‘Thirt13en Ghosts,’ That Reviled 2000s Horror Remake, Is Good, Actually — Here’s Why

     August 13, 2020

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Could I ask a favor? Take a second to feast your eyes on the original theatrical poster for the 2001 horror remake Thirt13en Ghosts.

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Image via Warner Bros.

Gimmie your first impressions. Aggressively garish Photoshop? A color scheme that literally hurts your eyes? Not one, but two punny taglines? That rare “number squished into the title” that just screams “edginess”? A heck of a lot to take in, right? I understand if you need a sec to lay down…

…Welcome back! And sorry if this knocks you back on your butt, but I’m here to tell you that all this stuff is good, not bad. To be broadly general for a moment: Our contemporary “critically acclaimed wide release horror space” (think A24) tends to condition us that less is more. That effective genre filmmaking is auteur-driven, and the moves auteurs make walk the line between invisible classicalism and stylistically competent invention that nonetheless fits within a handsome, prestigious pocket. That a film’s scares, set pieces, and iconography should be clean, intentional, deliberate. As such, there can be a tendency to look at the recent past — in this case, the early, “show-offy” 2000s horror scene — with derision, with ironic detachment, with a feeling that our horror filmmaking and tastes have evolved.

From such a viewpoint, watching Thir13en Ghosts (yes, I’m using the number-in-the-title verbiage; it deserves my respect) must feel, like its poster, quaint at best and pained at worst. But if we readjust our viewpoint — if we, say, put on a new pair of glasses that allows us to see things we couldn’t normally — we’ll find a bustling, alive, unique, and entirely intentional experience. A film that contains both One Perfect Shot-ready deification of prestige classicalism and a visual style ready to pack a punch most aren’t willing to load up these days. A film that rips us through the funhouse of horror, with an emphasis on “fun,” while still communicating something cleanly and effectively about the powers of family and the need to move past trauma. Contemporary prestige horror films are artsy European fare we’re “supposed” to like; Thirt13en Ghosts is a schlocky Amblin rip off we’re “supposed” to feel bad about liking. Reader, like the many ghosts of Thirt13en Ghosts: Unshackle yourself.

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Image via Warner Bros.

The Steve Beck-directed film is a remake of the 1960 William Castle-directed film, 13 Ghosts. Castle’s legacy is one of showmanship, of imbuing his horror fare with joyfully fearless gimmicks and ways to push the audience beyond the limitations of “the cinema frame.” In the case of 13 Ghosts, audiences were given specialized 3D glasses that, if worn and viewed through one lens, would actually reveal the ghosts within the frame. If unworn or viewed through the other lens, the ghosts would remain “invisible” in the frame. Castle called this, of course, “Illusion-O.” And 41 years later, Beck and screenwriters Neal Marshall Stevens and Richard D’Ovidio took this extratextual level of performative muckraking and shoved it within the text.

You, the audience, don’t have to wear glasses to see the ghosts anymore. But the characters within Thirt13en Ghosts do. And when they don’t, we see the horrific ghosts and creatures (with illustrious, practical make-up designs by SFX maestro Greg Nicotero) stalk them with a level of dramatic irony that makes you want to shout at the screen. This choice to stick the OG gimmick within the film’s framework works not only as an arguably more immersive way to get an audience’s investment, but as a statement of intent by Beck, Stevens, and D’Ovidio. BIg, grand, thoroughly “un-cool” genre ideas aren’t something to run away from, and this isn’t going to be a remake that comments on its source material snarkily. It’s so indebted to the joys of past modes of horror filmmaking, that it’s made something that even critics at the time reviled into a fundamental mode of conflict within the film.

