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The Redemption Of: “Thirteen Ghosts”

Friday, October 23, 2020 | Opinion


Remakes are one of the touchiest topics in the horror community. One has to really read the room to judge whether to say aloud if you’re a fan or hate a remake. Some refuse to see a remake as anything but blasphemy to the original, a symptom of Hollywood running out of ideas, or a way to bleed money from a franchise or legacy, while some see remakes as better because they’re new, shiny, and a refreshing take on classic material. A lot of the hate comes from how we perceive the originals as pinnacles of horror perfection, and refuse to have any form of re-imagination or believe they are anything but perfect.

Case in point: 2001’s THIRTEEN GHOSTS (stylized as THIR13EN GHOSTS), a remake of the 1960 film by William Castle. Not only was it poorly received, it was outright hated. Steve Beck’s film sits at 15% on Rotten Tomatoes, 30% on Metacritic, and received 1 star by Robert Ebert, who put it on his “most hated films ever” list. The budget for THIRTEEN GHOSTS was $42 million and it grossed $68.5 million, not a huge success. Like so many critically panned movies, THIRTEEN GHOSTS has been kept alive by the generation who were kids when they watched it, got attached, and never let it die….like myself.

The film is about Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub), a man who loses his partner in a house fire and is left financially and emotionally crumbling, struggling to get by with his two children. When his incredibly rich uncle Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) dies, he’s offered a mansion filled with secrets. What kind of secrets? A basement full of murderous ghosts that are about to be set free and ruin everyone’s night kinda secrets. The Kriticos family and their nanny move in, unknowingly walking into a trap set up for them. It turns out that the house is a giant machine designed to see the past and future, and give the designer unmentionable power, but only when all of the titular 13 ghosts are brought together by reading from the Arcanum.

The 2001 movie is almost completely different than the original, but the bones are still there. Greedy lawyer, haunted house, dead uncle, poor nephew, spooky ghosts, etc. Aside from that, it is a completely different film. Is that a bad thing? Not entirely! They didn’t follow the formula and actually get creative with the story, but still don’t stray too far away from the script. This is something a lot of remakes in all genres really mess up. They try too hard to be exactly like the original and it just doesn’t work. Other time, they try way too hard to not be like the original, and it turns into a bit of a dumpster fire. I will say Shannon Elizabeth never made sense as a casting choice for me. She was nearing 30 and Rah Digga, who is only a year older, is here playing her nanny! Speaking of Rah Digga, her character doesn’t make any sense either. The father is financially crippled, why does he need a nanny when he has a fully adult daughter? Maybe it was intended as a reference to Elaine from the original.

Filmmakers in the late ’90s to early 2000 loved using twitchy editing and obnoxious random sounds with sporadic audio levels. This style was short-lived but critics hated and slammed it while it was prominent. I don’t think that style of filmmaking has aged well, but it’s there to remind us never to do that again. It was the downfall of many films of the time period, including this one. Every negative review talked about the visual and sound editing and I will agree with it! That, however, doesn’t negate the positives of the film once you get past it.

Let’s break down these positives:

The 13 ghosts of the black zodiac! The First Born Son, The Torso, The Bound Woman, The Withered Lover, The Torn Prince, The Angry Princess, The Pilgrimess, The Great Child, The Dire Mother, The Hammer, The Jackal, and The Juggernaut. The Broken Heart would be the 13th ghost. Each wraith’s style, special effects, and backstory is awesome. The thirteen specters are cool enough to warrant an origin film or a TV series to showcase the characters or detail what happens after this film. If any streaming site executive reads this, there’s a lot of people who want that series! Their extensive backstories can be found on the special features of the DVD, or you can look up the fandom wiki, which I highly recommend.

The talent behind the scenes! Producers Gilbert Adker (Tales From The Crypt Keeper, Freddys Nightmares, Constantine), Joel Silver (The Warriors, the Lethal Weapon series, Predator, Die Hard, Demolition Man, and much more) and Robert Zemeckis (the Back To The Future series, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her). Writers Neil Marshall Stevens (Puppet Master, Head Of The Family) and James Gunn (Tromeo and Juliet, Dawn Of The Dead, Guardians Of The Galaxy) and director Steve Beck (Ghost Ship).

The visual effects! CGI was becoming popular in the early 2000s and filmmakers left a lot of special effects makeup behind. It’s refreshing to see special effects makeup and prosthetics really coming back into style in present horror, and, although used quite a bit of CGI on the house and machine in THIRTEEN GHOSTS, the makeup effects really make this movie worth a second look.

The makeup and special effects department alone could fill an article itself. There were 41 people in the makeup department, 12 in the special effects department, and over 100 in the set and digital design. The amount of skilled and accomplished artists that were a part of this film is incredibly impressive on its own, but each ghost is beautifully done. Creepy, demonic, and furious looking. The kill scenes are primarily in the opening sequence, when they introduce the juggernaut, but the lawyer’s death scene is by far one of my favorites in horror with an unforgettable bisection. Even though there are only 4 death scenes post intro, each death scene is exceptionally visually pleasing and gory.

THIRTEEN GHOSTS deserves redemption. It has all the attributes of a well-rounded ghost story with only a few plot holes, and is a good take on a classic William Castle film, even with basically no similarities to the original film other than a house with 12 ghosts and a rich uncle/poor nephew/greedy lawyer scenario. Give it a second spin and relive the 2000s in all its poor taste of clothing and editing choices. Appreciate the gang of ghoulies and talented cast behind this gem.

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