This Is Not A House, It Is A Machine: Thir13en Ghosts (2001)

This (Thir13en Ghosts) and the spelling in the title will be the only times I acknowledge the correct spelling of Thirteen Ghosts because it is a pain in the ass to type quickly and is frankly rather obnoxious in that it really serves no purpose aside from going out of its way to be different, or possibly to avoid some issues in copyright that were likely faced by the producers of this film.  Indeed, the trying to be cool that translates into obnoxiousness is perhaps the best way to describe what is occurring in Thirteen Ghosts, a bit of 2001 flare that was brought to my attention when I heard an employee at the great land of high film tastes Blockbuster, suggesting it to a customer, claiming that it was one of the better scary movies of the past decade or so.  To be fair, this Blockbuster was going out of business and I had a copy of Session 9 in my hand ready to purchase, incidentally a far superior film (my personal favorite of horror cinema) and a work that came out in the same year.  I, as is usual, am digressing from the film at hand Thirteen Ghosts, or what could also be described as the biggest squandering of potential committed in the digital age.  Thirteen Ghosts does a few really cool things visually throughout, but for every bit of great work done, even the glaringly outdated CGI, there are a ton of terrible narrative choices, only doubled by a lot of blatant breaks in continuity or signifiers of bad, or more appropriately lazy, filmmaking.  It is almost too obvious that all the film's budget was dumped into the makeup and special effects for this film, which do pay off, even if cheesy by contemporary standards wherein post-production has become exponentially better, allowing for the uses of such creatures to more evocatively work.  Indeed, for being little more than a barebones labyrinth narrative, Thirteen Ghosts never really amounts to anything remotely tangible, given minimally realized characters, placed in a space hat is clearly influenced by the point and click adventure world of only a few years prior, one could mistake this work as a misguided labor of love by Steve Beck, whose only two directorial efforts come in the way of somewhat obscure horror film remakes, but attaching the term love to this would suggest it was made with any degree of passion, which is far from the case and as much as Tony Shalhoub tries to save this film with his acting, there are only so many ways even the most season of actors can deliver the phrase "what is going on?"

Thirteen Ghosts begins with paranormal hunter Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) and his psychic aid Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) attempting to track down a violent ghost, one that Cyrus claims is necessary to an unexplained quest.  After fending off a few competing paranormal experts Cryrus and by unwilling involvement Dennis, are able to capture a ghost, but it is at the result of Cyrus' life.  The narrative then flashes forward to show the experiences of the Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) a recently widowed father who is attempting to make due in a cramped apartment with his daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and son Bobby (Alec Roberts), his teachers salary barely able to afford the aid of a maid named Maggie (Rah Digga).  When an unsuspected knock at the door reveals lawyer Benjamin Moss (JR Bourne) informing Arthur that he has inherited a house from his late uncle Cyrus he cautiously accepts the offer and travels with his family and Maggie in tow to the house, a building entirely made of windows covered in Latin writing, awaiting there is arrival is Dennis, passing as an electrician, who is equally eager to enter the house.  The unassuming Arthur allows him to do so and the entire group, including Benjamin, begin exploring the house cautiously.  It becomes clear rather quickly through a combination of Dennis revealing his true identity and the splitting of the group that the house is even more bizarre than its looks would suggest, indeed proving to be a large machinery that serves as both a caging device to a variety of ghosts, including Arthur's late wife, all intended to work together in an ancient configuration to open up what Dennis calls The Eye of Hell.   However, given that the process requires one last ghost, a sacrifice by a broken hearted individual, Arthur realizes that there is a real possibility that he might have to kill himself in order to save his family.  All through this endeavor, the ghosts, many of which met violent deaths chase the persons in the house, killing a few in the process.  After the arrival of another ghost hunter and the reemergence of Cyrus from what may or may not be the dead, it becomes clear that Arthur's task might be a bit different than assumed, but no less predicated upon making sure he and his children are not killed by the thirteen ghosts roaming the halls of the house.

The plot is rather straightforward in Thirteen Ghosts, as noted serving as a means to show off a set of creepy ghosts and a few, at the time, impressive tricks with CGI.  Where the film seems to fail is in its attempts to synthesize these various elements into anything productive, even kowtowing to prevailing trends in the genre at the time.  Clearly working in a post-Asian horror invasion, many of the ghosts are created more for a creepy factor than a sense of threat, although The Hammer (Herbert Duncanson) is wholly intended to be slasher.  However, the way creepy ghosts work is to provide them with a sense of constant impending dread, as is the case with The Girl in the Ring, or pretty much every spectral entity in The Exorcist.  Here the creepiest ghosts The Torso (Daniel Wesley) and The Great Child (C. Ernst Harth) receive little screen time a choice I am fully willing to blame on a director that was more comfortable going for slash and off screen shock than any degree of ambient horror.  In fact, I am usually a fan of filmmakers using editing tricks and subverting of the visual palette to add intensity to a scene, but this choice starts off heavy and becomes grating well before the film ends.  Steve Beck seems to think the use of the contrast image can serve as a metaphor for every type of mental break in a film, causing the ability of the characters identities to become distinct or varied pretty much impossible. Finally, the film seems to openly embrace lifting the most obvious tropes from post-digital horror films imaginable, whether it be an inclusion of a widowed father with two distantly aged children, one who happens to be an attractive girl.  Despite a passing suggestion at having an anger issue, Arthur is made to be a lovable loser void of any point of socially problematic behavior, and his children's vanity in the case of Kathy and ignorance in regards to Bobby are neither problematic or worthy of narrative chastising.  Finally, and most offensively, the character of Maggie appears to serve no other quota than allowing for a black character to be present in the narrative, her constantly loud behavior and means of "stopping" the recorded incantation are not only in bad taste, but border on outright racism, never mind the closing moment of the film.  Overall the film suffers from being poorly planned, executed and produced, which is a shame for a film with such wonderful special effects work throughout.

Key Scene:  The segment revealing all the ghosts simultaneously is the only thing of interest in this film and it comprises, at most, two or three minutes of the narrative.

Avoid this film unless you are really trying to see every ghost story put to film, I would strongly urge a look at Session 9 instead, the far superior 2001 film shot entirely on digital.

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