Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ridiculous and inexplicably creepy: Thirteen Ghosts (2001).



Sometimes an image sticks with you long after you've forgotten everything else about the movie. It's one of the reasons I love horror. Even if the movie couldn't scare you, it might have given you something you can scare yourself with later. Thirteen Ghosts is full of these images. The ghosts are creepy and sad one moment and then terrifyingly angry the next. These are brainworm scary images. Sort of effective when you first see them in the context of the idiotic plot, but much more vivid when you're laying in bed thinking about the movie later. Then it's just you and a feral madman in a straight jacket, or a naked woman with black eyes and a kitchen knife.

The people who built the world of this movie had a real vision for what they wanted. They had purpose! They were going to make a big glass and metal haunted house that was amazing and impressive no matter how stupid the plot was. And they were going to fill it with some damn fine ghosts. Because their parents didn't raise them to be quitters. And they have a pretty good point, I think. When a movie is as ridiculous as Thirteen Ghosts, you have to either give up and do a half assed job for the paycheck, or you have to throw yourself into things and really SELL the idea of a big glass house that is actually a "machine designed by the devil and powered by ghosts."

The set designers and special effects people clearly picked the second option, and it's that commitment to the ridiculous premise that keeps Thirteen Ghosts from being just another forgettable late 90s - early 00s teen slasher. The ghosts feel like they really inhabit the space they're in, and they're genuinely spooky in spite of the constant flash cuts that are somehow supposed to frighten us.

Partly the effectiveness of the ghosts is the choice to use makeup instead of CGI. One of the hallmarks of good horror makeup is that you can still see the actor underneath. The ghosts are often silent, but you can read their emotions in their faces and their body language. It makes things more unsettling when the gored up teen with the baseball bat looks so sad.



They put a lot more effort into the ghosts than the real people, but the ghosts themselves aren't without flaws - the naked woman ghost is creepy as a ghost, but oh my god completely unbelievable as a naked lady. She's built like a barbie doll with inflated breasts, and she's covered in deep gashes all over her body, which we're later led to believe is because she killed herself. That's a hell of a way to kill yourself. Her breasts must have driven her into a frenzy!

But she's also given one of the only genuinely touching moments in the movie, as she watches Elizabeth Shannon fix her hair in the mirror, touching her own hair like she had forgotten it existed, like she had forgotten all about feeling pretty. She watches quietly and almost blankly, but the fact that she's watching at all is an unexpected moment. 



The whole movie swings wildly between insane nonsense and great design, which at least keeps things interesting. The only boring moments are when we have to listen to the living characters talk about their feelings or convince us that they're actually crying about their dead mom. The rest of the movie is like a ride through a giant glass and metal haunted house, where the walls shift and move at the whim of some dark inexplicable mechanism at the heart of the building.

Thirteen Ghosts is a movie in the true spirit of the William Castle original. It's totally more of a ride than a story. The house is a mechanism for moving the characters from one encounter to the next, and it moves us along with it. The alive people on screen are almost exclusively boring and obnoxious (with the exception of Matthew Lillard who is perfectly in his element here as a scenery chewing depraved psychic ghost hunting pillhead). The filmmakers put every bit of their love and care into the set design and the monster design, and as a showcase for those the movie is perfect. It's like a really interesting silent movie with the music replaced by idiotic dialogue. Just watch it on mute.



17 comments:

  1. the dvd actually had bonus features which went into the back stories of every ghost. it was much more interesting than the movie itself.

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  2. This is one of those movies I always watch when I come across it on television. The ghosts, the house, the erratic ghost-seeing psychic, it's so entertaining!

    Another one I love for entertaining/creepy factor is Ghost Ship. Much more entertaining than creepy, but travel by ship is something I will hesitate to do now.

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  3. Bee: I'll have to check those extra features out! I generally stay away from DVD extras because I worry they'll ruin my experience of a movie by showing me too much of how it was made. But that sounds like it just ADDs.

    maladroit: I remember really thinking Ghost Ship had some class. But now I don't remember much. It is on the list though! I'll have to rewatch it.

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  4. Wow, I haven't thought about this movie in years. When I saw it in the theater, I distinctly remember thinking, "What a crappy movie this is, but the ghosts themselves look amazing."

    Now I kind of want to watch it again ...

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  5. I hear Thirteen Ghosts being trashed a lot, but you're right, it's a very visually appealing movie, and the ghosts are totally awesome. I just wish someone had put in an extra brainstorming session when they were putting together the cast and storyline.

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  6. I just wanted to say that I LOVE this blog. I came over from a softer world and you've got a new subscriber in me.

    I haven't seen Thirteen Ghosts, but it sounds like it's worth watching just for the visuals. I may have to check it out.

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  7. I felt that way about House On Haunted Hill. I don't even like horror films, but it was captivating visually.

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  8. aspyre: I always felt that the ghost effects in House On Haunted Hill didn't really fix with the rest of the film. It felt a bit like they started with the ghost shots and then got a different crew and director to make the rest of the film.

    The original HOHH (1959) has an awesome/hilarious old lady drifting through a room effect that petrified my brother when we were kids.

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  9. That should have been "fit" not "fix".

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  10. Like Adam Snider, I'm here because I got the invite from asw... and I looooovvvveed *One Bloody Thing*, so I was immediately engaged about you blogging about horror films.

    *13 Ghosts* was more fun than frightening for me, but I gotta say - if I was given a home made of glass, covered in arcane symbols with a puzzle lock on the door, I'd immediately put that sucker up for sale. Maybe get in touch with Jimmy Page or Clive Barker or something, see if they needed new real estate. One thing I would not do is walk inside it. Ever.

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  11. I remember really disliking this movie, but I've had an internal conflict for nearly a decade about revisiting it. Those bewbs are burned into my memory FOREVER.

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  12. I agree with the fact that sometimes its better when the images work better after the movie. I love 30 Days of Night(I know it had flaws with acting in stuff, but oh well). One of the things I loved about it was that when I first saw it I was disappointed. That night I was thinking about it and some of the things I saw and it just seemed more and more amazing.

    But I will say that I can never and will never take the giant baby seriously. I can see where its creepy, but to me its not. I didnt even laugh at it. I just wish they had done something different.

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  13. Thank you so much for posting this review! For years I've been plagued with guilt for enjoying '13 Ghosts'. I am at piece now.

    You are 100% right, storyline is crap, the effects make this film! I see it more as a piece of art then a 'story', scarey for the sake of scarey, no engaging main characters needed, oh and the scene where 'whats-his-face gets cut in half by the glass door and his tie falls off first...pure GENIUS! Using makeup instead of cgi is something not many film makers choose theses days and I liked this movie almost only for that reason, seeing the actor behind the monster, the scarily 'human' evil intent makes all the difference! So do gigantic boobs.

    Also Bee, I always watch the extra features and i agree with you, these were great, I totaly have a crush on the 'Jackyl' now.
    Sorry for ther 'way-too-long' comment.

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  14. Damnit Joey! You're making me want to watch all these movies and I can't watch scary movies... They give me panic attacks.

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  15. 13 Ghosts is one of the few horror flicks I've been able to watch (scary=palpitashuns) and the only reason is that the story was so ridiculous...but I suffered the possibility I'd panic because it looked soooo goooood. it was pretty and dark and awesome. Great review.

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  16. this movie is really great. this is one of my favorite movie, the writer of this movie has a very big imagination that is why i love this movie. you can not see the twist coming.

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