MPAA RATING: R Running Time: 91 min Directed by: Steve Beck Written by: Neal Marshall Stevens, Richard D'Ovidio Starring: Tony Shalhoub, Shannon Elizabeth, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard
Remakes. Revamps. Reimaginings. Reboots. Whatever they want to call it, they’re everywhere nowadays. Some are better than others. Many will say some of them probably shouldn’t have been committed to film. As much as fans like to complain about the oversaturation of non-original ideas over the last few years, this isn’t a newfangled post-2015 phonomenon. And, contrary to popular opinion, not every remake to hit theaters is a waste of time and money.
Take the 2001 revamp of the 1960 film 13 Ghosts, for example.
Hey, quit rolling your eyes!
Thirteen Ghosts doesn’t waste time being coy. From the get-go, it drops you into chaos. The first set we see is modern gothic art, with towers of decaying cars looming over the actors. This scene gives us everything we need to know about the movie, from the color pallet to the slightly exaggerated acting style to the intense FX makeup work. The costumes are a little weird. It’s not clear why Rafkin is dressed like an Irish grandma on vacation to Niagara Falls, but it’s a small complaint when there’s so many other things on-screen to focus on. This opening scene also puts us up close and personal with what’s billed to be the baddest of all the ghosts—The Breaker.
Unlike some ghost stories which keep the baddies elusive to create a spooky atmosphere, the production uses them to set the overall tone. And why wouldn’t they? The best part of the entire film is a result of countless hours of practical makeup FX work; they’d be daft to not use every second of usable footage. And use it they did. The editor took an interesting approach to how the ghosts appear on-screen while simultaneously avoiding the urge to make every appearance a pop-scare. With this technique the ghosts flicker in and out of existence when the camera isn’t capturing a character’s POV. Why? Because the audience doesn’t have the spectral viewers. This unique editing style brings in a new layer of intrigue and gives these ghosts a way to stand out from just about every other haunted house film.
By far the weakest part of Thirteen Ghosts is the family storyline. In order to fit in everything that happens in the second and third act, there’s a lot of short-cuts worked into how the audience is introduced to Arthur Kriticos, his children Kathy and Bobby, and their live-in nanny, Maggie. Despite this, the dynamic between them is charming. Bobby’s morbid obsessions are quirky and it makes him probably the most entertaining family character. He’s allowed to mourn in his own way; a refreshing change from how films usually depict adolescent trauma. As awkward as it is for a broke family to hire a nanny full-time, Maggie’s presence adds additional tension and further enables Bobby to be his wonderfully weird self. Plus, Maggie gets most of the good jokes.
Where the film lacks, it makes up for in being simply gorgeous to look at. The amount of work the production design team put into building the house alone is worthy of its own review. These crazy bastards decided, despite knowing what a nightmare it would be to shoot, to create an entirely glass house. From ceiling to floor, there’s always something interesting to look at. One can watch the film a hundred times and still find a new background detail they missed during the previous viewings. Honestly, the house is perfect for a weirdo who doesn’t care if there’s a dozen ghosts in the basement. Did you see the bathroom? That bathroom alone is worth a little haunting. Some of the household elements are CGI. But unlike other films during that time—looking at you The Mummy Returns—the graphics work is pretty seamless, filling in the gaps the team couldn’t make happen practically.
Thirteen Ghosts gets its fair share of sneers from hardcore horror fans. Yes, the acting is, at times, way over the top. There’s script problems, but nothing fatal that the actors and director couldn’t make work in the long run. The main reason it has such a cult following nearly twenty years after its theatrical release comes down to the character creations from KNB EFX. Not that anyone would know they worked on it. After 2005, everyone apparently took the movie off their resume because some overly self-important critic said it was his least-favorite film that year. That guy just doesn’t know how to have a good time being spooky. Not every ghost story has to make the audience piss their pants. Some of us want blood and guts with a little humor on the side, and Thirteen Ghosts is a decent example of how to do it.