Thir13en Ghosts is one of those movies that polarizes critics and audiences. Not surprisingly, critics ripped it apart on its release. And while it made decent money at the box office, it fell just short of recouping its production budget. But Thir13en Ghosts has developed a fanbase over the years. And those people who like it, really like it. I saw the Dark Castle Entertainment William Castle remake in theaters way back in 2001. At the time, I wasn’t particularly impressed. But every so often, I stumble upon a horror fan who sings the praise of this movie. In the 20 years that have passed since its release, has Thir13en Ghosts earned a critical reappraisal? Or is still it just a bad movie?
Brilliant Visual Design and Production Values Undone By Poor Film-making Basics
While Thir13en Ghosts honours William Castle’s B-movie story-telling, the production values are far removed from its source material. Simply put, Thir13en Ghosts looks good. Really good. Just the visual design of the Kriticos glass mansion itself overflows with an inventiveness missing from most haunted house movies. Occasionally, the CGI gore effects are distracting but, by and large, even they hold up remarkably well. A sliding glass door splitting an unscrupulous lawyer in half is a highlight. But it’s the ghosts themselves that set this remake apart from more forgettable fare. Simply put, the makeup effects are outstanding. Creative, convincing, and scary – each of the ghosts stands out. In particular, The Hammer, The Jackal, and The Angry Princess could probably carry their own movies in an extended universe.
Everything is cut in such a manic style that the movie should come with a warning about seizures.
With such visually impressive ghosts, it’s a shame director Steve Beck (Ghost Ship) doesn’t let you see them often enough. This is largely a function of what could be some of the worst editing you may see in a horror movie. Everything is cut in such a manic style that the movie should come with a warning about seizures. Ghosts flash on and off the screen like strobe lights at a nightclub, making it difficult to see what’s happening. None of this makes the movie remotely enjoyable. It’s definitely not scary in the least. Instead, Thir13en Ghosts often feels jarring, like a Ritalin-induced nightmare.
Half-Baked Story and Underwritten Characters Haunt Thir13en Ghosts
Somewhere in Thir13en Ghosts is some potentially fascinating ‘haunted house’ lore. But like the movie’s ghosts, interesting ideas flash in and out rapidly. Much of the movie’s supernatural mythology is either unexplored or reduced to pscyho-babble exposition. Perhaps the worst offence Thir13en Ghosts commits is its misuse of the titular ghosts. Despite the movie’s extraordinary makeup effects and clever titles for each ghost, Beck leaves his greatest assets in the background. Yes, Beck alludes to creepy backstories. Apparently, the original DVD release included bios for each ghost as an extra feature. Sadly, the movie itself elects to focus on its B-movie story about some poltergeist-powered ‘machine of doom’ and its bland characters.
Thir13en Ghosts Doesn’t Give Its Decent 2000’s Cast Much to Do
Admittedly, a remake of William Castle’s Thirteen Ghosts didn’t necessitate complex, layered characters. And for what’s essentially a dressed-up B-movie, Thir13en Ghosts assembled a fairly impressive cast of familiar faces from the 2000’s. Still enjoying the residual fame from her American Pie role, Shannon Elizabeth barely registers with her screen time. Then there’s Scream-alum, Matthew Lillard, who dials up his ‘Stu’ character from Craven’s classic to about an ‘11’. Contrary to some opinions, Lillard can be quite good (see Netflix show, Good Girls). But his performance here borders on obnoxious. MC Rah Digga has a rare acting role as family nanny, Maggie. Unfortunately, the character is written like something straight out of an 80’s sitcom.
Then there’s Scream-alum, Matthew Lillard, who dials up his ‘Stu’ characters from Craven’s classic to about an ‘11’.
Veteran character actors, Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, and F Murray Abraham, add some gravitas to the movie. Nevertheless, even someone as talented as Shalhoub can’t do much with a paper-thin role. Shaloub’s character, for instance, can be succinctly summed up in three ways – ‘angry father’, ‘concerned father’, and ‘grieving widower’. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that all the characters were developed from adjectives plastered onto sticky notes. Thir13en Ghosts then subjects Davidtz’s character to an unearned twist, suggesting that some story was left on the cutting room floor.
Thir13en Ghosts Still Has Nostalgic Value for Certain Age Group
Technically, Thir13en Ghosts isn’t a good movie. Nothing after re-watching it nearly 20 years later suggests that it’s acquired some new charm. But never discount the power of nostalgia. Eighties horror fans have a laundry list of of B-movies that have little appeal outside our generation. And if you grew up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Thir13een Ghosts likely has a similar nostalgic appeal. Maybe it’s the amazing ghost make-up effects. Or perhaps the goodwill from Matthew Lillard’s Scream role still counts. But Thir13en Ghosts is, at the very least, a watchable horror movie.