You don’t see many horror films where the day is saved by someone’s DJ-ish expertise on a sound-mixing board. And while there are other reasons to see Thirt3en Ghosts, I’d say this is my number one, and it only lasts a few seconds. Number two would be Rah Digga, who plays the white family’s nanny with appropriate cynicism, and number three, rather far behind the other two, would be the intricate-gear effects and see-through walls and floors that turn the usual haunted house setting into an increasingly unimpressive demonic “machine.”
At first it doesn’t look so hokey as it turns out to be. So let’s begin with the house. It’s designed by the ghost-catcher Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham), following the Arcanum, an ancient playbook on how to harness the energies of 12 lost or unhappy souls in order to open a portal to hell—sort of a Hellmouth, but without Buffy. The house is built of glass walled compartments where these ghosts are locked up until the appointed moment, when they’ll be loosed to do a malevolent ritual dance in a circle, around some selected live (about to be dead) victim, that is, the 13th ghost. Apparently, the house has to be set in specific motion, according to specific spells, in order to direct specific evil forces. All this specificity is made excessively visual in the house’s gears, seen again and again through these glass walls and floors and ceilings: they turn and interlock and grind and turn again, making so much noise that the folks in the house can’t help but be alarmed if they’re paying the slightest bit of attention… which they aren’t, for the longest time.
Tony Shaloub, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, Rah Digga, F. Murray Abraham, Alec Roberts
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969
These folks would be Cyrus’s nephew, math teacher Arthur (Tony Shaloub), Arthur’s kids, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts), and Rah Digga’s aforementioned nanny, Maggie. They end up in this house because Cyrus invites them, knowing that they’re desperate for a house because theirs burned down (along with mom, so there’s lots of mournful gloom hanging over Arthur, especially; kids, you know, they bounce back). Though the kids are excited to have the house given to them, even if it is a little isolated and the night they arrive is a little dark. But you know that it’s a bad idea. First clue: Cyrus is a pretty miserable soul himself, in that he’s introduced in a car-junkyard scene, late at night, tracking a ghost with a fractious team armed with the latest technology in, well, ghost-busting (and it must be said: Bill Murray had it all over this guy Cyrus, in terms of equipment, attitude, and team loyalty).
One of these team members is the irksome Rafkin (Matthew Lillard), supposedly a psychic, but he mostly seems to twitch and convulse whenever ghosts come around, and whenever he’s touched by a live human, because that live human transmits all of his or her life story in that instant of contact. In other words, he doesn’t like to be touched. This may be why he works for Cyrus, not much of a hugger himself. Indeed, Cyrus is just too obviously one of those unhinged megalomaniacs who wants to rule the world and so, cuts some deal with Satan, rather like an unsmooth Frank Langella in The Ninth Gate. Apparently, he’s been out of touch with Arthur for years, so he’s slightly surprised when a lawyer shows up with word regarding the bequeathing of the house (oh yes, I almost forgot, Cyrus is killed in the first scene by a pissed off ghost). This comes via a fancy laptop, on which Cyrus appears, his image framed by some arcane demon-bookish marginalia, of which no one—not even that sassy nanny—takes any notice.
Once Arthur and family get to the glass-and-gear combine engine-looking house, they’re joined by Rafkin and another of Cyrus’s erstwhile associates, Kalina (Embeth Davidtz, whom we can only imagine had a good reason for taking this dreary role). Within minutes, they’re trapped in the house, separated on different floors, and seriously harassed by 12 different versions of ooky plasma. Maggie’s astute comment on learning the general lay of this land: “Great. I’m stuck in hell-house with bunch of crazy white people.”
Sometimes, when it’s most convenient to gross you out, they’re also looking through special glasses that allow them to see the ghosts who are lurking over their shoulders, behind glass walls that are marked up with Latin inscriptions, a.k.a. “containment spells.” Ever sensitive to such things, Rafkin warns everyone, “There are ghosts downstairs,” and then shows them how to use the special glasses (that is, “Put these on! Eek! Behind you! Run! Now!”), which are the most noticeable leftover effect from the first Thirt3en Ghosts, made by the infamous William Castle. As you may recall, in addition to producing Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, he directed and promoted a string of gimmicky horror films during the ‘30s and ‘40s, including The Tingler, during which screenings the theater seats were rigged to vibrate (via technology he called “Percepto”), and Thirt3en Ghosts, where viewers were subjected to “Illusion-O,” in the form of special glasses that allowed them to see the ghosts on screen.
The film invites you to recall this instant of cinematic history with a shot that’s actually pretty clever, if you know what you’re looking for. Kathy heads for the bathroom (she’s a teenager, and having her own bathroom is important to her), where she finds expensive, if old, toiletries and a mirror, where she spends some minutes gazing at her beautiful self (and no, she does not take her clothes off). Meanwhile, the camera takes you in through one of these pairs of glasses lying on the sink, and so you see what Kathy does not, the naked and very large-breasted ghost of the “Angry Princess” (Shawna Loyer), who apparently slashed her wrists in the bathtub however long ago, and in the process got blood everywhere. It’s grim—and red—and not a little reminiscent of any number of scenes in horror movies where you see the threat to which the character is oblivious.
The characters remain oblivious through much of Thirt3en Ghosts, and for that, they might count themselves fortunate. You’re also left in the dark, however, despite all the frankly dull explaining that goes on about the house as a machine and the mythology. You don’t know much at all about the 12 ghosts, except that they have grandiose mythological names (the Torn Prince, the Juggernaut, the Withered Lover, et. al.) Although the film’s website supplies back-stories for them, it’s not likely you’ll care enough to look them up (and hopefully, if you do bother, by that time someone will correct the formatting glitches). The pity is that the movie doesn’t make any of the ghosts look interesting enough that you might feel so inspired. They appear one by one, as pulpy flesh puppets, with signs of their violent deaths attached: a little boy has an arrow in his head (Mikhael Speidel), one guy is just a torso (Daniel Wesley, who should wonder about getting credit for this performance), another has a torture contraption on his head Shayne Wyler), still another has a collection of bolts and screws in his head (Herbert Duncanson), and so on. Maggie has it right: these white folks are crazy.