Thirteen Ghosts is one of those horror films that I’ve heard a lot about but just never got around to watching. I remember seeing its poster everywhere but for whatever reason, I avoided it. It released in 2001 and was directed by Steve Beck who directed Ghost Ship (2002).
THIR13EN Ghosts has one hell of a crazy opening. Ghost hunter Cyrus and his psychic assistant Dennis (Matthew Lillard) lead a team on a mission to capture a spirit called the Juggernaut. Several men and Cyrus himself are killed while the team is able to catch the ghost.
Cyrus’s Nephew Arthur recently became widowed when his wife died in a horrific fire. He’s struggling to pay the bills and support his two children. In a stroke of fortune, Arthur is informed that he has inherited Cyrus’ mansion. Financially insecure, Arthur decides to move there immediately.
Posing as a power company inspector, Dennis meets the family and the estate lawyer as they tour the mansion. The residence is made entirely of glass sheets inscribed with Latin phrases, which Dennis recognizes as barrier spells. While searching the basement, Dennis is hit by psychic flashes and discovers the twelve angry ghosts he and Cyrus captured are imprisoned in the house.
The lawyer slips downstairs and picks up a bag of cash. He unwittingly triggers a mechanism that seals the house and releases the ghosts one by one. Can Arthur escape the house and save his family?
Firstly, in my mind Thirteen Ghosts is surprisingly reminiscent of the House on Haunted Hill remake that released in 1999. Matthew Lillard’s character is very similar to the character of Pritchett and even says similar lines. The concept of the house being alive and it having a working, inner system is the same. Furthermore, it trapping the inhabitants within by sealing the house is almost identical.
Thirteen Ghosts has a lot of other problems. This is a huge shame because at its core it does a lot of things right. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of having Matthew Lillard as Dennis. I know this is before Scooby Doo released but I cannot see him as anyone but Shaggy. He delivers a similar performance that just adds to the vibe of the film. What vibe am I talking about? Thirteen Ghosts has an extremely cartoonish vibe about it.
The makeup effects used on the ghosts themselves are really good. Unfortunately, they offer very little actual threat. The body count is shockingly low. Seeing the lawyer get split in two was awesome but the film needed much more of this. At times, it felt like I was watching passengers on a theme park ghost train. There are actors there who’re made to look scary but they cannot actually harm you. This leads to likely the biggest problem with Thirteen Ghosts, it commits the criminal act of just not being scary in any way. With everything it has going for it, it depends on cheap tactics instead of generating any actual fear.
The ghosts are often shown in brightly lit environments and in great detail. I understand wanting to show off the quality makeup effects but it just doesn’t help matters. Also, they use this really jarring flash/sound effect when the ghosts appear. This happens way too often, it’s literally headache inducing.
The characters are just empty shells. You’re clearly supposed to feel invested in their loss for the mother but why should you? The film literally fast forwards through scenes that may have helped in establishing this instead. Also, their reaction to the house when they first see it is laughable. Still, on the whole the acting is actually better than this film ever deserved.
The story as a whole is a convoluted mess that fails to mesh too many elements together effectively. There are other glaring issues but too many to mention.
One of my biggest issues was never feeling like the family wouldn’t survive at any point. Also, I’m not a fan of the tiresome “good ghost” trope.
Overall, Thirteen Ghosts is definitely a product of its time. It has a similar feel to other horror movies that released during that period. It attempts too many things and in doing so fails to do any one effectively. The ghosts are memorable, at least there’s that.
The Final Score - 4/10