– Summary –
Director : Steve Beck
Year Of Release : 2001
Principal Cast : Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, Alec Roberts, F Murray Abraham, JR Bourne.
Approx Running Time : 91 Minutes
Synopsis: A dysfunctional and financially struggling family find they’ve inherited a mansion from a ghost-hunting relative, only to discover that a) the mansion is entirely made of glass, and b) it’s haunted by a 13 ghosts. Darkness, gore and hijinks ensue.
What we think : From a production standpoint, Thirteen Ghosts is a visually stunning film. It’s a shame, then, that the film sucks ass. Seriously, how anybody thought this script might work beyond the basic premise still startles me. The film’s narrative is a disaster in almost every respect, although it’s only saving grace is the stunning house set and the cinematography.
I haven’t had the (dis)pleasure of seeing Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill yet, so while I was trawling the DVD shelf here at the Fernby Films offices looking for some inspiration for Worst Film Week, I glanced downward at the bottom shelf and noticed this little gem from 2001. I was one of the unlucky folks to have actually seen this in cinemas, and distinctly remember the taste of bile rising up in my throat as the final credits rolled, my appalled despair at having been hoodwinked into thinking this film might actually be scary -and perhaps offer another hint of Shannon Elizabeth’s boobs again – only to learn that, unfortunately, it wasn’t. Thirteen Ghosts was the 2nd major feature from then-new kid on the block Dark Castle Entertainment, following on from William Malone’s 1999 creep-fest House On Haunted Hill (which was a remake of the William Castle film of the same name…. see the “Castle” reference manifest itself?) and as much as I enjoyed Dark Castle’s initial foray into the horror genre, their sophomore effort lacked…. well, any kind of scares at all.
The premise of the film is, at least at a pulp fiction level, quite interesting. A family, who have almost nothing to speak of financially, are given an opportunity to inherit a mansion from a deceased relative, only to discover that the mansion is constructed almost entirely from glass, and for some reason is haunted by incredibly grotesque and violent ghosts. They don’t find this out until they arrive to move in, of course, setting up the “people trapped with no escape” trope with relative ease.
Steve Beck directs this film like he’s trying to be the next Hitchcock, only without any kind of idea as to who Hitchcock actually was, such is his limited skill as a narrative director. He’s so limited, his second film for Dark Castle is the equally (or perhaps even more) lamentable Ghost Ship. That’s his entire filmography right there. Two dire feature films, neither of which have any artistic merit save a couple of cool set-pieces. Beck makes almost no decent use of the stunning set he’s had built for him – the mansion the ghosts reside in – seemingly content to treat it like just an annoying plot device to work around, rather than with. From an editing perspective, this film feels like it’s been chopped by a three year old, for all the narrative sense one can glean from the flash-bang jump-cuts and incomprehensible “action” sequences; this probably wasn’t helped by a script that just jumped the rails midway through and never looked back.
The cast, while entirely promising, end up shortchanged by this film and what they’re asked to do in it. Tony Shalhoub might very well take a surgeons scalpel to his resume and remove this flick altogether, such is his lamentably poor performance as the patriarch trying to keep his poor family together. Again, I don’t think his wasted role is entirely his fault, what with a hodge-podge script and character development amounting to glaring, scowling and looking sweaty and frightened most of the time. Matthew Lillard delivers yet another epileptic portrayal of a loon, a far cry from the loony he played in Scream or the loony version of Shaggy he essayed in Scooby Doo that time. Lillard is one actor who has potential to go places, yet seems to pick projects that simply require him to pull funny faces and overact a lot. Shannon Elizabeth, who was 1999’s “it” girl after her revealing debut in American Pie, is this film’s Hot Girl character, although Beck never requires her to do much in the way of actually being hot – Elizabeth’s lack of acting ability is laid bare here, and it’s little wonder her career stalled soon after American Pie ran out of crust. Embeth Davidtz simply phones in her performance, and F Murray Abraham’s glorified cameo in the film’s opener just reeks of “paycheck grabbing”.
As mentioned at the top of this review, the shining light in this dog turd of a movie is the production values – particularly the mansion set. It’s a ripper, a truly magnificent product of design and architecture that deserves a far better film – and far better treatment in the film – than Beck and his team are able to muster. The glass exterior, as well as the interior design, just look fabulous on the screen. So too do the ghost effects of the 13 resident spooks, all of whom have typically 2000’s-era physical horror deformity to contend with, and all of whom could fit right into a Saw movie without any trouble. Thanks to a middling, confused script, the film never uses these creations in any meaningful or productive way, instead keeping them relatively hidden from view save for a couple of minor jump-cut “boo” moments when things heat up. By then, however, it’s too little, too late.
I think the guys behind Dark Castle had the best intentions for their brand – they prided themselves on being a “horror” studio outside the mainstream. It took until 2008’s Rocknrolla, directed by Guy Ritchie, for Dark Castle to produce their first non-horror flick, which indicates how much trouble they must have been in to cave within a decade to the almighty pull of the movie-going public. Mind you, had their films – Thirteen Ghosts included – actually tried to develop decent scripting as well as some nice scares and interesting characters, they might have maintained their horror flick roots instead of having to branch out. Thirteen Ghosts is a messy, convoluted and entirely un-scary film from a director with either a disinterest, or lack of ability, in making quality horror. Gets an extra star for the stunning production design.