October is a magical month for genre fans. You can watch horror movies any day of the year but October is the month to really celebrate the genre we love. But as comforting as it is to watch one’s favorites year after year, I’ve always felt that Halloweentime is a time not just of celebration, but of discovery. And so to that effect I’ve spent the last several years reviewing a horror movie a day for the duration of October.
To keep things interesting pick a shared theme for my 31 films and tend to try and go off the beaten path and pick the ones that aren’t necessarily the first movies you think of in the given category. This year I’ve decided to focus on the much-maligned category of movies: the remake.
Remakes are detested by most but I’ve always found them to be an interesting exercise. What about a movie spoke to a studio or film-maker? What will they do different? What will they do the same? Sometimes they’re cheap cash-ins and others they’re remakes in name only, but there’s always some artistic merit in even the most boring paint-by-numbers remake. Occasionally, you even get great films like John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Croenenberg’s The Fly, Chuck Russell’s The Blob, Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, or Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu.
I’ve decided to narrow my focus to only remakes released in that period between 1999 and the mid 2000s when horror remakes were at their zenith so I won’t be covering any 80s or 90s remakes of older films. As usual I’ll be skipping the more obvious ones like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Evil Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the internet already has plenty of thoughts on those and Halloween season is about broadening your cinematic horizons.
To further narrow things down, I’ve also decided to exclude English-language remakes of foreign films that were released only a few years prior so you’ll not be seeing Pulse, The Ring, The Grudge, Funny Games, Let Me In, The Uninvited, The Eye, Dark Water, One Missed Call, Shutter, or Mirrors.
13 Ghosts (1960)
William Castle is a beloved figure to genre fans not so much because of the quality of his films, but rather the way he marketed them. Castle’s movies were famous or infamous, depending on who you ask, for featuring goofy gimmicks that had all the sophistication and subtlety of a carnival haunted house. Such examples were vibrating theater seats for a sequence where a murderous parasite gets loose in a movie theater and the screen goes black or a skeleton on a string that flies over the heads of theater-goers during key scenes.
13 Ghosts holds the distinction of being one of the few Castle gimmicks that you can replicate in your own home. The film itself is in black and white, but whenever one of the ghosts appears onscreen the picture turns blue. The ghosts themselves appear as poorly composited transparencies that are colored red. During these scenes the audience is to take their out their ghost viewer: a cardboard cut-out of a ghost with a strip of red cellophane and a strip of blue cellophane, similar to 3D glasses but stacked on top of one-another. If the viewer wants to see the ghosts they look through the blue lens and the red ghosts stand out in sharper relief, making them “scarier.” If the viewer doesn’t want to see the ghosts they look through the red lens and are unable to see the ghosts, which is actually scarier since the ghosts look pretty chintzy and the noise they make is a lot more unsettling divorced of context.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the gimmick because that’s about all that’s worth talking about here. William Castle never made anything truly great but 13 Ghosts is a boring, milquetoast nothing of a haunted house movie. The gimmick even spoils one of the plot beats later in the movie. I will say that two of the ghosts - a lion and a headless lion tamer - are a pretty morbid idea for a movie that feels it could run at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, but it’s not enough to save this experience.
Thir13en Ghosts (2001)
Dark Castle Entertainment was born with the intent of remaking the films of William Castle and unfortunately they only ever got two made (this one and 1999’s House on Haunted Hill) before moving on to other things. My biggest regret is that we never got the ultra-violent early ‘00s version of The Tingler that my heart so deeply craves.
13 Ghosts (Thir13en Ghosts if you’re nasty) is the best case scenario for a horror remake. The original film is mined for a few good under-utilized ideas (a family fallen on hard times being offered a lavish mansion by an eccentric ghost-hunting estranged relative, a basement full of captured spirits, high-tech glasses that allow a person to see ghosts, and a series of hidden mechanisms and traps within the aforementioned house) and expands on them in an overly-elaborate way that evokes something much more artistic while still keeping that cheap carnie thrill that evokes William Castle’s sensibilities along with a fairly goofy sense of humor and some gnarly gore effects.
13 Ghosts features a really solid cast lead by Tony Shalhoub along with Embeth Davidtz, F. Murray Abraham, and Shannon Elizabeth. Of course the real scene-stealer is Matthew Lillard as a smart-ass psychic who helped capture the ghosts held within the house. Lillard is one of the great over-actors of the ‘90s and ‘00s and his character really livens the movie up though there’s a bit of overlap with the family’s nanny played by hip-hop MC Rah Digga in her only non-musical acting role. Digga kind of falls into the stereotype of the sassy black lady who says outrageous things for comedic effect but her character is kind of the secret heart of the film and I’m disappointed that her plot thread ties up on a laugh line rather than something a bit more heartfelt as she doesn’t have very much to do in the third act of the movie.
The real showpiece of the film is the aesthetic. The movie takes place in a giant glass-walled mansion built on a gigantic clockwork core that causes the wall panels to move around creating new mazes and corridors. It’s a really unique and memorable setting and the ghosts contained within it are similarly spectacular. The design of the titular specters is every bit as macabre and overdone as the sets and while only about four or five of the film's 12 ghosts (The 13th Ghost is, of course, the friends you made along the way) seem to pose an actual threat, they manage to be effectively creepy to look at.
Is it a good remake?
This is a great remake. Of course the deck is always stacked in the remake’s favor when the original film is bad or worse in this case, dull and forgettable. Still, I think director Steve Beck and the writers and designers for Thir13en Ghosts really captured the madcap spirit of William Castle’s doofy huckster charm and wrap it in the over-wrought dumb fun of an early ‘00s horror movie. It borrows just enough from its predecessor to build on its legacy without using it as a crutch or just throwing out everything in favor of making something unrelated with a familiar name.
Does the remake stand on its own?
Absolutely. It was years before I even knew Thir13en Ghosts was a remake. Sure, it’s very on-brand for the era it was made and if you dislike that ‘00s aesthetic then this is going to push all the wrong buttons for you, but as long as you can get on the movie’s wavelength it’s a lot of fun.
Watch, Toss, or Buy?
Thir13en Ghosts doesn’t have a very good on-disc release unfortunately, but you have to wipe excess copies of the DVD off your shoes when leaving a shop that sells used movies so you should be able to score this for a song. Buy it.