There was a time when it appeared there might be an onslaught of remakes plundered from the often fun, often risible filmography of B-movie director William Castle, as following the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill Hollywood allowed director Steven Beck to tackle the remake of the 1960 title Thir13en Ghosts.
As the kitschy spelling indicates, the retrofit is only borrowing the spirit of Castle, mostly with a nod to the 1960 title’s original gimmick, glasses which allowed people to see the spectral entities in the film. An interesting cast (which is notable for the first studio film to feature three Arab-American leads) and impressive set design can’t quite justify an otherwise choppy, sloppily penned rehash of what could have been an interesting revisit of Castle’s penchant for shlocky shocks.
Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) has recently lost his wife in a tragic fire. Supporting his young son (Alec Roberts) and ‘teenage’ daughter (Shannon Elizabeth) on a teacher’s salary has them all cramped in a small apartment with their babysitter Maggie (Rah Digga). When Arthur learns he has inherited an elaborate glass mansion from his recently deceased relative Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham), they immediately pack up to move into the estate. However, something seems to be wrong with the palatial home as all its glass walls are frosted with Latin scripture, and a complex machine lies dormant in the middle of the house. When a ghost hunter (Matthew Lillard) and another stranger, Kalina (Embeth Davidtz), a sort of social worker for the well-being of the undead, when haunting chain reaction finds the family locked in the home, we learn Cyrus had an insidious plan concerning thirteen ghosts he has collected and housed in his special mansion for purposes soon to be revealed to Arthur and his family.
The impressive production design of Sean Hargreaves is wasted on the repetitive melodrama of Thir13en Ghosts, as well as some special effects and make-up (with Alexandre Aja favorite Gregory Nicotero in tow), the titular entities and their origins absent in favor of a monotonous cat and mouse game.
Neal Marshall Stevens and Robert D’Ovidio don’t seem to have a tapped into the necessary comedic undertones for the ridiculous plot to be rightly contemporized, leaving the cast to muddle about as best they can. If Tony Shalhoub seems woefully underutilized, most of the rest of the cast members resort to exaggerated camp. The casting of Rah Digga (who hasn’t appeared in a film since) as the babysitter of Shannon Elizabeth (who is actually a year older) throws the whole concept out of whack from the first act, even though the story could have easily been tweaked to accommodate both actors. However, Digga gets all the silly punchlines while Elizabeth is forced to utter dialogue clearly written for a child. F. Murray Abraham seems to relish the opportunity for expressive villainy, while Matthew Lillard and Embeth Davidtz chomp their scenery in ways which are cringeworthy rather than entertaining.
Beck, who would only make one more film as a director (2002’s Ghost Ship, a loose remake of the 1980 George Kennedy B-movie Death Ship), doesn’t ever seem aware of how to steer the right tone in a film which was written as ridiculous but takes itself too seriously, despite nerdy quips like “Glass Family Robinson,” or, as Davidtz solemnly confirms, this is “a machine designed by the devil and driven by the dead,” which might as well be used to describe the process of what kind of studio films continue to get made and how their profits and success are measured.
Film Rating: ★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