“This house is not a house. We’re in the middle of a machine designed by the Devil and powered by the dead.”
I studied film at one of the most prestigious film schools in the country, and the one immutable fact that I’ve learned is that no film is wholly bad which has replaced some of the letters in its title with numbers. It’s like a secret signal that tells you you’re going to have a pretty good time. Thir13en Ghosts does not disprove this rule. (Another sign that it is delightful: the IMDB plot summary for this movie includes an exclamation point. How many movies can say that?)
In perfect seriousness, I kinda love this movie. Not only is it utterly, transcendently stupid in a way that appeals to my inner twelve year old (or maybe my inner thir13en year old), but it’s also a triumph of production and character design, world building, special effects, and whatever lunatic screenwriting genius led to lines like the one at the top of this post. Is it a deep, profound story that lays bare the inner horrors of the human heart? Hell no. But it is a fun, gory, twisty movie. Sometimes as a horror fan all I want to see is some cool, creepy monsters commit some gruesome murders, and Thir13en Ghosts gives me what I want with energy and style.
A remake of a 1960 film of the same name (well, that one spells it 13 Ghosts) from gimmicky schlockmeister William Castle, the 2001 film pays tribute to the original but goes far, far beyond it in updating the details of the story. But the premises remain the same: a poor man and his family inherit a creepy house from a recently deceased uncle, only to discover that it contains twelve (12) ghosts. I have drawn this handy graph explaining what that means in terms of cinema:
In the newer film, the family consists of Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub, weirdly effective in the role), his attractive teenager daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) (I’m sorry, but “attractive” is pretty much her only character trait), and Arthur’s adorable yet creepy (acreepable? creepdorable?) son Bobby (Alec Roberts). Bobby is too young to understand why he shouldn’t be obsessed with death, and also carries around a tape recorder for making what I swear are podcasts. Part of this behavior probably grows out of the fact that the kids lost their mom in a fire (along with their old house and everything else). They’re struggling financially, which is why they’re jammed into an apartment that’s too small for them. Try not to think about how that fact makes sense when you consider this other true fact, which is that they they have a live in sassy black nanny named Maggie. (Maggie is played by rapper Rah Digga, who worked with Busta Rhymes and has a song on the Thir13en Ghosts soundtrack because of course she does. God bless you, pre-9/11 2000s American popular cinema.) If I was seriously analyzing this movie I’d suggest that they are for some reason using Rah Digga to replace the family’s lost mother in an attempt to blah blah blah get to the ghosts already, jeez.
The movie does not make my mistake of burying the lede. The opening scene of the film is pretty great all by itself, you guys. An imperious, dickish rich man, Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham in the suit he re-used in The Grand Budapest Hotel) arrives at what I can only describe as an elephant graveyard for cars with his well-paid, phlegmatic, headache-prone psychic pal Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard, the MVP of this movie) to hunt some ghosts. I’m sorry, what was that? Yes, this classic buddy comedy pairing Rich Man and Oh God My Head are here to hunt some motherfucking ghosts. And not just any ghost, but the ghost of the Juggernaut! It’s the X-Men crossover we never knew we always wanted. The twists and turns and ridiculous exposition in this scene would be awesome enough:
Dennis: “You son of a bitch! You said he only killed nine people, there’s over 40 victims here!”
Cyrus: “Nine while he was alive. He’s added a few since then.”
But then the Juggernaut actually shows up and starts murdering all the ghost-hunting commandos Cyrus has brought to bear. Dudes are flying, stacks of cars are falling over, one poor bastard gets folded in half backwards and shoved into a trunk. Yes.
Okay, so Cyrus turns out to be Uncle Cyrus, and since he was killed in the ghost hunt, it’s time for Arthur and the rest of his family to inherit Cyrus’s house, where the rest of the movie takes place. In all sincerity, this set is a wonder–every wall is glass plates covered in writing (“spells,” Dennis calls them), even the floors and ceilings, and they’re all movable, controlled by an enormous, intricate clockwork mechanism that shifts them around according to some unknown programming. The centerpiece of the machine is a set of spinning, flat rings in the floor of the foyer, each ring labeled with a different arcane symbol. As it turns out, each symbol is part of the “Black Zodiac,” and down in the basement are a set of spell-laced containment cubes. Each cube contains a ghost corresponding to one of the symbols of that zodiac–Cyrus’ life’s work. And they’re not happy about being imprisoned here…
The structure of the film is familiar to anyone who has ever seen any horror movie ever, and also most dogs. Arthur, his family, his sassy black nanny, Cyrus’ lawyer Ben Moss (JR Bourne), and Dennis (initially posing as the power guy) wander around the house, mostly unaware that there are ghosts. As the machine opens the ghost cubes one by one and people go missing or dead, the remaining group splits up to search the house for them. Then, just like any other ghost movie, they decide to use their remaining quicksilver flares to fight their way to the center of the house and stop the Devil’s machine from opening a portal to the future. You know, normal stuff.
The performances in the movie are surprisingly strong for something so ridiculous; everybody plays things more or less straight, and there’s a fair amount of talent on display. That includes Embeth Davidtz, a fine character actress probably most memorable as the good-hearted teacher in Matilda; here she plays Kalina, a kind of ghost’s rights advocate. She argues, probably correctly, that you wouldn’t want to be captured and enslaved by a wealthy madman after you died, would you? But like all activists she’s omitting some important facts, like the fact that all of these ghosts are violent, violent killers, and society is perfectly fine putting people like that in cages and forcing them to work. Some convicts stamp license plates, these ones power a damned machine with their spiritual energy. Everybody’s got a talent. Now, I’m not 100% sure that they’re all murderers. For example, this guy is just a torso wrapped in plastic:
That looks more like a murder victim to me. At the very least he’s gonna have a hard time killing anybody. And I know he doesn’t do any murders in this movie, even when we’re not looking, because he basically only appears in this one shot. In the climactic montage where the movie shows us all the ghosts all over again, they only show this one shot again, so I’m on pretty solid ground here.
