I was in my early teens the first time I saw THIRTEEN GHOSTS. I was tickled pink by its haunted house premise; it made me snicker and shriek, finding that sweet spot between melodrama and suspense. I can’t say it packs the same punch seventeen years later, but for me it continues to be delightfully hammy and a whole lot of fun.
Impoverished Arthur (Shalhoub) thinks his prayers have been answered when he inherits everything from his eccentric ghost-hunter uncle, Cyrus (Abraham). He and his family waste no time driving out to inspect Cyrus’s secluded home – a hyper-stylised glass mansion. A slimy lawyer leads the way, assuring Arthur that his troubles are all behind him. But, unbeknownst to Arthur, the basement of his new home contains twelve captured spirits, each more deranged than the last. Cyrus devoted his life to catching them, with the help of his psychic assistant, Dennis (Lillard).
Once everyone arrives at the house, the film treads much the same path as Jurassic Park. Enclosures spring open, beasties escape and everyone runs like hell. The lawyer meets a sticky end too!
When it comes to the characters, they’re all fairly vanilla. Arthur’s kids are the worst: they’re the soapy kind of vanilla you get in fast food sundaes, the kind which tastes suspiciously unnatural. Their disappearance halfway through the film is a welcomed break; Arthur desperately looks for his lost children, but I wouldn’t bother. Maggie the nanny (Digga) delivers some sassy one-liners but how Arthur ever affords to pay her I’ve no idea: the film spends so long establishing he’s broke.
By far the most compelling character of the bunch is Dennis. Matthew Lillard has lots of fun with the role, growing from whimpering idiot to reluctant hero. The film’s strongest emotional moments are down to him.
Gripes about the main characters feel unimportant because the real stars of the show are the ghosts. And so they should be! It’s never easy to make ghosts threatening, especially when they’re on full display, but this film does. We receive little more than flashes of each one, accompanied by shrieking cacophonous sound effects, but it’s enough. My thirteen-year-old self was thoroughly freaked out.
Each ghost is beautifully designed: their costumes, make-up and prosthetics are dripping with detail. Gruesome but gorgeous. Interestingly, although a backstory was written for each – you can enjoy all twelve on YouTube – the filmmakers chose to leave them out. As far as I’m concerned, this was the right call. When confronted with The Jackal (a savage madman dressed in a ragged straightjacket and head cage) we’re left wondering what on earth we’ve just seen. I appreciate this wtf?! technique: hurling disturbing spectres at the audience one by one rather than slowing things down with unnecessary explanations.
Another clever filmmaking choice involves Dennis’s reaction to each ghost. His fear ranges from politely backing away from The First Born Son to fleeing for his life from The Hammer, letting us know where they rank on the danger scale.
One detail carried over from the original 1960 film is the spook-o-vision spectacles, which allow regular folk to see spirits. The glasses are used to great effect as Beck plays with who can and can’t see the ghosts they’re running from. By having the ghosts be an invisible threat one moment and a visual spectacle the next, the film gets to have its cake and eat it too.
Yes, there are low points: all trashy films have them. A baggy midsection where Arthur and the others hide out in the library isn’t much fun and some of the lines are inexcusably cheesy. But when I rewatch the film, I do forgive THIRTEEN GHOSTS for its foibles. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a masterpiece. But what can I say? Maybe it’s the early-noughties nostalgia kicking in, but I must admit I really do love this film.
It’s a haunted house thrill ride delivering campy fun and creepiness in equal measure. The guiltiest of guilty pleasures, but a pleasure nonetheless.