Like its similarly beige predecessors House on Haunted Hill (1999) and The Haunting (1999), Thir13en Ghosts (2001) was a movie with little substance and high-octane edits that may or may not have induced seizures in the people who were watching it. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Take a little waltz with me down memory lane to a time when George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States and Matthew Lillard chewed the scenery so hard they had to make most of the movie set out of glass.
Let’s take a look back at Thir13en Ghosts.
Now, I hate to break this to you, bluntly, right smack dab at the start of a retrospective column – but ghosts don’t exist. People will try to tell you otherwise, but you must realize that these people are beyond help. William Castle was aware of this back in 1960, so he cunningly coined a gimmick to film his original 13 Ghosts movie using the patented “Illusion-O” filter…basically, a special viewer (quite like today’s 3D glasses) was required to be worn by the audience to see the ghosts onscreen. This was originally marketed to people who were afraid of ghosts, so when the ghoulies turned up in the film the audience members could opt out of seeing them, by looking through one of the coloured filters. The “ghost viewers” contained a red filter and a blue filter, but unlike 3D viewers/glasses, both eyes would look through the same color filter. The red filter would cause the ghostly images to intensify while the blue filter caused the images to fade. Quite a cool gimmick, as gimmicks go.
The story of 1960’s 13 Ghosts shares one similarity to the 2001 version, in that a reclusive occultist Uncle has died and left his eerie mansion to his penniless nephew and his family. Along with the house however, the family has also inherited the occultist’s collection of 12 ghosts, who can only be seen through special goggles. In the 1960 version, the family see the ghosts more as nuisances in a ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ oh-gosh-darn type of way, whereas the 2001 version make the ghosts look like they’ve been ripped straight out from the pages of Heavy Metal.
We start with Steve Beck’s 2001 version in a junkyard, where Uncle Cyrus Kriticos (played by F. Murray Abraham) aided by paranormal forehead-vein-popping ghost hunter Dennis (Matthew Lillard) are attempting to catch the ’12th’ ghost (The Juggernaut), the ghost of a serial killer named Horace “Breaker” Mahoney. There’s a bunch of guys wearing transparent rain slickers, but for all purposes they should be wearing Star Trek red shirts, as the majority of them end up getting hideously killed by the junkyard phantom before it’s caught in a shatterproof glass cage. A rival ghost hunter named Kalina (Embeth Davidtz) turns up on the scene with her boyfriend to protest the capture of the hulking apparition, but before you can say ‘I would have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids,’ Uncle Cyrus’s neck has been split open like a tin can and Kalina’s boyfriend meets a miserable end with a piece of rebar sticking out of him.
We cut to Arthur (Tony Shalhoub), who’s currently living in cramped accommodation with his daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth), his son Bobby (Alec Roberts) and Maggie the nanny (Rah Digga). We know the accommodation is cramped because Arthur trips over his son’s scooter and spills coffee all over himself. Oh, you know that cheeky scamp is going to cause more trouble later on, don’t we? They’re living this way due to an earlier house fire that claimed the life of their mother. But as luck would have it, Uncle Cyrus’s lawyer turns up to tell them they’ve inherited the adventurer’s mansion! What timing! One note to point out: As Shalhoub’s children, Shannon Elizabeth – hot off American Pie (1999) and young Alec Roberts make a…peculiar sibling pair. She looks too old to be the kid’s sister or Shalhoub’s daughter. But then a quick and unnecessary shot of her shirt being shredded in the chest region later on in the film lets us know why she’s around.
Our intrepid Scooby gang drive to Cyrus’s mansion, and this is where the true beauty of Thir13en Ghosts shines: the mansion itself. Exterior steel panels slide up and down, floors spin with cog-like mechanisms and levers, revealing glass container-cages inside which hold the 12 invisible apparitions. The glass cages, we learn, are engraved with ”containment spells” that keep the wraiths inside. You can see the ghosts with special glasses, which the cast is issued; so when they see them, we see them, but usually in shots so maddeningly brief we don’t get a good look.
Unfortunately, the set design is the one singular thing keeping our interest held at this point – which is a shame. It’s a shame because instead of opting for a more disturbing psychological narrative, which works with similar ‘haunted house,’ type flicks, director Steve Beck throws everything and the kitchen sink at our optic nerves in a whirlwind of flash cuts in order to disorient the viewer.
Perhaps I’ve been too negative with Thir13en Ghosts. Maybe I should look at it from a different angle…maybe I should just enjoy the ride and whoop and cheer when the monsters arrive onscreen. Because that’s what this film is really about, right? It should be about how the actors react to a silly story line. Abraham gets to cravat-it-up with Vincent Price gusto, and following his psychopathic stint as Stuart in Scream (1996) it seems like Lillard gulps down a dozen espressos before each take. His nervous energy, boggling eyes and grimacing throughout embrace the spirit of the picture, leaving Shalhoub looking forlorn and serious throughout.
