In 2001, the Dark Castle production house was looking for another remake of a Vincent Price movie, and they found it in the strange, weirdly fun Thirteen Ghosts. I haven’t seen the original Thirteen Ghosts
The resulting film is strange for a horror movie–it’s almost like a brilliant experiment gone wrong.
The action starts with F. Murray Abraham (I know, right?) and Matthew Lilliard attempting to capture the ghost of a mass murderer who haunts the junkyard where he buried his victims. Lilliard plays Dennis Rafkin, a man with strong psychic abilities who has been contracted b Cyrus Kritikos (Abraham) to help locate and capture ‘displaced spiritual energies.’ He doesn’t much care what the ghosts are being captured for, but when he realizes that the ghost they are hunting was a much more prolific murderer than they’d previously surmised, he’s horrified and almost walks away from the whole project. Also introduced are the methods by which Kritikos captures ghosts, a mixture of steampunkish technology and broadcasting chanted spells over loudspeakers, which somehow forces the ghost into a large glass cage. Also introduced is Kalina Oretzia, a sort of freedom fighter for ghost rights who has a problem with Kritikos capturing and enslaving ghosts. Oretzia is played by the beautiful Embeth Davitz, alumni of Army of Darkness and also, weirdly, Matilda.
Things Go Wrong, Kritikos is killed, but the ghost is captured and Rafkin escapes.
That’s just the first ten minutes.
I can kind of see why Thirteen Ghosts didn’t catch on with its intended audience; it’s one of those horror movies that’s smarter than the ads presented it, but the excess of effects and ‘ACTION!’ tone to the marketing turned off the smarter audience who would have enjoyed it. Its writing and story reminds me strongly of the Hellblazer graphic novels, which were made into the film Constantine, and which had very little to do with the source material. But I digress.
Enter Tony Shalhoub (HOOOUUUUB) as Arthur Critikos, mild-mannered math teacher and widower who is struggling to raise his two children after losing his wife and everything he owned in a house fire six months previous. The family moved from a nice, big house to a small, crappy apartment, and the close quarters and exigent circumstances have become the cause of much tension in the family. Also introduced are Arthur’s children: macabre, death-obsessed moppet Bobby, and the constantly grinning older daughter Kathy. I’m serious, Shannon Elizabeth’s teeth ought to have gotten their own credit, because they’re NEVER out of sight in the whole movie.
Also introduced is Rah Digga as nanny Maggie, who feels a little shoehorned into the movie to appeal to fans of Sass. She’s a great character, but ultimately doesn’t add much to the story other than the occasional one-liner and observation that ‘white people so crazy.’ Which is a shame, since she’s a capable actress and has real comedic timing, but is relegated to a supporting character and occasional comic relief.
Suddenly a slick lawyer shows up; he’s the handler for Cyrus Kritikos’s estate, and the latter has left everything to his distant nephew Arthur, including his badass glass and clockwork mansion.
The mansion, it turns out, is actually a huge machine powered by the captured spirits, for the purposes of opening a portal to Hell in order to see the past, present, and future.
Which is, you know, almost too MUCH story for a movie of this size, but I’d also rather watch something into which too much thought was put than not enough.
Once the house is activated, the containment units holding the ghosts begin to open, which is a bad bad bad bad thing; the reason being, all the ghosts experienced highly traumatic, violent deaths and so seek to exact revenge for their pain on anyone who wanders across their path. And some of them are SERIOUS about ruining other people’s days; the interesting thing is, you kind of can’t blame them.
For example, The Hammer was a black blacksmith in the 1890s who was wrongly accused of a crime. An angry mob attacked him, and he was chained to a tree and railroad spikes were driven into his body with his own hammer–then his hand was cut off and that same hammer driven into the stump. I kind of like this ghost a lot because he’s a reminder that American history can be really, REALLY gruesome, especially for anyone who wasn’t white.
Then there’s the Angry Princess, a woman suffering from body dysmorphic disorder who got a job with a plastic surgeon for the express purpose of ‘fixing’ everything that was ‘wrong’ with her. Denied a surgery, she tried to perform it herself one night and was convinced she’d mutilated herself. She slashed her wrists in a bathtub, scrawling the words ‘I’m Sorry’ on the floor in her own blood. Isn’t that compelling character creation? Also a walking argument against the fashion industry?
There are other little surprises to the movie, as well. One unexpected delight is Matthew Lilliard’s portrayal of a man cursed rather than gifted with psychic abilities–he almost steals the show as the twitchy, loud Rafkin, especially when he points out that the only way he could make money to support himself was by working for Cyrus. Whenever Rafkin touches someone he experiences ALL the pain they’ve ever experienced in their lifetime drilled into his head in a few seconds. Depending on how you feel about Lilliard (I was never that big of a fan, until this movie) you’ll almost want to see his character go on to have more adventures. He creates an engaging character not just with the comedic touches, but with his emotionally stirring performance as well.
Another interesting thing about 13 ghosts is that it is a movie about trauma, and how different people deal with it. The death of Arthur’s wife has affected him profoundly, but he manages to struggle on, not just for his children’s sake but for his own. Rafkin, though his entire life has been nothing BUT trauma, attempts to stop what is going on in the house and begs Arthur to get his children out of the house before something terrible happens, revealing that though he has a checkered past, he is not beyond redemption. The ghosts themselves, whose life stories are not really gone into except in these neat little vignettes on the DVD, have chosen to deal with trauma by repeating the cycle, and visiting their personal horrors on others.
I have to say though, that a major failing of the movie is the house itself; it never felt LARGE enough, as if the living and the dead, in all about twenty people, were somehow able to avoid each other in a space comparable to a medium-sized shoe store. Also, the glass walls with spirit writing on them were cool, but ultimately make you feel like a person who gets lost in a see-through maze just might not be trying hard enough to stay alive. Even if there’d been some kind of conceit that caused the glass to go opaque every once in a while (like the doors in those Japanese bathrooms–it’s a clear glass door until you hit a switch and it goes opaque) it would have been a vast improvement to the feeling of constricted movement in the movie.
The Wikipedia entry lists Arthur as the 13th ghost, the sacrifice of the broken heart needed to stop the house from opening the door to hell, but since Dennis sacrifices himself in order to save Arthur I have to conclude that it was Dennis’s selfless act that saves the day. I also just plain like that interpretation better, because Dennis is allowed to redeem himself for the terrible things he’s done, and he’s such a likeable character you want him to have that chance. I would totally watch a movie where ghost Dennis Rafkin and somene else team up and solve mysteries or something.