Riding Shotgun: “Thirteen Ghosts” Still Isn’t Any Good

Our ongoing media review takes a look at a remake of a classic schlock movie.

There should be a rule in Hollywood circles: Only remake something if you’re sure that you can do it better the second time around. Anyone who’s bothered to see the remakes of “Psycho,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and, most recently, “Thirteen Ghosts” knows that, if that rule exists, there’s a shitload of people out there breaking it. For the obvious purposes of this review, let’s focus on that last film and put it in some perspective.

Those of you born after 1970 (the majority of the Internet generation) might not recognize the nom de plume, but for the children of the 50s and 60s, the name William Castle is synonymous with cinematic schlock.

Castle films — almost all in the horror genre — were notorious for graphic gore and one-of-a-kind gimmicks. Castle took some of the worst scripts imaginable and turned them into moneymaking machines by drawing as much attention away from the shoddy story and stilted acting as possible.

His most infamous gimmick film, “The Tingler,” featured a monster who would attack from behind and whose touch felt like an electric shock. Theaters showing the film were rigged with vibrating buzzers on the backs of the audience’s chairs, so that when the creature attacked on the screen, it was the audience who got the brunt of the horrible “tingle.”

It was ridiculous, yes, but it was also 1959 and it was being marketed to children and teenagers, not to MENSA candidates. His filmography is laden with movies of that kind: “Macabre,” “Homicidal,” “The Night Walker,” “House on Haunted Hill” (also recently remade and a pale shadow of the original) and “Thirteen Ghosts.”

“Thirteen Ghosts” was another gimmick film. It’s the story of a family who inherit a house that actually holds a collection of ghosts that can only be seen when the characters wear special goggles. The audience was issued their own special “goggles” at the door, which were cardboard viewers holding two colored strips of celluloid: one blue, one red.

The movie was filmed in “Illusion-O,” which meant that the ghosts were filmed in red against a blue background. When the audience looked through the red strip, it blocked the background out and accentuated the ghosts. The blue strip blocked out the ghost and faded them into the background. People were too busy flipping from one colored strip to the other to notice that the movie was flimsy and juvenile.

In Steve Beck’s remake of “Thirteen Ghosts,” there are no spirit goggles handed out at the door, and the holes in the story are painfully visible. The plot is much the same, with a family (father, son, daughter, and nanny) who inherit a house from their eccentric uncle, who just so happens to have spent his life collecting the spirits of the dead and locking them away in his little hidey-hole. The family soon learns that it’s not just a house, but an infernal engine of destruction driven by the energy of the trapped spirits.

Tony Shalhoub (you know him as the taxi driver from “Wings”) is flat and unlikable as the father, and Alec Roberts and Shannon Elizabeth, who play his children, are little better. Twenty minutes in and you’ll be rooting for the ghosts to come and put them, and you, out of their misery. F. Murray Abraham, who can never go wrong when playing the evil patriarch, steps in as the devious Uncle Cyrus and is a level above the rest, but appears only briefly.

Matthew Lillard (“Scream,” “Hackers”) is the only point of light in a long hour-and-a-half of mediocrity. Playing Daniel Rafkin, an associate of Cyrus who can not only sense ghosts around him, but read people’s minds as well, Lillard shows us his usual half-funny/half-manic self, which is a great relief for a movie that has so little humor.

The only thing that comes close to drawing attention away from the rest of the movie is the house itself, which is an amazing piece of set design. Made almost entirely of glass with ancient Latin spells calligraphically inscribed into the unbreakable panes, it’s constantly shifting and moving.

In brief flashes (when the characters are wearing their special goggles) the spirits are visible, and most of them are violent and ugly. It’s not surprising, since Beck was a visual effects artist before he became a director — this being his first attempt.

Nostalgia is great, but directors should realize that a bad script in the 60s is a bad script now and no amount of gimmicks, gore or occasional frontal nudity is going to change that.

Article © 2001 by Steve Spotswood