The house, Kalina later explains, is really an infernal device: ”We are in the middle of a machine designed by the devil and powered by the dead.” It’s revealed that the purpose of this machine is to open the ”Oculorus Infernum.” Cyrus isn’t really dead, but has instead lured his nephew to the mansion to become the 13th ghost…it may have explained why at some point, I guess so that he can control the underworld…or something – but to be honest my brain was kind of frazzled after the seventy-fifth whizz cut. Bobby disappears halfway through the film only to turn up as a weak Deus Ex Machina for Arthur’s character later on, and it turns out Kalina was in cahoots with Cyrus the whole time, but for a film that has THIRTEEN ghosts in it, we see little of the eponymous characters.
Each phantom has a shtick, too – the Bound Woman, the Torn Prince – but it’s a little lame that you don’t get to see them shine in all their splendor. Although these stories were not described in the film, on the DVD the production and make-up teams explain their guidelines. Cyrus narrates each ghost’s back story:
1. “The First Born Son” – He is the ghost of Billy Michaels, a boy who was a fan of cowboy films. One day, a neighbor found a real steel arrow in his parents’ closet. He challenged Billy to a duel, with Billy using a toy gun. However, his plaything was no match for the arrow, and he died when the neighbor shot it through the back of his head. In death, Billy is in his cowboy suit and holding a tomahawk, with the arrow still protruding from his head. His ghost whispers “I want to play”.
2. “The Torso” – He is the ghost of a gambler called Jimmy “The Gambler” Gambino. He spent most of his days on the track, making bets and brainwashed into winning. One day, he made a deal with a rich business man, and so sealed his fate. When he bet heavily on a boxing match and lost, he tried to welsh on his bet and slip out of town. The mob and the winning boxer, to whom he owed money, caught up with Gambino and cut him into several pieces, wrapping them in cellophane and dumping the corpse into the ocean. His ghost is just his torso, trying to walk around on its hands, while his head lies nearby screaming within the cellophane.
3. “The Bound Woman” – She was a cheerleader named Susan LeGrow, who was born privileged and had a penchant for seducing men and tossing them away. This left a long trail of broken hearts. When her boyfriend found her cheating he strangled her and killed the other boy. He buried her body at the 50-yard line of the local football field. The boyfriend was convicted and sentenced to death; before his execution, he was quoted as saying, “The bitch broke my heart, so I broke her neck.” Her ghost is in her prom dress, hanging suspended by the strangling implements with her arms tied behind her back.
4. “The Withered Lover” – She is Jean Kriticos, Arthur’s wife. She was burned severely saving her family from a devastating house fire and later died of her wounds in the hospital. Her ghost initially appears in a hospital gown, hooked up to an IV pole and showing severe burns on her face. Unlike the other ghosts, she is not a vengeful spirit, electing to help her family rather than show malevolence. At the end of the movie, she appears fully healed and in her normal clothing.
5. “The Torn Prince” – He is the ghost of Royce Clayton, born in 1940 who was a gifted baseball star in high school, albeit with attitude issues and a superiority complex. In 1957 he challenged a greaser named Johnny to a drag race, but was killed as his car spun out of control and flipped over; the cause of the accident was a cut brake line. He was buried in a plot of earth that overlooked the baseball diamond. His ghost carries a baseball bat, and in the background in his cube his wrecked car can be seen. Half of his body is torn to shreds from when he was dragged under the car.
6. “The Angry Princess” – She is Dana Newman, who did not believe in her own natural beauty. Abusive boyfriends fueled her low self-esteem, which led to much unneeded plastic surgery for imagined defects. Eventually she got a job working for a plastic surgeon, getting paid in treatments rather than cash. Alone at the clinic one night, she tried to perform surgery on herself, but wound up blinding herself in one eye and permanently mutilating herself beyond saving. She committed suicide in the bathtub by slashing her body repeatedly with a butcher knife. When she was found, people noted that she was as beautiful in death as she had been in life. Her ghost is naked, still carrying the knife she killed herself with and showing all the wounds, and the inside walls of her cube are splattered with her blood. In her bathroom scene, the phrase “I’m sorry” is visible on the floor in blood; subtitles also reveal that the blurred, hissing speech that announces her arrival is her whispering “I’m sorry.” This was written on her suicide note.
