Thirteen Ghosts

Thirteen Ghosts (2001)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Shannon Elizabeth
Extras: Commentary Track, Ghost Files, Featurette, Music Video, Theatrical Trailer, Cast & Crew

Following the success of 1999’s "House on Haunted Hill", the production team at Dark Castle Entertainment (Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver and Gilbert Adler) return to the William Castle library to remake another of his hits from the 60s. This time, the target is "13 Ghosts", a film famous for its audience participation scheme. With the original film, theatre patrons were given a pair of special 3-D glasses. When the ghosts appeared in the movie, the viewers donned these glasses in order to make the ghosts visible. The makers of the oddly spelled remake "Thir13en Ghosts", have been able to incorporate that bit of marketing into a film which at times feels like a carbon-copy of "House on Haunted Hill", but manages to be entertaining in its own right.

As the film opens, we are introduced to Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham), a man who is apparently obsessed with capturing a violent ghost who resides in a junkyard. Aided by an unstable psychic named Rafkin (Matthew Lillard), we watch as a team of technicians orchestrate an elaborate plot to subdue what is apparently a very deadly specter.

The scene then shifts to a drab apartment occupied by Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub), Cyrus’ nephew. Arthur and his family, daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and son Bobby (Alec Roberts) have resided in this sad dwelling with baby-sitter Maggie (Rah Digga), ever since a fire destroyed their house and took the life of Arthur’s wife. Things begin to look up when a lawyer (JR Bourne) arrives to inform Arthur that he has inherited his uncle Cyrus’ mansion. As if this turn of events wasn’t shocking enough to Arthur, things really get weird when he and his family visit the house. The mansion is made primarily of steel and glass, making it a wonder to behold. All of the rooms are transparent and one can see from one side of the house to the other. However, Arthur soon learns that the house may indeed be a giant glass coffin, as it become apparent that all isn’t what it seems. A group of angry and violent ghosts inhabit the house and they will stop at nothing to destroy the family.

"Thir13en Ghosts" is actually many films in one. The storyline concerning the family trapped in the house with an unstoppable evil is highly unoriginal and not very inspired. A second plotline, which entails the purposes of the house and the ghosts is incredibly convoluted and confusing. Yet, "Thir13en Ghosts" is able to transcend its script woes and be a very entertaining horror film. Much of this is due to the look of the movie. For starters, the production design of the house is very impressive, despite the fact that it’s simply a giant "Hellraiser" cube. The glass structure is both beautiful and foreboding at the same time. Secondly, each ghost is given an individual look and they are certainly creepy and disturbing.

In the film, the characters can only see the ghosts if they are wearing special glasses (thus incorporating Castle’s original marketing scheme into the remake). Even then, the ghosts flow in and out of sight. This creates a unique opportunity for the filmmakers, as we are given villains who can appear at will and who are invisible to some of the characters. Director Steve Beck uses this plot device to his advantage and creates a suspenseful atmosphere with it. Also, whereas "House on Haunted Hill" dragged a bit in the middle, Beck keeps "Thir13en Ghosts" moving along at a brisk pace (albeit at the expense of some major plot points) and the film is never dull. Another aspect that works in the favor of "Thir13en Ghosts" is its tone. While there are a few funny lines, the film is very serious for the most part, bordering on mean-spirited at times. These ghosts are not playful, rather they are deadly and quite unhappy. This no-nonsense approach gives the viewer the feeling that any character could be savagely attacked at any given moment. This combination of tone, pacing, and great visual effects makes "Thir13en Ghosts" a surprisingly effective horror film.

"Thir13en Ghosts" arrives on DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film is presented in a "matted" <$PS,widescreen> format and has been <$PS,letterboxed> at approximately 1.78:1. This transfer is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing few flaws. There are no obvious defects from the source print and the grain-level is near zero, despite the fact that this is a very dark movie. The colors are fine and the blacks are especially deep and rich. There is some minor artifacting in places, but no problems with edge enhancement nor any compression woes. Overall, this is a very good transfer.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> audio track is the disc’s highlight. When I saw "Thir13en Ghosts" in the theater, I noticed that the dialogue track was low in the audio mix, and that is true here as well, but to a lesser extent. So, at times, the sound effects are much louder than the dialogue. That problem aside, this is a vibrant and robust audio track that convinces on all technical ends. Despite the fact that the dialogue is quiet, it is clear and intelligible. The surround sound separation is perfect and the LFE response is nearly constant, giving the track a fat quality at any given time. There is some great usage of screen-to-speaker placement of the sound effects and surround usage in general is very aggressive and effective. This powerful audio display, combined with the film’s intense visuals, help to make "Thir13en Ghosts" a sensory treat.

Although this is a "standard" release (i.e. not a special edition), there are some impressive extras to be had on this DVD. First up is an <$commentary,audio commentary> with production designer Sean Hargreaves, special effects make-up artist Howard Berger, and director Steve Beck. While this commentary will answer most any question that you have about the look of the film, it is a bit dry and technical at times. Still, there are some fun moments and it’s clear that this group had a good time making the film. Along these same lines is a 19-minute featurette entitled "Thirteen Ghosts Revealed", which examines the production of the film, the special make-up effects and the visual effects. Here, we are treated to interviews with the cast and crew, as well as insights into the designing of the ghosts and the house. The most interesting aspect here is the focus on the make-up effects and the amount of dedication that the actors and crew put forward.

It’s always nice when an extra feature can enhance the film itself. (For example, the deleted scenes on the "Driven" DVD, which prove that there actually was a script at some point.) While watching "Thir13en Ghosts", most viewers will note that the ghosts themselves are highly detailed, but we never get any background information on them. That is rectified with the "Ghost Files" feature. Here, we get an in-depth biography for each of the ghosts, complete with illustrations and narration by F. Murray Abraham. This is one of the most creative extras that I’ve ever seen and it certainly proves that the creators of the film (and this DVD) put a great deal of thought into this project. Rounding out the extras are the theatrical trailer for the film, a music video for a song by Tricky, and a text biography for renowned showman William Castle.

Despite some shortcomings, "Thir13en Ghosts" is able to succeed for many of the same reasons that made films such as "Evil Dead" winners. Take a simple yet convoluted plot (involving an oddly named book) and then throw evil spirits at the audience for 90 minutes. The film is a visual and auditory feast and that experience is greatly enhanced by this impressive DVD. Be warned, Dark Castle Entertainment and director Steve Beck are already at work on their next film, "Ghost Ship". Here’s to hoping that the DVD will be equally as good.