Most every industry or profession has its flashy or showy members or individuals who know the value of entertaining their audience. Long before Deion Sanders, Jerry Lee Lewis or The Rock, circus impresario P.T. Barnum entertained the masses with his ostentatious showmanship and exclamation of delivering the greatest show on Earth.
While not exactly of the same caliber or legend, film director and producer William Castle was the P.T. Barnum of the cinema during the 1950s and '60s. Known for his elaborate gimmicks - his "Percepto" technique physically shocked viewers during the film "The Tingler" and he sent skeletons flying over viewers' heads ("Emergo") in "House on Haunted Hill" - as well as public announcements of taking out life insurance should anyone be scared to death while watching "Macabre," Castle's best known work (as a producer) was "Rosemary's Baby."
Yet, those who experienced his presentations probably won't ever forget his efforts. One of them involved "Illusion-o" - special glasses that allowed viewers to see ghostly apparitions in his 1960 horror flick, "13 Ghosts." That film has now been remade and released just in time for the Halloween season. Perhaps sensing that contemporary viewers might find the donning of such spectacles a bit goofy, if not financially prohibitive, director Steve Beck (making his debut after serving as visual effects art director for films such as "The Abyss" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade") has opted to give them to the fictional characters in his remake and the effect is just as much fun for the viewer.
Essentially just a gussied up haunted house flick, the gimmick here is that the basement of an inherited mansion is filled with containment cells holding various nasty ghosts that can only be seen when wearing special glasses. Although the particulars of how they work are never explained, the visual effect they create, along with the sight of various ghosts and their imaginative demises, creates some terrifically fun, edge of your seat chills and thrills.
While those particulars might sound a bit similar to Ivan Reitman's "Ghostbusters," the spooks here aren't cute and pudgy, and the laughs have been replaced by some effectively spooky and scary material, although some clever comic relief moments are thankfully still present.
Utilizing the viewer's imagination far more actively and effectively than many modern horror storytellers, Beck - who works from Neal Marshall Stevens (making his debut) & Richard D'Ovidio's ("Exit Wounds") adaptation of Castle's original work - only show us glimpses of the various ghouls - occasionally in strobe-like fashion - thus making the viewer fill in the blanks during both the flashes of them as they approach and when they're otherwise not visible.
With the elaborate mansion - and its terrific set design by Sean Hargreaves (making his debut in the position) - constantly changing shape and opening as many doors and passageways as it closes - thus letting out new ghosts - the filmmakers have created a giddy funhouse effect where viewers are just as apt to laugh and shriek out of entertaining fear as they are to scream. It's been quite a while since I've heard such a reaction out of viewers for a film like this, and those at our screening obviously enjoyed the thrills and chills presentation and experience.
Unfortunately - and you probably knew that was coming - the filmmakers opted not to follow the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle and thus had to go and introduce a scheming villain and his diabolical, not to mention convoluted, plan into the proceedings to explain all of the supernatural behavior.
While I'm not overly familiar with the original film and thus can't say whether such material was lifted from it, the whole bit about the egomaniacal heavy - played here by F. Murray Abraham ("Finding Forrester," "Amadeus") with not enough Vincent Price flair to make the role as much fun as it could and should have been - along with his plan to rule the world via his ghost-powered, Middle Ages mechanism is rather hokey and progressively becomes more so as the story wears on.
I suppose filmmakers feel the need to have a villain who gets his or her comeuppance in the end. Yet, this film would have been so much better and straightforwardly scary had all of that other material been jettisoned in favor of an "Alien/Aliens" approach that the picture occasionally emulates.
Beyond Abraham, the cast has been decently chosen and delivers generally okay performances. While he probably would not have been my first choice for playing the paternal lead in such a film, the talented Tony Shalhoub ("The Man Who Wasn't There," "Galaxy Quest") is decent in the role, while Shannon Elizabeth ("Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back," the "American Pie" films) and Alec Roberts ("Traffic") are credible as the kids (with Elizabeth getting the film's most memorable scene where she unknowingly appears with a bloody suicide victim in one of the spookiest bathroom moments put on film since "The Shining").
Comic relief comes in the form of Matthew Lillard ("Summer Catch," the "Scream" films) as a quirky and sarcastic psychic and rapper turned actress Rah Digga (making her debut) as the "I'm not getting paid enough for this" nanny. Both obviously have fun in their roles, while Embeth Davitz ("Bicentennial Man," "Schindler's List") shows up as something of a ghost civil rights activist and liberator.
While far from perfect and containing some developments that come far too easily and/or don't make sense, the film delivers more than its share of macabre funhouse chills and thrills, and should please viewers who love to scream in giddy anticipation of what's going to happen next. For that, "Thirteen Ghosts" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.