7. “The Pilgrimess” – She is the ghost of Isabella Smith, an Englishwoman who traveled across the Atlantic and settled in New England during colonial times. She was an outsider to the town she moved into, and this isolated her from the other townsfolk. She was found guilty of witchcraft after livestock began to die mysteriously; when she emerged from a burning barn completely unharmed, she was sentenced to the stocks (pillory) with no food or drink until she died. As a ghost, she is still locked into her stocks.
8. & 9. “The Great Child and The Dire Mother” – They are the ghosts of Margaret and Harold Shelburne. She was an attraction in a carnival due to her being only three feet tall. She was raped by the “Tall Man,” another carnival freak. Her son Harold, the Great Child, was born as a result of that rape; he eventually weighed over 300 pounds (136 kg). Harold, spoiled, was raised as his mother’s protector and kept a child-like mindset, to the point that he wore diapers his entire life. One day some of the carnival employees decided to play a little practical joke on Harold, and kidnapped his mother. Enraged, he set out to look for her, but when he caught up with the culprits, he found that his mother had accidentally suffocated to death in the bag that she was kept in. Harold killed the kidnappers with an ax, keeping their remains and displaying them for paying customers. Later, when the owner of the carnival found out what Harold had done, he ordered a mob of people to tear Harold apart. Their ghosts are always together, and Harold still wields the ax and wears a bib stained with food that his mother has spoon-fed to him. An alternate version of the story is told in the DVD commentary. It was said that their deaths were caused by the Great Child rolling over on the Dire Mother while asleep, thus suffocating her, then him starving to death.
10. “The Hammer” – he is the ghost of an African-American blacksmith, George Markley, who lived in a small town in the 1890s. He was wrongfully accused of stealing by a white man from his town, and when threatened with exile, refused to leave town. A gang led by his accuser hung his wife and children and burned their bodies; in revenge, George used his sledgehammer to beat the culprits to death. He was then subjected to a cruel form of frontier justice by the townsfolk, being chained to a tree and executed by having railroad spikes driven into his body with his own sledgehammer. As a final touch,they cut off his hand and attached the sledgehammer – handle and all – to the hand that was cut off. His ghost is seen with the railroad spikes protruding from his body and a sledgehammer for a left hand.
11. “The Jackal” – He is the ghost of Ryan Kuhn, who was born in 1887 to a prostitute. Ryan had an insatiable lust for women, rape, and murdering prostitutes. Wanting to be cured, he committed himself to Borehamwood Asylum, but after attacking a nurse, he was put in a straitjacket and thrown in a padded room. After years of this imprisonment he went completely insane, scratching at the walls so violently that his fingernails were torn completely off. The doctors kept him permanently bound in his straitjacket, tying it tighter when he acted out, causing his limbs to contort horribly. Still fighting to free himself, Ryan gnawed through the jacket until the doctors finally locked his head in a metal cage and sealed him away in the dark basement cell. There, he grew to hate any kind of human contact, screaming madly and cowering whenever approached. When a fire broke out in the asylum, everyone but Ryan escaped. He chose to stay behind and face the fire. As a ghost, his arms are free from his jacket, and the bars of his cage are ripped outwards, showing that he may have escaped his bindings again sometime before the fire started and that his cage may have heated up enough to where he could have ripped it open before the fire consumed him.
12. “The Juggernaut” – He is the ghost of a serial killer named Horace “Breaker” Mahoney. Standing seven feet tall, he was of such grotesque height and appearance that everyone ostracized him as a child. His mother abandoned him at birth, so his father raised him – putting him to work in the junkyard crushing old cars. After his father died, Horace was left on his own, and soon went mad. He would pick up female hitchhikers and drive them back to his junkyard, then tear them apart with his bare hands and feed them to his dogs. One day he picked up an undercover female police officer, who called for backup, for a SWAT team to surround the junkyard. Since close combat was impossible, the police instead struck the yard, and arrested the giant. However, Horace broke free from the cuffs, and three officers lost their lives. Quickly, five SWAT officers, took out their guns and brought Horace down in a hail of bullets. When he finally went down, they shot an extra round into him, just to be safe. His ghost still shows bullet holes all over his clothing, and the wound that finished him.
Arthur realises he’s being used as meat bait and confronts his Uncle, jumps across a whirly-gig floor trap to save his offspring, and all the ghosts are released (to wander aimlessly around petrifying people?) but Matthew Lillard’s Dennis gets killed by one of the ghosts.
Thir13en Ghosts could have been something special. The set design was magnificent – the gimmick with the glasses could have been used sparingly to give the viewer genuine creeps, but it fails just short of the mark. Maybe one to watch when you’re hungover and don’t want to leave the couch for a few hours.