FANGO Flashback: “THIR13EN GHOSTS”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Having grown up as a horror hungry genre fan in the ‘90s, this writer will always have a certain affection to the largely maligned fright fare of the decade as well as the early ‘00s. This means, no matter their myriad flaws and frustrations, I will often find myself defending the post-SCREAM slasher flicks, bloated animal attack horror and even the industrial ghost stories that attempted to add a HELLRAISER vibe to classic haunting tales. In that last category sits the heyday of Dark Castle films, who through several horror offerings, gave grislier, largely imaginative remakes of William Castle’s golden-age nightmares, with the strongest likely being Steve Beck’s THIR13EN GHOSTS.
Truth be told, THIR13EN GHOSTS is one of this writer’s favorite horror films, one that would qualify as a guilty pleasure if this writer didn’t so vehemently and publicly defend it with unabashed vigor. Sure, it’s a silly movie with performance issues, plot holes and some moments of spotty CGI, but more often than not, THIR13EN GHOSTS is an incredibly fun and wicked film that makes the most of its cast and it’s utterly fantastic concept. Even the brief glimpses into the stories behind the ghosts provides a sense of depth in environment and universe that so few horror films capture nowadays, and giving each villain a unique personality and skill set of which to fear.
Of course, all these years later, THIR13EN GHOSTS is certainly evocative of HELLRAISER and the Cenobites, albeit de-sexualized and more chaotic in nature. Whether it’s several of the character designs (particularly, the Jackal and the Hammer) carry some visual cues similar to HELLRAISER, even the design of Cyrus’ mansion looks like a massive, operational puzzle box, complete with scripture, artwork and a mythology tied to hell. And even the bloodier, more violent sequences- including the opening junkyard massacre and several character attacks- feel as if they could have been pulled from the Cenobite playbook (including the film’s one accidental death, by which a character is memorably bisected in practical glory via KNB FX).
Surprisingly, however, THIR13EN GHOSTS remains memorable for more than just its violence; in fact, outside of the film’s gory prologue, most of the violence in THIR13EN GHOSTS is sparse, with most ghost attacks being used for suspense and raising stakes rather than upping the body count. THIR13EN GHOSTS has some fantastic character dynamics on display, from Matthew Lillard’s troubled psychic to Embeth Davidtz’s kick-ass survivalist to Tony Shalhoub’s blue collar father character, and when the varied ghosts make themselves known, the film offers some solid and creepy set pieces. And speaking of sets, the film’s production feels truly epic in nature; from the make-up FX to the practically built glass house and junkyard sets, every penny of the film’s $42 million budget makes it on screen and continues to impress with each passing scene.
Unfortunately, THIR13EN GHOSTS also has a fair share of elements that don’t quite hold up all these years later, the worst being some of the film’s attempts at humor. While some of the humor does stick (and surprisingly, there’s several attempts at black humor that this writer totally forgot remained in the movie), several of the “witty banter” moments don’t quite gel, especially considering how the film bounces in tone. Furthermore, most of the CGI appears quite dated in comparison to the fantastic practical FX work, and some of the performances aren’t quite up to snuff, although that can be attributed to the writers as much as the actors.
However, for the most part, THIR13EN GHOSTS is pretty damn good for what it is and the time that it came out, and it’s a shame that director Steve Beck hasn’t gotten many opportunities to shine since as his only other gig in the position would be Dark Castle’s GHOST SHIP (another movie this writer will defend, even beyond it’s lauded opening sequence). It’s a really fun movie to watch, and the mythology is one that’s so well-crafted that it’s a shame the story is so contained in nature, as this writer would have loved to see more. And in an age where remakes are often so uninspired and derivative, something so batshit insane and involving as THIR13EN GHOSTS will always stand the test of time over its more famous counterparts.