When, before the credits, a woman angrily chastises a megalomaniac-millionaire for playing God, and he spits back “Playing is for children,” the seasoned film scholar will often turns off the DVD player and watch the news. When the millionaire is hunting ghosts and is played by Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham, with all the integrity he brought to the role of Omar in “Scarface,” the scholar may grimace before turning off the DVD.
Odds are, though, that the seasoned film scholar would not be interested in “Thir13en Ghosts,” a remake of William Castle’s 1960 cheapo horror fright-fest, especially one produced by the soul-sucking production team of Joel Silver, Gilbert Adler and Robert Zemeckis. Castle, king of the gimmicky Vincent-Price-brand films of the late fifties, was notorious for turning a profit on glossy trash by perfectly estimating the audience and its desire for scary camp. If the movie wasn’t scary enough, Castle had electric shock devices implanted in the theater seats. For the original “Ghosts,” the specters could only be viewed with special glasses, that were to be put on when the characters on the screen used their own ocular enhancements.
Out on DVD today, the remake keeps the glasses, though it drops the audience participation and any semblance of explanation as to why they pick up the ghosts. “Thir13en Ghosts” is little more than an attempt to resurrect the profit-turning “B-movie” camp of the ’50s while updating it in order to appeal to the “hip” modern kids. While thoroughly entertaining on a primal, exploitive level, the high production-value and CGI-enhanced special effects only showcase how bankrupt the film really is. Creepy cardboard castles and guys wearing sheets would have suited just fine.
Instead, director Steve Beck substitutes cardboard for glass. Instead of a rich uncle dying and leaving his old castle to his poor, nearly unknown nephew, the rich uncle, Cyrus (Abraham), leaves his giant, moving glass house to his poor, nearly unknown nephew (Tony Shalhoub). The house is made completely of clear glass and steel, and it moves, so exits disappear and stairways change shape. Why someone would want to live (or could get lost) in a house you can see straight through is never clear. The house is quite a spectacle, but not in a good way.
Abraham, apparently, had been collecting ghosts that met violent ends with his business partner/pet psychic Dennis (Matthew Lillard), and storing them in glass cages in the basement. They get out, they chase nephew and his children (“American Pie” exchange student Shannon Elizabeth and Alec Roberts, who actually played Elian Gonzalez in a TV movie) around the house. Not much else happens, and it’s really hard to get scared when Lillard is in danger, as most people could think of worse things than the annoying actor’s grisly demise.
The cast also includes Embeth Davidtz (“Army of Darkness”) as the bizarre Kalina, whose life work seems to be freeing enslaved spirits, with her ACLU-for-the-dead cronies, and musician Rah Digga as a sassy black nanny who’s afraid of ghosts (I’m not kidding). Digga and her character are truely offensive, with her nanny caring more about her nails and saving her own hide than she does about the kids. Why more critics didn’t condemn this aspect of the film goes to show just how quickly “Ghosts” fell off the pop-culture radar.
What the film, and the DVD, have going for there are the truly creepy and innovative makeup work by Howard Berger. The ghosts, from the dismembered “Torso” to the violently disfigured “Hammer,” are instantly memorable and provocative, despite the woefully short screen-time given to each. The DVD contains a “Ghost Files” section, which gives a good look and brief background of each tormented soul, and why Cyrus chose them for his collection. The ghosts are pure horror-film cool, in the real ’80s sense.
The disc also includes a behind-the-scenes documentary with the how-to guide on make-up and set design, and a few talking-head interviews. A nice addition, but not very in-depth for a film so driven by special effects. A brief (written) description of Castle and a trailer round out the goodies, showing this is more of a rental than a “must-own.” The technical specs are fine for a new release, but don’t expect to be wowed.
Three-dimensional glasses may enhance viewing, but only if you’re watching a different film.