Tuesday, October 14, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Thirteen Ghosts

Thirteen Ghosts (2001)
I'm starting to feel like all my choices this October are guilty pleasures rather than good films. Certainly Thirteen Ghosts falls into the category. It's not a good film, per-se, but it's fun and has some awesome monsters.

Dark Castle 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. I'd never seen the original 13 Ghosts, so I was able to go in without any expectations and enjoy it. (House of Wax, on the other hand... gah.)

The Medium
I have the DVD release, which is, like the film itself, serviceable. It's got a commentary track, which I actually didn't expect. There's a documentary and some 'Ghost Profiles.' It also comes from that time when "Interactive Menus" were something that got listed in the Special Features on the back of the DVD case.

The Movie
I still haven't seen the William Castle movie, so I'm not sure how closely the film hews to the original. If it's anything like The House on Haunted Hill it'll only be in the general outlines. A crazy man (F. Murray Abraham) who collects 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 thing made mostly of glass. Oh, and the basement is full of ghosts in cages. Really creepy, scary ghosts.

Heya. How's it going?

One thing you have to give this movie is the production quality, which is top notch. The ghosts 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. Even as the threadbare plot unfolds - something to do with opening a portal to hell I think - 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 he knows exactly what kind of danger they're in.

The bad kind - what other kind of danger do you think there is?

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 and a thirteenth ghost might have the ability to stop the machine - meaning someone in the party has to die.

"Not it."   "Not it."   "Not it."   "Not... dammit!"

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 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. There's a scene in which the daughter (Shannon Elizabeth) gleefully uses the bathroom while that ghost also uses the mirror and sits in a tub full of blood - of course without the glasses the daughter sees none of this, but we're able to see it in awful detail.

"Wow, your teeth are almost as white as my skin."

All the ghosts have a designation - there's The Torso, The Juggernaut, The Torn Prince, and The Jackal amongst others. Really, they're the reason to see the film, as the makeup effects are just great.

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 one of the first films where I can actually tolerate Matthew Lillard. Tony Shalhoub is also good, if a little understated, and F. Murray Abraham is always good value. The others aren't standouts, but they aren't bad.

"We're contractually obligated to offer the bare minimum in entertainment."

The Bottom Line
Along with The House on Haunted Hill, this is one of the few 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 fun and has some great production values.

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