‘Thirteen Ghosts’ (2001) Review

“Oh Cyrus, you crazy son of a bitch, what did you do?”

I feel like so many of the films I review for Fear Flashback are guilty pleasures rather than good films. Certainly Thirteen Ghosts falls into the category. Dark Castle Entertainment made a handful of remakes of classic horror films in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. We got The House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts, and House of Wax. This was part of a general trend to remake some classic (and not-so-classic) horror films with bigger budgets and (for the time) all star casts. For the most part these were not well-done or well-received. (Remember 1999’s The Haunting – gah.) Dark Castle’s fun and funny update of The House on Haunted Hill was a minor hit, though, and Thirteen Ghosts, another William Castle film, seemed like a good choice for a follow-up.

People hated it. Roger Ebert even put this film on his list of “most hated” movies. While it made money at the box office it wasn’t anything like a runaway hit, and the general consensus has been that the movie was loud, vulgar and pretty to look at. It currently sits at 16% on Rotten Tomatoes – less than half the rating of the original film.

I loved it.

Part of my enjoyment may be down to the fact that I still have not seen the original film. My love of the original House of Wax and The Haunting certainly informs my experience of – and antipathy to – the remakes of those films. If you’re a fan of the original I can totally see why this version might not work for you. On the other hand, I also love the original House on Haunted Hill, and I very much enjoyed the Dark Castle remake of that film. Where am I going with this? I dunno, other than that remakes are a funny business and sometimes they slide past your expectations and entertain you despite yourself.

And I love films that just embrace what they are. Thirteen Ghosts IS loud and in your face, with gore aplenty and a sound design that can be charitably called energetic. Yes, the acting is, let’s face it, secondary to the effects and set design and Matthew Lillard is… an acquired taste, but they do the best they can with the minimal amount they’re given, and I can tell them all apart – not a given in any horror film.

The bottom line is that guilty pleasures are still pleasures, and if I’m honest I don’t really feel guilty about enjoying them. I like Thirteen Ghosts and I cannot lie – I was pretty happy to watch it again.

The Medium
I JUST (last week) upgraded from my 2002 DVD of Thirteen Ghosts to the 2020 Blu-ray from Scream Factory. It’s much better than my old DVD (which lists ‘interactive menus’ as one of the Special Features), but I’m not sure how it compares to the 2010 Blu-ray. There are a ton of extras, including two different commentary tracks and, most importantly, the “Ghost Files” feature from the original DVD, which has a bunch of details on each of the ghosts. It’s a great upgrade and looks and sounds fantastic.

For streaming options, Thirteen (or Thir13en) Ghosts is currently free on Tubi (with ads and NOT in HD). You can rent and purchase it from the usual online vendors.

The Movie
As I mentioned, I still haven’t seen the original William Castle movie, so I’m not sure how closely Thirteen Ghosts hews to the original. If it’s anything like The House on Haunted Hill it’ll only be in the general outlines. A wealthy eccentric (F. Murray Abraham) who collects dangerous ghosts dies and leaves his house to his nephew, Arthur (Tony Shaloub). The nephew and his family go to inspect the house, which is a crazy structure made mostly of glass. Oh, and the basement is full of ghosts in cages. Really creepy, scary ghosts.

One thing you have to give this movie is the production quality, which is top notch. The ghost designs are fantastic – gory and frightening – and the house itself is a masterpiece of crazy, with sliding glass walls, clockwork machines and weird knickknacks in every corner. It’s steampunk as imagined by H. P. Lovecrat. Even as the threadbare plot unfolds – something to do with opening a portal to hell – the ghosts and the house provide plenty of visual and visceral entertainment.

Soon after the family arrives a machine in the basement is triggered that both seals the house and starts releasing the ghosts. These aren’t your regular, harmless apparitions either – they’re all murderous spirits whose body count has only increased in the afterlife. Trapped in the house with the family is the man that helped capture all those ghosts, Dennis (Matthew Lillard) and while the family may not have a clue to what’s going on, he knows exactly what kind of danger they’re in.

One of the gimmicks of the film is that the only way to see the ghosts is through special glasses. This is a neat little touch that provides some of the (many) jump scares in the film. It’s also how Dennis convinces the others that there’s a danger.

The film after that point is basically a series of chase sequences/ghost attacks as the family searches for the youngest boy and a way out. There’s a plot about the house being a machine that’s powered by ghosts in order to open a path to hell, or a portal to immortality or something – I’m pretty vague on the details, even after having seen it a couple of times. The bottom line is that there are twelve ghosts required for the spell and a thirteenth ghost might have the ability to stop the machine – meaning someone in the party has to die.

Another thing that surprises me each time is the level of gore in this film. The production quality is uniformly high, and they were able to afford decent actors, so you would expect the producers to be pushing for a PG-13 rating to get more teenagers into the theater. Not in this film – there’s a scene involving a lawyer who is literally cut in half – the long way – and they keep the camera focused on him as the two halves slowly separate. There’s also a ghost who is a woman that committed suicide (after botching her own plastic surgery) – she’s terrifying. A scene in which daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) gleefully uses the bathroom while that ghost also uses the mirror and sits in a tub full of blood is great. Without the glasses the daughter can’t see the scarred and bloody (and armed) woman while she washes her face, but we’re able to see everything in awful detail. (I really wanted the producers to go ahead and have Katy wash her face in the blood from the tub, leaving it on and only visible with the glasses, but alas…)

All the ghosts have a designation – there’s The Torso, The Juggernaut, The Torn Prince, and The Jackal amongst others. Really, they’re the primary reason to see the film, as the makeup effects are just top notch. I really wanted the film to focus more on them – it’s called Thirteen Ghosts, not Terrified Family and Some Ghosts – but what we get is still worth the price of admission. (I’ve always wanted a sequel in which some of the family – assisted by ghost Dennis – have to track down all the monsters that they’ve released from the house.)

The cinematography is pretty good, especially given how much of a nightmare it must have been for the lighting and camera folks to try and get decent angles in a house made of glass. The acting is serviceable and this is probably the first film I saw him in where actually tolerate Matthew Lillard (he’s gotten way better since then). Shannon Elizabeth is a bit too one-note, and Rah Digga’s character seems superfluous (how can the broke family afford a housekeeper, exactly?), but Tony Shalhoub is good, if a little understated, and F. Murray Abraham is always good value. The others aren’t standouts, but they aren’t bad.

As an aside, while your appreciation of Lillard’s performance may depend on your appreciation for twitchy, loud, sarcastic comedians, he does get to utter one of my favorite lines in any horror film. After explaining there are ghosts in the basement someone responds with “This basement?” And Dennis replies:

“Of course this basement! What is it with you people? If it was the basement next door I wouldn’t give a shit, would I?”

Come on. That’s funny!

Thirteen Ghosts' Gets a Blu-ray Collector's Edition Release from Scream  Factory - Bloody Disgusting

The Bottom Line
Thirteen Ghosts is one of the few early 2000’s remakes of classic horror films that isn’t actively terrible (I’m looking at you House of Wax and The Fog). It’s not great – it might even be a stretch to call it good – but it’s got excellent monsters, fantastic set design and I always have a good time watching it. It might be a guilty pleasure, but I love it all the same.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.