Watch out for that Big
Baby Ghost. Casper, my butt...
William Castle had
it right. A master showman, Castle made cheap little horror films and
wrapped their marketing up with some sort of gimmick. Sometimes the gimmicks
were simple little things, like setting up "chicken exits" for those "overcome
with terror" during his film. Occasionally he got more complex, such as
wiring seats to literally shock the audience, or flying a green glowing
skeleton over the audience's heads on a wire (billed as "filmed in Emergo!").
But gimmicks aside, he made nifty little movies for a certain taste.
But nifty little
movies don't play so well in 2001; we have to have them bigger and louder.
As part of an ongoing project to "reposition" her father's movies, Terry
Castle has begun remaking them bigger and louder. The result opening
today, Thir13en Ghosts, is definitely that. But if not for some
really good actors, it wouldn't be quite so nifty.
The film opens
creepily enough, with a team of investigators hunting an unseen force
through a wrecking yard. Organized by mad adventurer Cyrus Kriticos
(F. Murray Abraham), they must trap a restless serial killer who has
been far more successful after his death. Their key to finding
him lies within Rafkin (Matthew Lillard), who cannot get within fifty
feet of a ghost without suffering blinding pain. His psychometric gift
applies to the living, as well, and clearly has made him something more
than your average misfit. So the sixth sense turns out to be not very
much fun at all.
But it is fun for the
audience, though very, very gory. After that incredibly gory sequence,
the film takes time to introduce us to the rest of the Kriticos family,
recovering from the death of their wife and mother. Thankfully, despite
the presence of a chubby-cheeked boy, the movie does not devolve into
a warm family drama. Nope. You got promised some scares.
It seems Uncle
Cyrus has died and left his unusual house behind. Apparently made of
glass, every wall, floor, and ceiling has Latin phrases etched into
it. While daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth, still refusing to take
off her top) exults in having a private bathroom, Cyrus' shifty attorney
Ben Moss (JR Bourne) demonstrates why you should never go into the basement.
And then the fun really begins.
many things, including all the Spawn figures. But worst of his collection
are twelve tormented ghosts who this night have gotten out of their
cages. (The same mechanism that lets them out traps all the mortals
within the house, so for once you have to agree that they really had
nowhere to run.) A twisted menagerie, all but one wraith are quite murderous,
and can only be seen with special glasses, conveniently left all over
the house. Not that not seeing them can keep anyone from becoming the
The glasses are
leftover from the original Castle film, in which he supplied the audience
with them. These days the budget for special spectacles has been blown
on big-screen spectacle, and the make-up artists have knocked themselves
out. Most of the ghosts are quite disturbing and effectively frightening
without having to do much other than stand there. Which is good, because
unlike the usual supernatural menaces of the last twenty years or so,
they have no time to be explained. They just are.
That much horror needs
to be anchored in some sort of reality, and first-time director Steve
Beck has lucked out with his cast. Tony Shalhoub plays a father agonizing
over the still fresh loss of his wife while trying not to lose it in front
of his kids. Even when faced with supernatural menace, his own demons
are believably stronger. As a penitent Rafkin, Lillard does a pretty good
job, providing comic relief without it being jarring. His upcoming role
of Shaggy might not suck at all. More importantly, he makes his twitchiness
quite poignant without overplaying it.
Rap star Rah Digga
allegedly makes her screen debut, taking some of the most comic moments
away from Lillard. Unfortunately, as written the part is little more
than a young Whoopi Goldberg role, which she does her best to overcome.
(Her character, Maggie, serves as nanny to the family, though the script
ignores that they quite specifically cannot afford a nanny.)
Even with the good
effects work and good talent, the script needs to be better. Following
some of the same story beats as the earlier House on Haunted Hill
Castle re-make, the weaknesses don't become readily obvious. But after
using a good (if essentially borrowed) set-up, the movie's final act
begins tearing its own logic apart.
change motivations. The rules about the ghosts' behavior alter (and
even then, it's bothersome that only one specific ghost isn't
homicidal, even though some of the others still appear to be innocent
victims of various crimes). Most annoyingly, one character's appearance
and behavior is designed only to throw the audience off the track of
what's going on, not the other characters.
In short, the movie
cheats to get where it wants to go.
That makes it all
the more frustrating that so much of Thir13en Ghosts does what
it should. Yes, it scares without doing so cheaply. Beck uses a dropped
frame technique to keep us off-balance when the ghosts are around. It
gives them an even more ominous appearance without looking too much
like a bad rock video. And trying to figure out why things are happening,
even if such is just a macguffin, adds a veneer of complexity.
Like a lot of movies
these days, it just doesn't really know what to do with itself. Luckily,
the momentum of the first hour almost carries it through to the end.
What's It Worth?