When this movie came out in 2001, I thought it was the coolest paranormal film on the planet. I saw it at the theater, and then immediately bought it on DVD when it was released, and this was when DVDs were still pretty expensive! Nearly fifteen years later, that disc is no longer a part of my collection, and I more or less consider this film to be incredibly bad. Feeling nostalgic, I felt it was time I looked at this movie with my adult glasses on, and give it a fair assessment.
In hindsight, this movie is pretty silly, but with all honestly I have to admit that it is probably responsible for a lot of progression in modern horror. If you look at the horror films that came out in 2000 & 2001, there are a lot of sequels, spoofs, and flops in there. With the exception of some obvious gems (Ginger Snaps, Session 9), horror was kind of in a rut. But, I feel like Thirteen Ghosts, in all of it’s stupid glory, revitalized horror, especially mainstream horror, in the early aughts of the century. Most notably, I can’t think of an earlier movie that used that sort of blinky, shakey effect to create spooky ghost movement. At the time, it was pretty effective, although now it’s something I sort of hate to see. It’s sort of like doing the Matrix effect in action movies. It was super cool at first, but now when you see if you just think of The Matrix. The ghosts of this film, with admittedly interesting profiles, don’t move right at you. They blink, bathed in blue light, in and out of perception; looking sort of like an image on a television that’s losing its signal. This is a tactic we see used pretty much regularly to indicate a ghostly entity these days, especially in English versions of Japanese horror movies. There are also a lot of pretty neat effects being used in this film. Between the glowing Latin on the glass walls, and the practical make up that’s applied to make the ghosts themselves, it really seems like a lot of work went into trying to make something that just looked completely different from what was already out there. Compared to modern make up, sure, they look a little janky. Especially The Hammer, with his big, lumpy head. Nonetheless, you won’t see any other characters like these out there. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel like the folks who made this movie really meant what they were doing, and it shows. And, this is something that was really needed in horror at the time this movie came out.
I have to give Thirteen Ghosts props, because its story is pretty original too. I would love to see the original William Castle version of the movie, of which Thirteen Ghosts is sort of a sequel. In the original, Cyrus is the inheritor of the family fortune, and has to fight off the ghosts to get it. In the 2001 film, Cyrus has died, leaving the dangerous inheritance to his nephew. At any rate, I think what makes Thirteen Ghosts memorable is the profiles of each of the particularly angry ghosts that are kept hostage in the puzzle that is Cyrus’ mansion (or, as Cyrus’ servant Kalina calls them, the black zodiac). We can be afraid of something like The Jackal, in her straight jacket and Medieval looking head cage, or The Juggernaut, who boasts over forty kills from inside his coveralls. You can even go look at pages from The Arcanum (Cyrus’ spell book) online, and see the original artwork that was created for the prop book in the film. Again, this is a lot of work and great attention to detail. There are entire forums and fan pages dedicated to these characters, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find fan fiction and back stories online as well. This is a franchise that would really benefit from a graphic novel. I would definitely read about the twelve ghosts to find out what happened to them before they became evil, trapped spirits.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. This movie is so, sooooo bad. It has corny one liners, a heart-warming, totally impractical ending, and that scene where Shannon Elizabeth plays with that one strand of hair while she looks in the mirror for about three straight minutes. Seriously, it’s like she wants a ghost to come attack her. The effects, while inventive, are dated in a bad way. The ghost boobs on “the angry princess” look especially bad. Oh boy, and there’s Matthew Lillard (another thing I love/hate), in all his smart-ass-good-guy-bad-guy-who-can-tell glory. All that aside, it’s still a fun flick to watch.