Also, one of the ghosts turns out to be Arthur’s be-sainted wife, the one who got all burned up and then symbolically replaced with Rah Digga. She’s supposed to be innocent and good, and intervenes at several points to try and save her family. But just by including her in this literal murderer’s row, the film casts some implied aspersions on her character. Maybe I’m wrong and she’s secretly a serial killer. Now that’s a twist.
Anyway, those are only two of the 12 main ghosts, and the other 10 are, if anything, even more gruesome and well-designed. Here’s a picture of most of them spotting a penny on the ground:
In my sincere opinion, this is excellent character design. Each of them has a distinctive silhouette, appearance, and personality established entirely through visuals and performance. With no dialogue, each actor works with their costume, weapon, etc, to create a fully realized character along the lines of these made-up “Black Zodiac” archetypes. “The Hammer” looks to be inspired by the folk tale of John Henry, kept in chains with railroad spikes hammered into his skull. “The Jackal” is a brutal killer who flies at his victims, clawing at them with long, sharp fingernails. “The Torn Prince” swaggers around with a baseball bat. “The Angry Princess” seems more sad than rageful, posing mournfully with her knife and laughably giant tits while Kathy admires the bathroom fixtures. And so on and so on, each managing to be scary or sad or fascinating in one way or another. It’s really remarkable, and the movie makes sure to give nearly all of them a memorable moment.
The original 13 Ghosts was a William Castle production, and that meant it had a gimmick or three. (Castle was famous for doing things like putting nurses in the lobbies of the theaters playing his movies to check people’s blood pressure in case they got just so danged scared they had a heart attack.) The best of them here involved something called “Illusion-O,” which were basically a pair of special glasses, just like the pair in the movie. If you were a total wuss and wanted to avoid seeing any of the ghosts, you could look through a both-eyes-blue pair of 3D glasses and it would make the ghosts on-screen disappear. Or, if you were inclined, you could use the red glasses, which made the ghosts stand out. In the remake, all of the characters at one point or another use a special pair of goggles Cyrus apparently invented that let you see ghosts who are otherwise invisible (even to psychic Dennis, who mostly just gets terrible headaches in the presence of spooks, which seems like the worst superpower ever). This lets the film set up one scare after the next where the ghosts suddenly appear when people put on their glasses, or loom ominously over people not wearing their glasses, and so on, with the movie wringing a surprising number of variations on the premise.
As I mentioned earlier, Matthew Lillard’s Dennis is the movie’s MVP. He really steals the show. I know him best as Shaggy in Scooby Doo (the film version with Lillard is pretty terrible, but he’s settled well into doing the voice for the cartoons) but, like, zoinks, he’s pretty fantastic here. There’s a whininess to him that’s really appealing in general (I’ve called out his beautiful line reading at the end of Scream before), and in a very loud, busy movie Lillard stands proudly at the top of the heap in terms of intensity. He’s terrified, he’s pissed, he’s basically got a horrible migraine the whole movie, and he’s always explaining what’s happening to people while in a state of total exasperation at their ignorance:
Dennis: “I know this is gonna sound completely whacked, all right? But just – just stay with me. I used to hunt displaced spiritual energies with your uncle.”
Arthur: “I’m sorry?”
Dennis: “Uhh, P.K. agents. Revenants. Uh, uh, uh – Like wraiths. Wraiths? Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”
Dennis: “That’s okay. That’s okay, I – I’ll do this the easy way. Ghosts, Arthur. I used to – I used to hunt ghosts with your uncle Cyrus.”
Dennis: “GHOSTS! Ghosts, goddammit! Listen to me!”
He gets a lot of the best lines in the movie, knows what he’s dealing with, and manages to go out a hero while monologuing about how this act of self-sacrifice is a moment of redemption for his selfish life. Without anybody else’s help, Lillard sells an entire character arc here all by himself. It’s truly excellent.
I could seriously go on and on about this movie. I haven’t talked about the late film twists, or the economy of the audio montage telling the backstory of Arthur and his family, or mentioned my favorite death in the whole movie (it’s the lawyer, it’s perfect in its glorious silliness, and the delayed one-liner is just, mwah! delicious). I haven’t gone into depth on the world building–not only the history of the machine but also the various tools and tech used to deal with the ghosts. I haven’t gone into detail on the Black Zodiac, which is a real thing, contrary to my lies (my Black Zodiac sign is the Serpent, known for treachery and deceit, so it all checks out), or the fact that apparently the studio filmed a whole creepy F. Murray Abraham-narrated video featuring the backstories for all of the ghosts. I think it’s clear that Thir13en Ghosts is an infinite well of cultural interest, a Borgesian black hole in which one could keep exploring forever. (Did director Steve Beck help Stanley Kubrick fake the moon landings? WHO CAN SAY?) Arguably, this movie is the apotheosis of all culture, and contains all culture within it. Also, it’s entertaining as fuck. Take it away, Rah Digga:
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because we’re in the midst of an election designed by the Devil and voted in by the dead. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.