Thir13en Ghosts

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.

Cyrus collected 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 thirteenth ghost.

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.

Characters inexplicably 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? $6

Derek McCaw

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