Being trapped in a shifting maze of glass with the ghosts of serial killers is bad; if it had been as bad as it could have been or a better explanation of why it wasn’t could have been given, “Thirteen Ghosts” might have been great instead of just good.
Arthur (Tony Shalhoub) is a widower doing everything he can to hold his family together after losing everything in a fire. When little-known Uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham) suddenly passes away, Arthur is left with the key to and possession of Cyrus’s life’s work: a one-of-a-kind, all-glass ‘clockwork’ house, completely furnished with the valuable antiquities Cyrus had collected over his lifetime. Once inside with his kids and housekeeper, Arthur discovers that there is more to the house than first meets the eye, not to mention that it may be haunted with the tortured souls of dead murderers that the late Uncle Cyrus may have put in there intentionally. And, of course, it deosn’t help knowing all of this since the doors have managed to lock themselves on the way in…
The first ten minutes of “13 Ghosts” could be considered a glimpse of what “Ghostbusters” would have been like if the ghosts really were dangerous and there wasn’t anything funny about it; remember, it’s only funny when no one gets hurt, let alone dies (see this year’s “Evolution” for an example of how it shouldn’t done.) What hurts the film is that the poltergeist being hunted down is out for blood and it knows how to get it, yet once it is trapped inside Cyrus’s home with the others, it no longer acts so malevolent. Other so-called ‘rules’ the film establishes seem conveniently overlooked as well when the occassion calls for it, such as when one character observes, “How do you lose your kids in a glass house?”
These contradictions constantly undermine a genuinely creepy and inventively beautiful production design, which isn’t surprising since the director has more visual effects credits than directorial ones but had no hand in the screenplay. The script itself runs into a few corners that are left blank on the screen, including a twenty-second ‘intermission’ where the audience is treated to sound effects and empty rooms while the script finds a new starting point. In fact, this happens twice, although it’s covered a lot better the second time around. Even the ending borrows from the old ‘leap of faith’ stand-by and ‘love conquers all’ ploy to help resolve everything, which are both undermined by the fact that the ‘victims’ have little or nothing to do except run and scream a lot.
Now, this isn’t to say that fans of the horror genre won’t be entertained. People die in this film… a lot, and with buckets of blood strewn everywhere. When one of these ghosts cut loose, it doesn’t let up. The house itself is something to see, a combination of complex interior sets and computer-generated imagery that blends very well together, creating a maze of glass and gears that’s both inviting to the eye and terrifying since you never know which door will open and you can see exactly what’s behind it trying to get you. While avoided as a gimmick (like red and blue 3-D specs you have to put on when entering the theater), the ‘ghost glasses’ that the characters wear to see what’s stalking them are used effectively; sometimes, knowing and seeing what’s killing you is only scarier.
Tony Shalhoub does enough as a concerned father and widower, but his character is given too little information and even less to do; all we know as the audience is there’s little he won’t do or risk for his family. Matthew Lillard excells as a psychometrist that can painfully feel malevolent spirits close by and learn a man’s secrets with a touch. Shannon Elizabeth has even less to do in this film than she did in “American Pie 2,” and Embeth Davidtz takes up just a little more screen time with her too-small part. At least F. Murray Abraham is briefly there to revell in being bad (even if we have seen him play the baddie times before) and something must be said for all the ‘ghosts’ in their full head-to-toe prosthetics to transform them into horrific creatures.
Great visuals and sound make “13 Ghosts” the kind of film horror fans (and people wanting to be scared) look for at Halloween, but the story and characterizations suffer from the same kind of inconsistances that kept the remake of “House of on Haunted Hill” from being a great film as well. Too bad, too… this concept would make a great original series on a pay cable channel, but if you want sound, visuals, character, AND story, try “From Hell” instead and see what “13 Ghosts” is missing.
(a weak but horrific 3 out of 4 skulls)