One look at the official, on-screen title–“Thir13en Ghosts”–gives ample clue as to what this update of the 1960 William Castle chiller “13 Ghosts” tries to be and how it fails. The placement of a numeral in the middle of a word is obviously meant to evoke a film that is genuinely chilling and disturbing, namely, David Fincher’s “Se7en.” But like that inscrutable pseudo-word “Thir13en,” this film is a messy jumble.
The Warner Bros. marketing department certainly earns creativity points for using those now commonplace MPAA ratings reasons as the cornerstone for its promotional campaign: “This film has been rated R for nudity, violence, and gore,” proudly announce the TV spots. If that’s enough for you to rush out and buy a ticket, then this film is for you, for it’s all about shallow sensory gratification. Fans of comely co-star Shannon Elizabeth should be forewarned, however, that the advertised bare flesh is not that of the sultry starlet, who continues her efforts toward being a “serious actress” (yeah right) by keeping her clothes on. She plays Kathy, the older of two children to sullen widower Arthur (Tony Shalhoub), who at the beginning of the film inherits an opulent glass house from Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham), the uncle he barely knew. Arthur, Kathy, Arthur’s young son Bobby (Alec Roberts), and Bobby’s no-nonsense nanny Maggie (Rah Digga) soon find out that this luxurious mansion is, in fact, a death trap, with a dozen bloodthirsty ghosts collected by Cyrus ever so eager to make anyone in the family join them in the netherworld.
To explain why there are only twelve ghosts rather than the 13 (er, “thir13en”) of the title is to delve into the overly convoluted backstory that this flimsy film is in no shape to support. Director Steve Beck is less interested in telling a coherent story (though, to be fair, it’s not as if screenwriters Neal Marshall Stevens of Richard D’Ovidio have come up with one), establishing characters worth caring about, coaxing believable performances, or coming up with a decent scare than coming up with a reel of cool visuals. Granted, the effects work is nicely done, and the central piece of eye candy–the magnificent contraption that is the house–is truly stunning; it is such a wonder to behold that Kathy’s ecstatic reaction to the bathroom is understandable. Not understandable in the slightest is Beck’s decision to devote a whole scene to Kathy getting excited over the bathroom, and shooting a good deal of it in slow motion, to boot. In addition to excessive slo-mo, Beck uses a lot of quick and flash cuts of the ghosts to presumably scare or at least unsettle the audience; it doesn’t work either way. Whenever he’s bored with that, he resorts to graphic bursts of violence (an early instance of which, I must admit, is a bit of a showstopper); and when all else fails, he throws in another shot of the young female ghost who just happens to haunt house while completely nude.
Of the cast, only Shalhoub emerges with some semblance of dignity intact even if his character is at the center of a ridiculously schmaltzy finale. The others are off in their own little zones. Elizabeth is kidding herself if she thinks her overly earnest take on a paper-thin role is going to make anyone think more of her acting ability. Hip-hopper Digga is called on to be the token sassy person of color. An already too-cutesy Roberts is made even more annoying by sporting one of those fake moppet lisps. Matthew Lillard, playing a psychic ghost tracker, chews the scenery from his first frame to last. A humorless Embeth Davidtz, as a mysterious figure who wants to liberate the spirits, is saddled with the thankless job of delivering all of the murky exposition. Finally, the barely-seen Abraham continues to be living proof that winning a Best Actor doesn’t necessarily mean s**t for a career.
Neither, apparently, do the names of Hollywood bigwigs Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis mean s**t when they are listed under the executive producer credit of horror movies: first the two cheesy “Tales from the Crypt” spinoff feature films, then the mediocre 1999 update of Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill,” and now the even bigger waste that is “Thir13en Ghosts.”