Lively Spirits | Thirteen Ghosts After 20 Years In the Grave

Remakes are a pretty contentious topic among film fans. Oftentimes they’re derided as unnecessary (such as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho), while equally often they’re marked down for diverging too far from the original (the 2003 version of The Italian Job springs to mind). This is all setting aside the equally divisive topic of remaking foreign films in an American version, of course. One remake that is gloriously unnecessary while still managing to capture the essential story and sentiments that went into the original is 2001’s Thirteen Ghosts. And in part because it is as much of its era as the original was, it’s a lot of fun.

The mansion from Thirteen Ghosts - headstuff.org
The mysterious ornate mansion at the heart of Thirteen Ghosts.

The original 13 Ghosts was released in 1960 and was directed by horror pioneer William Castle. Castle directed 65 films between 1943 and 1974, but is best known for the six horror movies he released between 1958 and 1961. These are almost better known for their gimmicks than they are for their actual content. Horror at the time attracted an audience more through the coverage of the outraged press than anything else, and Castle decided to go all-in on promoting these films. The first (Macabre) made headlines with Castle’s claim that he had purchased insurance from Lloyds of London to pay $1000 to the family of anyone who died from fright during the film. (Naturally the audience members were all given ornate certificates of this insurance.) House on Haunted Hill used the “Emergo” system – in select theatres, when a skeleton flew at the camera, a plastic skeleton would drop from the ceiling and fly over the audience. The Tingler was the first where the gimmick crossed over with the film’s actual plot – it was about a spinal parasite that fed on fear, and caused an uncontrollable tingling in the spines of its victims. Castle spent a quarter of a million dollars fitting the seats out in large theaters with motors that would “tingle” people’s spines at the climactic moment.

William Castle in 13 Ghosts - headstuff.org
William Castle explains how to use the “ghost viewer” in the opening of 13 Ghosts

13 Ghosts was another film where the gimmick played into the plot. The story is about a man who inherits a large mansion from his uncle, only to find that it is haunted by twelve ghosts unable to leave until they add a thirteenth to their number. Some of the ghosts are mundane (including the dead uncle himself) while others are more elaborate (a fiery skeleton and a lion tamer complete with lion, for example). The ghosts can only be seen with the help of magic glasses left behind by the uncle, and this fed into the gimmick where audience members were given two coloured sheets of plastic. Without the plastic the ghosts were faintly visible, looking through the red plastic they were clearly visible, while with the blue they were completely hidden. Audience members could thus choose how much of the horror they wanted to see. To be frank, the gimmick didn’t work that well and the movie is better in modern releases that simply show the ghosts. Still, it’s a fun idea.

The remake Thirteen Ghosts (spelled “Thir13en Ghosts” on the poster) keeps the core premise of the original while turning everything up to eleven. It’s still about a man who inherits a mansion from his uncle, except the mansion is now a mysterious edifice of glass and metal inscribed with ominous Latin. There are twelve ghosts in the mansion, but they all have elaborate backstories and were actually hunted down and captured by the uncle. And the glasses that let you see the ghosts are still here, with the ghosts visible or invisible depending on whether the focus character in a scene is wearing them. One of the most effective shots in the movie is when the camera swoops down and goes through the lens of a pair of the glasses sitting on a shelf to reveal that an unsuspecting character is being haunted by a murderous ghost.

Tony Shalhoub in Thirteen Ghosts - headstuff.org
Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) wearing the “spectral viewer” glasses.

My personal favourite part of the movie is the opening scene, where Cyrus Kriticos (F Murray Abraham) leads a team using a mixture of magic and science to capture a ghost known as the Breaker. Matthew Lillard steals the scene (and frankly the entire movie) as Dennis Rafkin, a psychic who is the first to realise they’ve got in over their heads. Lillard really sells the mental and physical trauma of Rafkin’s psychic abilities, making the character deeply sympathetic and setting the frantic emotional tone of the movie. I’d watch an entire series based on the premise of a team hunting down ghosts like this. Naturally, the whole thing does go horribly and bloodily wrong, which is why Cyrus’ nephew Arthur (Tony Shalhoub) winds up inheriting his uncle’s mansion.

Shannon Elizabeth and Shawna Loyer in Thir13en Ghosts - headstuff.org
Kathryn (Shannon Elizabeth) is stalked by the Angry Princess (Shawna Loyer)

Where I think the film captures William Castle’s spirit is in how it turns everything up to eleven. Every character feels like the most extreme version of themselves, while each of the ghosts has a solid backstory (most of which never appears on screen) that lends the film a sense of depth. The mansion’s blending of magic and technology combined with steampunk excess, creates a memorable setting and a feeling that the house itself is out to get the family. These qualities help to carry the film, something that neither the writing or performances can really do. Aside from Lillard, most of the acting is pretty lifeless while the plot definitely falls apart in the final stretch of the film. The emotional momentum of the film is what carries it over the finish line.

Matthew Lillard and Kathryn Anderson in Thirteen Ghosts - headstuff.org
The Withered Lover (Kathryn Anderson) menaces Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard)

The film did not do well at the box office, and director Steve Beck only made one more picture (2002’s Ghost Ship). It did fairly well on DVD though, a new format at the time. The film’s extensive backstories for the ghosts were perfect for the “DVD special features” that were the rage at the time, while the ability to pause and rewind sections helped viewers to take in a lot more of the design that was lost on the big screen. All of this has helped the film to be more fondly remembered – while being somewhat reminiscent of Castle’s love of gimmicks and ancillary material.

Ultimately it’s the 1960 movie that has left the greater impression on movie history. William Castle was breaking new ground, while Steve Beck was digging in well-tilled earth. Thirteen Ghosts may ultimately be a footnote to the story of 13 Ghosts, but that doesn’t stop it being a fun (if gory) romp. Twenty years later it’s still worth revisiting – and no special glasses required.