The cold open of Thirt13en Ghosts takes this idea, which I might basically call “cheesy fun in horror is good,” and runs with it in a wild, lavish, lushly-produced set piece that feels straight out of the MCU — but with friggin’ blood, and ghosts, and F. Murray Abraham and Matthew Lillard screaming at each other. This opening sequence is a delightful example that, sometimes, more is more. Cinematographer Gale Tattersall twists and turns the camera through atmospheric, practical sets with gleeful abandon. Composer John Frizzell cranks up the gothic melodrama beyond emotional, attention-demanding limits to find new stratospheres. And Abraham and Lillard, just having so much fun performing in the film Thirt13en Ghosts, deliver the character, thematic, and plot stakes with efficiency and delight, soaking lines like “Don’t play God” and retorts like “Children play” with extra barbecue sauce. It’s a startling sequence of audacity, of a time when we treated horror movies with the level of budget and filmmaking force of a summer blockbuster, and of genuinely good communication.

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Image via Warner Bros.

And then, Beck proves he can do that prestige shit, too. There is a family trauma at the center of Thirt13en Ghosts, giving it a relatable sense of emotional stakes and need to win beyond the ghosties. Tony Shalhoub plays the patriarch of a family. He, his children Shannon Elizabeth and Alec Roberts, and their housekeeper (and my personal lord and savior) Rah Digga, have suffered something horrific. The mother of the family, Kathryn Anderson, died in a house fire, leaving the rest of them to cope in varying modes of healthiness without her. How does Beck communicate this to us? Surprisingly, smoothly and subtly. The opening titles play in a stylish one-shot carousel, the camera slowly turning around and around Shalhoub’s home, moving forward in time on each revolution. We see, and believe, the family’s love for each other, and the pain that happens to them in elided, unencumbered time is palpable. It gives us everything we need to be invested in the picture, cleanly and inventively, and radically different from the high-octane thrills of the cold open. Up could never.

From then on, Thirt13en Ghosts alternates between these two modes — thrill-driven set pieces with raucous filmmaking, and quiet character beats with a refreshing pumping of brakes — until it synthesizes into an inevitable-feeling climax with one of the most nakedly, thankfully sentimental horror conclusions I’ve seen in years. The film knows we gotta get into a haunted house full of a baker’s dozen of ghosties; to get there, it ingeniously fuses the destinies of Shalhoub and Abraham, revealing they’re related, Abraham is, ahem, “dead,” and he’s leaving his fancy-ass house to Shalhoub’s family (a heightening of the familial traumas we’ve seen thus far; perfect!). Once we get there, we get to take in the wonders of Sean Hargreaves‘ astonishing production design; this wild house, nearly entirely glass (so much about the power of visibility in this picture!), covered in ghost-stopping scrolls and interlocking puzzles, looks better than literally any green screen background created since.

And then, the ghosties. My goodness. Nicotero’s designs will make your jaw drop. They’re gruesome, intense, and tactile works of SFX ingenuity. And best of all? They all have their own traumas and backstories needing to be reckoned with, represented by some startling visuals and “ghost gimmicks” that we only get teases of (I need to know what the heck is going on with “The Great Child” and “The Dire Mother”), but hint at a rich and explosive mythology going on at the center of what appears to be nothing but “scary ghosts” (also, not coincidentally, what I think is going on with the movie as a whole). Without spoiling anything, we do eventually find out a chief trauma of one of the main ghosts, and the way it intersects with and answers both Shalhoub’s trauma and the conflict of the film’s nuts-and-bolts plot is, like the house these characters live in, an effective puzzle told with uncommon panache.

Critics hated Thirt13en Ghosts. And our most revered contemporary horror filmmakers have largely moved on (or ignored in the first place) from any sense of precedent or influence they could have gleaned from the picture (with the possible exception of something like an It Chapter Two). But I find it, still, to be a film of unbridled energy, of joy in visible, even grandstanding craftsmanship, of solid and inviting emotional foundations that help make its stylistic flourishes pop even harder. The seams on the poster are visible, the copy stuffed with ideas, the color scheme demanding visceral attention from your eyeballs. And that is the point, not something to run from.

Thirt13en Ghosts is available on a Shout Factory collector’s edition Blu-ray. For more appreciations of “stuff most people find bad,” here’s a take on Batman Forever.

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Image via Warner Bros.

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