Thirteen Ghosts Thrives as a Trashy Early Aughts Talisman

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<i>Thirteen Ghosts</i> Thrives as a Trashy Early Aughts Talisman

No one is going to argue that the 2001 Dark Castle Entertainment production Thirteen Ghosts is a triumph of cinematic ingenuity. Though it boats ostentatious set design and gory kills, these visual flourishes obscure an otherwise flimsy narrative thread. Yet somehow, this is precisely what instills the film with such a palpable essence of early aughts appeal: Through its superficial trashiness, it serves as a testament to 2000s aesthetic values. Saturated in a greenish tint, exploring a mainstream tolerance for graphic violence and featuring adventurous acclaimed actors, Thirteen Ghosts is a perfect example of the decade’s obsession with remakes, mythology and misanthropic edginess.

Based on the 1960 film 13 Ghosts written by Robb White and directed by William Castle (the inspiration for production company Dark Castle Entertainment’s name), Steve Beck’s adaptation uses its source material as a loose blueprint, building upon it in order to satisfy a 21st century audience seeking amplified scares. When Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) is left his estranged uncle Cyrus’ (F. Murray Abraham) sprawling estate after his passing, he is relieved that he will no longer have to evade his mounting pile of past due mortgage bills. He immediately shuttles his young son Bobby (Alec Roberts), teenage daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and live-in nanny Maggie (Rah Digga) to their new abode, which turns out to be far more enigmatic than they were expecting. Constructed entirely of glass panels inscribed with Latin incantations, the family is perplexed, but otherwise undeterred in their enthusiasm for living in comparative luxury.

Joining them at the mansion are Cryrus’ estate lawyer (J.R. Bourne) and former employee Dennis (Matthew Lillard), who has disguised himself as an electrician in order to gain access inside the glass walls. After some preliminary snooping, Dennis stumbles upon something horrifying: In the mansion’s dingy basement, 12 vengeful ghosts are stewing in caged captivity. Unbeknownst to Arthur and his family, his deceased uncle’s profession was ghost hunting; unbeknownst to Dennis, Cyrus has been keeping some of their most dangerous paranormal encounters behind enchanted enclosures. Dennis drops his facade in order to alert the family of the house’s dangerous residents, but it’s already too late. The clueless lawyer has already unintentionally released all 12 ghosts, two pieces of glass bisecting him in the process. Separated in the labyrinthine mansion, the family must fight to fend off the spirits if they hope to avoid becoming the eponymous thirteenth ghost in the process—joining the phantom of the Kriticos matriarch, who died in a tragic house fire six months beforehand and has since been captured and trapped in the estate.

There are a great deal of similarities between Thirteen Ghosts and its 1960 inspiration, but it’s the even greater plethora of deviations and era-specific details that make the movie worth remembering. In the original Castle film, the apparitions themselves are relatively innocuous: Transparent entities enveloped in a hazy silver halo, they consist of a murderous Italian chef, a lion and his headless tamer, a (literally) bare-bones skeleton. Of course, the number of ghosts and the circumstances of inheriting the estate remain virtually unchanged—the biggest divergence being the spirits’ malicious nature and desire to cause imminent bodily harm to any human they meet. Yet both films are largely conduits for showcasing the special effects inherent to creating the entities, whether manifesting as a 3D “Illusion-O” gimmick or impressive special effects and transformative prosthetic make-up.

Though the juicy promise of over a dozen specters casting their distinct mark is enough to reel viewers in, both films opt for loose abstraction in depicting these spirits. While Castle’s 13 Ghosts engaged with the occult through a simple ouija board, Thirteen Ghosts conjures its own lore in order to suffuse the screen with a pervasive paranormal presence. The 12 ghosts are said to be emblematic of different figures of the fictional “Black Zodiac,” being: The First Born Son, The Torso, The Bound Woman, The Withered Lover, The Torn Prince, The Angry Princess, The Pilgrimess, The Great Child, The Dire Mother, The Hammer, The Jackal and The Juggernaut. Their varied backstories are hardly addressed, and this almost adds to their abject allure. Their character design conveys the gist of their stories, yet their tangible personhood is almost entirely removed from their portrayals, with the one evident exception being The Wilted Lover, a role occupied by Arthur’s own wife (and as such is the only ghost who shows any form of benevolence to the family).

