I probably sound like a broken record at this point. I know I’ve said this several times before. But I think a remake should pay tribute to the source material while ultimately doing its own thing. And that’s exactly what 13 Ghosts (2001) does. We see the occasional nod to the 1960 William Castle original (IE: the glasses that must be worn by the occupants of the house to see the specters). But, by and large, this 2001 reimagining is a very different beast from its predecessor that ups the intensity of the source material.
A state-of-the-art remake of the classic William Castle horror film about a family that inherits a spectacular old house from an eccentric uncle. There’s just one problem: the house seems to have a dangerous agenda all its own. Trapped in their new home by strangely shifting walls, the family encounters powerful and vengeful entities that threaten to annihilate anyone in their path.
Screenwriters Neal Marshall Stevens and Richard D’Ovidio delivered a creative and unique narrative that serves up gory gags and even a couple of heartfelt moments between the family at the center of the storyline. The combination proves to be a winning one, for me, at least. But I may be alone on this.
While I enjoy Steve Beck’s 13 Ghosts redux and commend it for departing from the source material on which it is based, it seems that, twenty years later, a lot of horror fans stil outright dislike it. I don’t mean to suggest that this 2001 remake gets everything right but I do think it gets more right than it gets wrong. And with that in mind, I will attempt to make a case as to why it deserves a second look if you count yourself among its detractors.
As for what it gets right, I think the back story about the house in which the film is set is quite intriguing. The idea of a machine built by the devil and powered by the dead is pretty eerie. And the way the house continues to shift and release ghosts from containment cubes throughout the flick keeps things interesting and ensures that the protagonists are never safe from harm for long. The house is actually almost as frightening as the ghosts are.
Speaking of the house, the set design is truly inspired. Uncle Cyrus’ glass domicile is visually striking and is brought to life with painstaking attention to detail. The intricacy with which the set pieces are rendered is impressive. Even Roger Ebert (who hated the film) praised the house as an impressive backdrop for a horror picture.
13 Ghosts features a cast of recognizable faces with Matthew Lillard and Shannon Elizabeth bringing star power, circa 2001. Rounding out the cast is Tony Shalhoub who plays Arthur, a father who lost the love of his life under tragic circumstances. Shalhoub comes across as authentic in his portrayal of the grieving widower. He’s an unlikely hero but he steps into the role of improbable protagonist nicely.
It’s clear that director Steve Beck gave his cast some space to have fun with the characters they were playing. F. Murray Abraham is delightfully unhinged in his turn as Uncle Cyrus. He leans into the camp and embraces the schlocky nature of William Castle’s catalogue. Matthew Lillard is also deliberately over-the-top in his role as Dennis, the psychic. And he really seems to be having a great time of it.
We also see recording artist Rah Digga making her feature film debut. Digga plays Arthur’s nanny. And her performance makes her first impression on feature filmgoers a memorable one. She has some noteworthy one-liners and fits in perfectly as the comic relief and voice of reason.
Also impressive are the first rate creature effects. There’s a lot of solid practical work on display. The ghosts are off-putting and grotesque. The team at KNB EFX does a brilliant job of bringing the spooky creatures to life in excruciating fashion as well as sending off the fallen characters in a blaze of gory glory.
In fact, this flick contains one of my favorite death scenes from 2000s horror. The sequence where one of the characters is literally split in half is memorable for all the right reasons. Namely, it’s goopy and horrifying.
I have fond memories of 13 Ghosts but I don’t mean to say that it isn’t without its shortcomings. Shannon Elizabeth’s performance is almost always overly eager, and some of the story elements feel woefully underdeveloped. It feels as though some clarifying details and intricacies of the story have been cut to trim the runtime. But this is an example of a film that makes up for its shortcomings with an entertaining premise, stunning effects, and gorgeous set design.
Simply put, 13 Ghosts is fun. It’s not a perfect work of art or a masterclass in horror filmmaking. But it is undeniably enjoyable. And that’s worth something. If you haven’t seen this redux, give it a shot. And if you didn’t enjoy it back in 2001, consider giving it a second chance with the understanding that the film is flawed but far from being without merit.