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Thirteen Ghosts   B

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steve Beck
Writers: Neal Stevens, Richard D'Ovidio
Cast: Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, Rah Digga, JR Bourne, Alec Roberts, F. Murray Abraham.

Review by Rob Vaux

Once upon a time, there was a man named William Castle, who made movies in the late 1950s of a type you don't see anymore. Most of them were cheesy horror flicks involving shameless audience gimmicks: nurses checking your blood pressure in the lobby, skeletons sliding on rails across the ceiling, and black-and-white pictures featuring gallons of very red blood. They were pure P.T. Barnum... but they also launched the career of horror icon Vincent Price as well as influenced an entire generation of future filmmakers. Forty years later, two of those filmmakers -- Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis -- created Dark Castle Entertainment as a showcase for remaking Castle's old flicks. Their first effort, 1999's House on Haunted Hill, was great ghoulish fun, and now comes Thirteen Ghosts, a less inspired but nonetheless enjoyable Halloween horror flick.

At the very least, four decades of advancement has produced some much better production values for the filmmakers to use. Castle had to depend on creaky boards and cobwebs, but Thirteen Ghosts sports one of the coolest haunted houses you'll ever see. A colossal artifice of glass walls and brass gears, sporting eldritch symbols etched into every corner, it resembles not so much a house as a huge clockwork maze. Credit production designer Sean Hargreaves for the unique setting, as well as director Stephen Beck for making good use of it. The edifice serves as a prison of sorts for 12 very unhappy ghosts, equally well-developed and captured by sinister occultist Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham). Cyrus, unfortunately, comes to a rather messy end in the film's bravura opening sequence, leaving the house to his nephew Arthur (Tony Shalhoub). Initially, the gift comes as a great thrill; Arthur and his children have struggled to make ends meet ever since his wife died in a horrible fire. But the house seems a little too good to be true, and of course it is. Helped by a dutiful pair of plot expositionists -- twitchy psychic Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) and Wiccan-on-a-mission Kalina (Embeth Davidtz) -- Arthur soon learns about the undead occupants, as well as late Uncle Cyrus's plans... which require a 13th ghost to complete.

From there, the proceedings descend into standard issue "run screaming for your lives" territory. Naturally, any film recycled from earlier material is going to suffer in the originality department. Nothing here breaks new ground, and the plot twists and turns have all been done before. Thirteen Ghosts makes up for it, however, both in the gorgeous visuals and in the no-nonsense direction which cuts right to the chase. Beck serves up lots of scares of the "Boo! Gotcha!" variety, and never lets undue pretension clutter up the scenery. The film stalls at several points -- it borrows heavily from Haunted Hill, and the ending lacks the elegant irony one expects from this sort of picture -- but it never lingers long enough for the flaws to sink in. Lillard and Abraham both have fun with the material (Dark Castle apparently gets to put one Oscar winner in each of its films) and Shalhoub makes a suitably sympathetic protagonist.

At the end, however, Thirteen Ghosts thrives on its setting -- that marvelous house and its 12 hideous occupants. (DVD fans should keep an eye out for this one; the production stills alone will be worth it.) If this film had anything more on its mind than funhouse scares, such attention to artifice would be annoying. Here, it becomes a fine selling point -- the only one that really matters. Granted, Thirteen Ghosts isn't for everyone. Non-horror fans won't find anything of interest, and even genre aficionados shouldn't go in expecting The Sixth Sense. Hell, it's not even the best horror film to come out this year; not by a long shot. But William Castle never cared about awards, and the filmmakers here want nothing more than to pay homage to his unique form of carnival barking. For those looking for a little scary fun, in the spirit of a man who once attached joy buzzers to theater seats, Thirteen Ghosts makes a tasty Halloween treat.

Review published 10.29.2001.

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