Though bombing on critical and commercial levels, Thirteen Ghosts is the result of Dark Castle Entertainment’s early achievements. The relative success of the production company’s first feature, the 1999 remake of Castle’s 1959 House on Haunted Hill, originally positioned the film as the beginning of a slew of Castle remakes. However, the pitiful performance of Thirteen Ghosts propelled Dark Castle down a much different path. In the years that followed, it released the 2003 star-studded supernatural horror flick Gothika, the loose adaptation (and partial Paris Hilton vehicle) House of Wax in 2005 and the 2009 double-threat of Orphan and Splice. These titles cemented Dark Castle as purveyors of contemporary genre offerings buttressed with ample star power. Despite doing the company no favors, Thirteen Ghosts is also emblematic of this shift in itself: It exists in the realm of remakes (much like House of Wax), complete with a few beloved cast members (Gothika) and striking entities rendered through newfound technological advancements in special effects and make-up (Splice). Though nowhere near as critically lauded as the company’s most profitable offerings, Thirteen Ghosts has left its indelible mark on this period of horror filmmaking.

Particularly when considering the subsequent trajectory of horror films in the early 2000s, Thirteen Ghosts certainly seems to exist in a catalog of mid-tier horror remakes of the era that continue to find critical reappraisal to this day. Whether remakes of foreign horror hits or rehashed American classics, The Ring (2002), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006) are mere imitations of their inventive original sources. Yet these titles continue to hold significance due to their distinctive aughts embellishments—especially when it comes to relishing in violent imagery and upholding a layered folkloric component, typically in conversation with the events detailed in the original. In this sense, Thirteen Ghosts is a potent and prototypical horror cocktail of the era.

It appears we’re still currently enmeshed in a phase of unyielding horror remakes and installations, continuing to disappoint critics while successfully feeding on the misplaced nostalgia of audiences. The recent narrative failings of Halloween Kills and Candyman come immediately to mind, countered by their unique ability to fill theaters and recoup their production costs (and then some) in the midst of a global pandemic. If recent horror remakes feel flatter compared to the maniacal mayhem of early aughts adaptations, the reason might just lay in their conflicting cultural intentions. While this trend 20 years ago aimed to subvert certain themes inherent to their predecessors (albeit in a superficially edgy manner), contemporary horror franchising attempts to declaw and denounce much of what makes the original versions timeless in their popularity. Instead of working to bring cult-adjacent offerings to the mainstream, the current landscape of horror homages is obsessed with making cult films palatable for a broad and superficially tolerant audience as opposed to challenging moviegoers to dabble outside of their comfort zones.

For all of its shortcomings (namely the two-dimensional twinge of racism inherent to Rah Digga’s character, a convoluted plot and strained emotional output),Thirteen Ghosts is an undeniable gem. For one, it is one of many fabulous examples of Matthew Lillard’s manic versatility, carrying the story alongside Shalhoub’s expletive-laced melodramatic delivery. The movie’s threadbare sense of mythos also offers small fragments of background for each of the entities while never delving too deeply into the intricacies of their haunting histories, ingraining a healthy curiosity in the viewer that lingers long well after the credits roll. However, there is no denying the stilted nature of its examination of grief and the intra-dimensional bonds of love and family, never quite managing to meld with the film’s otherwise oppressive air of cynicism and misanthropy. Nonetheless, Thirteen Ghosts is a veritable talisman of the time from which it emerged. Helmed just before the patriotic pessimism of 9/11 and released mere weeks after the attacks on a public already in the throes of desensitization to terror, the material reality of the decade is reflected in every jaded joke and violent spectral visage.

Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan