction for Dark Castle Entertainment. Some of my same complaints hold over, however they are less noticeable in this outing. The dialogue serves as more than just sex jokes as it actually conveys character emotions and connects the events of the film more than just explaining them through dialogue. In this sense the film feels way more organic as if the actors on the screen are actually a family. The overall acting is better as well. We can feel the heart ache of Arthur and his need to save his family through Shalhoub’s facial expressions alone. Aside from the script being better (it was written by Neal Marshall Stevens and based off of the original Robb White story), the concept of the film is just more interesting. The idea of capturing and housing ghosts in a home is actually pretty terrifying. It takes the out dated haunted house cliché and gives it a fresh new take. Thirteen Ghosts was not perfect. but its creative twists as well as killer visuals provide us with a glimpse of what Dark Castle Entertainment was capable of.
In a film about thirteen different evil and violent ghosts being housed in a basement, we all know where our main interest will fall. To me, that was one of the only, but biggest flaws of this movie. Of course, as viewers, we are invested in the family aspect of the film, however we want to know what’s up with the damn ghosts! Visually they all look amazing, however there was little to no back story for most of these awesome looking ghosts we see! If this film came out now you could bank on at least four of these ghosts getting their own spin off movie. The whole concept of the film is intriguing, however more focus could have went to the namesake of the film! That is really my biggest complaint about this movie. And of course, the character of Kalina (Embeth Davidtz) just annoyed me! I know her character evolves but just the thought of a ghost rights activist was too much, even for a movie about using ghosts to power an evil house! The plot is outrageous, but here that is not a bad thing, it adds to the enjoyment of the viewing experience.
The biggest success of this film is of course the visual presentation. Everything from the house to the ghosts design is not only original, but striking. To start off, each of the ghosts we see in this film have their own unique look and distinct features. This is a detail that could have been overlooked due to the fact that some of the ghosts only get a few minutes on screen, however each design portrays a story that explain their origins. Once again Greg Nicotero and his team headed the ghost prosthetics and design. They perfectly blend real life wear and tear with over the top horror movie features that provide some pretty awesome characters. The house itself was also an amazing concept that translates into a uniquely beautiful, yet subtlety terrifying character. Again every intricate detail from the Latin phrases scrolled on the walls to the collections in the house itself help give the viewers a deeper understanding of what kind of man Cyrus was. The exterior was mostly CGI effects, however the interior scenes were all shot on a back lot. Just take a moment and think about how difficult it has to be to film a movie inside an all glass set! Between the glare and the danger of catching workers in the background, we can see and appreciate the great care the film makers put into this project. The impressive set design really pays off because stylistically and visually. When taking into consideration the surprising character development, this film is top notch.
When compared to the original, the two films have little in common except the main idea of the house filled with ghosts. Several characters are shared however they have vastly different roles. The original debuted in 1960, and as opposed to House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts resembles its time period and does not age well. The visuals as well as the ghosts themselves are very hokey when compared to the remake which made the ghosts much more savage. William Castle once again used a gimmick for this picture enabling probably his most memorable idea, Illusion-O. In essence this was an early form of 3D. Castle would give the viewers the choice of watching the movie with or without the ghosts. The movie was paired with a set of red and blue cellophane glasses, and with these “special” glasses depending on if the viewer watched the film through the red or blue they could either see or not see the ghosts. Again this was a clever idea that gave viewers a much more immersive viewing experience giving them the feeling that what was being portrayed was real. The remake took this idea and actually made it part of the movie by having the characters wear the glasses which enabled them to see the ghosts.
Tony Shalhoub, Shannon Elizabeth, Alec Roberts, and Rah Digga head the cast as the grieving Kriticos clan. They actually capture the emotions and closeness of an actual family which gave the film some charm. It did take me a few minutes to take “Monk” (Shalhoub) seriously in a horror role, but he was perfect as the grieving husband and protective father. Shannon Elizabeth is perfect – period end of story and if you haven’t had a crush on her at least once in your life, your lying! Matthew Lillard is amazingly over the top as Rafkin and a solid addition to the cast. His frantic portrayal perfectly fits the film and if someone else would have played this role it just would not have worked. F. Murray Abraham, while only having a few minutes of screen time is awesome. He is evil, sinister and any time he is on screen he commands your attention.
Thirteen Ghosts opened at number 2 at the box office and despite its mixed reviews it made over $68,000,000 worldwide. I personally feel it is better than the original! Filled with amazing visuals and an interesting plot, Thirteen Ghosts is worth a revisit. As an added bonus I would highly recommend picking up the DVD (what could it set you back, 5 bucks?!) for the special features. Aside from a pretty in depth making of documentary, they include an awesome interactive feature that gives you the origin story of the ghosts in the house.