Dir: Steve Beck. US. 2001. 90 mins.
The ghouls are the title characters but the elaborate set is the real star of Thirteen Ghosts, a one-note, yet efficiently jolting Halloween offering from Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis' mid-budget horror label Dark Castle Entertainment. Re-made (like Dark Castle's Halloween '99 release The House On Haunted Hill) from an original by sixties horror showman William Castle, this good-looking spin on the old haunted house scenario should produce decent theatrical openings worldwide - the mid-level cast will probably preclude really big numbers - and healthy returns from the video market.
Not much time is wasted introducing the story's human protagonists. A slam-bang opening sequence shows imperious ghost-hunter Cyrus Kriticos (Abraham) and his psychic helper Rifkin (Lillard, from Scream) capturing their latest phantom after a bloody confrontation in a rain-soaked junkyard. Then an abrupt cut takes us into the shabby domestic life of Cyrus' nephew Arthur (Shaloub, from Big Night and Spy Kids), who, after the tragic death of his wife, is struggling to provide for grown daughter Kathy (Elizabeth, from American Pie), young son Bobby (Roberts) and sassy housekeeper Maggie (rapper Rah Digga making a promising film debut). News that long-forgotten Uncle Cyrus has died and left his country house to Arthur moves the action swiftly to the film's main setting.
The house turns out to be a mysterious, glass-walled mansion, whose maze of corridors and well-appointed rooms at first delights Arthur's family. However, when Rifkin shows up to claim his back pay from Cyrus' estate he discovers that the spirits he helped capture are all caged - and mad as hell about it - in the basement. Before long, the house seems to come to life, releasing the ghosts and trapping the humans.
The set is impressively designed and its art-deco look makes a refreshing change from the usual Gothic architecture. But while it offers first-time feature director (and former visual effects art director) Steve Beck some nice visual opportunities, it also limits the film's dramatic possibilities: the action effectively becomes one long game of hide-and-spook. And although the appearances of the ghosts - a collection of variously mutilated bogeymen (and women), revealed mostly in jarring flash shots - are scary at first, the effect diminishes with repetition.
Fairly late on, the script does attempt to give the action some real direction - it turns out the house is a machine constructed by Cyrus to open the 'Eye of Hell,' and only Arthur's paternal instincts can put a spanner in the works - but the effort seems distinctly half-hearted. (Audiences for Castle's original film were offered distraction from the plot in the form of 3D effects and 'ghost viewer' spectacles. In the remake, only the characters on screen get to wear the ghoul-revealing goggles.)
Prod cos: Warner Bros Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Dark Castle Entertainment.
Dist (US): Warner
Dist (intl): Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Prods: Gilbert Adler, Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis.
Exec prods: Dan Cracchiolo, Steve Richards.
Scr: Neal Marshall Stevens, Richard D'Ovidio.
DoP: Gale Tattersall.
Eds: Edward A Warschilka, Derek G Brechin.
Prod des: Sean Hargreaves.
Music: John Frizzell.
Main cast: Tony Shaloub, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, Rah Digga, F Murray Abraham, Alec Roberts.