Designed by the Devil & Powered by the Dead: The World of Thir13en Ghosts

28 10 2010

[written by author, Louise Morgan]

I’m going to let you in on a secret. I hate titles with numbers in them. Not “normal” numbers–you know, Twelve Angry Men, The Thirty-Nine Steps–but titles which feel the need to try and incorporate numbers within the text. Se7en makes my blood boil. Thir13en Ghosts, as you can imagine, should make me very cross indeed.

13 Ghosts, as we’ll call it for the sake of my sanity, if nothing else, is one of two recent remakes of Castle & White films–the other being The House on Haunted Hill. Today, Robb White is best known for his fiction, including books like Deathwatch, while William Castle, a prolific director and producer of B-movies with a near-visionary eye for a gimmick, became the inspiration for Dark Castle Entertainment–originally intended to remake Castle’s own films.

Castle’s pictures were a nightmare for cinema owners: his ambitious and complex marketing tools included hearses parked outside the theatres and nurses stationed at the doors in case patrons should suffer fright-induced heart attacks (Macabre), buzzers attached to seats (The Tingler), skeletons flying over the audience on wires (The House on Haunted Hill) and “fright breaks” (Homicidal). The original Thirteen Ghosts was supposedly filmed in “Illusion-O” and watched through a special two-tone ghost viewer/remover which allowed the audience to “remove” the tinted ghosts superimposed over the film should they find them too disturbing.

Of course the ghosts weren’t disturbing–not to our jaded and cynical eyes, anyway. After all, it was 1960. Another world.

And that’s probably why, come the millennium, the time was ripe for some of Castle’s movies to be remade. There’s a vein of similarity between the new 13 Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill–unsurprisingly, given the same creative team on the originals, and the same production company remaking them–but 13 Ghosts is the more interesting of the two.

The plot deviates slightly from that of the original: here, widower Arthur is contacted by a lawyer and told that his uncle Cyrus has left him a house. However, this is not any old house, and dear old Uncle Cyrus has more than a few skeletons in his closet.

Cyrus was a collector of ghosts, and the house was built as their prison. Arthur’s new family home comes with sitting tenants: twelve of them.

And here’s the thing about this film. It’s deeply flawed, but this dirty dozen includes some of the most interesting, memorable ghosts I’ve seen. What they lack in scares, they make up for in sheer imagination and design. Known by nicknames including “The Torn Prince”, “The Juggernaut”, “The Torso” and “The Bound Woman” collectively they form the Black Zodiac. They are solid, meaty ghosts with a real physical presence–and yet they can only be seen by the human characters through special glasses (a clever in-film update of Castle’s “Illusion-O”). Nor are they simply “ghosts”–each of them has a complete backstory which, while it does not appear in the film, informs their look and behaviour. Take the Torn Princess: a once-beautiful young woman with low self-esteem who mutilated herself trying to perform plastic surgery on her own face. She killed herself by slashing her body with a butcher’s knife in the bath, and so her ghost, naked and wet, wanders the halls clutching her knife, surrounded by blood.

One of the most visually striking of the ghosts is the Jackal: a former asylum inmate who still wears his straightjacket and a shattered metal cage around his head, his violent nature has only been exacerbated by the horror of his death and imprisonment in Cyrus’s cellar. No wonder he is described by psychic Dennis (Matthew Lillard in scenery-chewing mode) as “the Charlie Manson of ghosts”. And if you’re looking for my personal favourite, that would be the Torn Prince: the 1950s high-school letterman who developed a bad case of road rash and never got to take up that college baseball scholarship.

They may not be the subtlest of ghosts, and the film may not be the cleverest of haunted house movies, but something of the fun B-movie spirit of Castle’s pictures remains. The house which acts as the setting for the story: the ghosts’ prison (and which is still more than it seems) is a piece of art–a mix of shining glass and clever CG; its shifting form occasionally reminiscent of Cube. However, it is not the star of the show: that role is reserved for the dozen lunatics–dead, deranged and downright dangerous–hiding in plain sight within.



One response

30 06 2011
Thir13en Ghosts (2001) | All Films Blog

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