I take a look at this critical bomb and ask if it really deserved the hate.
Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) inherits a mansion from his uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham), a ghost hunter who died at the hands of a malevolent spirit. Unaware of his uncle’s work, Arthur moves into Cyrus’s house with his two children, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts), and their nanny Maggie (Rah Digga). Cyrus’s attorney Ben Moss (J. R. Bourne) shows them the house while psychic Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) comes in to warn Arthur that there are 12 captive spirits in the house which were obtained by Cyrus. The spirits are contained behind magic glass, until Moss activates a mechanism designed to release them and seal the building. From there, the ghosts start wreaking havoc. Together with Dennis and self-proclaimed “Spirit Liberator” Kalina Oretzia (Embeth Davidtz), the family has to avoid being killed by the more malicious of the spirits and hopefully stop the opening of the building’s secret: The eye of Hell itself.
So, Roger Ebert famously gave this movie only 1 star, based solely on the art direction, special effects, and makeup; basically every other element was destroyed. He even included it on his 2005 “Most Hated” list. His review includes him saying “oh, never mind” multiple times and opining that the screenplay essentially was too ridiculous to even be worth explaining or considering. I understand where he’s coming from on that. The screenplay to this is actually pretty overly complicated for a movie like this, but it seems to me that it is more accurate to say that there was just too much for a 90 minute movie. Every single ghost in the film has a fairly elaborate backstory… that basically never comes up in the movie. These character descriptions were clearly were given to the costume and makeup people because they managed to come up with elaborate and creative renderings of the characters based on them, but the only background we actually get in the movie is the “Juggernaut,” and it’s fleeting. I appreciate all of the effort that went into the writing and designing, but that means that one of the most interesting things in the movie is relegated only to flashes, for the most part. That was the thing that Ebert criticized the most: That this movie is loud, flashy, and poorly edited. He’s not wrong on that part.
One of the fundamental parts of the movie is that the ghosts are invisible to people. The only way to see them is to put on a pair of special glasses. This is because this is a remake of a movie of the same name from 1960 made by William Castle. Castle was famous for putting ridiculous gimmicks in his films, such as having flying skeletons in the movie theater or having vibrating motors in random seats to scare people. In the film 13 Ghosts, one of the characters wears a device to see some of the ghosts (though they’re also visible sometimes normally). The audience members were given a “ghost viewer,” composed of two sides of cellophane to look through. One, the blue side, hid the ghosts in the movie because the film scenes had red colored filters applied to the ghosts; the other, red side, made them more visible. When the film was released on home video, it was packaged with 2 pairs of glasses, one of each color, so that the effect was still possible. This movie pays tribute to that mechanism by having it so that we, the audience, can only see ghosts when the cast members can. It ends up making every scene inherently more tense, because there is literally always the possibility that a ghost is present in the shot. However, it’s never used all the way to its full potential, because… well, the ghosts look amazing, so they wanted to show them off. Still, even though it’s by design, the fact that they literally pop out of nowhere with loud sound cues does tend to make this “jump-scare: the movie.” If you’re not into that, then you will hate this film.
The plot is… well, it doesn’t end up having a lot of emotional appeal, which is kind of where it fails. Ostensibly, the emotional part of the movie is supposed to be about Arthur and his family moving on from the death of his wife, and the movie has a great set-up for this. However, while it pays lip-service to it, honestly, the movie never gives it the time it deserves. We never feel the emotional weight and therefore the emotional journey feels entirely vacant. Since that’s what every critic is pretty much trained to look for in a movie, this bombs on the most basic level. It mostly happens because they really tried to overload the film with the ghosts and there are 12 of them that they’re trying to give some amount of screen-time and, honestly, the rest kind of gets eaten up by Matthew Lillard and his character’s attempt at redemption which, again, falls flat. The plot elements involving the house being a machine designed to open the eye of Hell is interesting, but all of it is basically just info-dumped in a four minute speech and the significance of it is passed over easily.
And now comes the part of the review where I acknowledge that everything I just said is true, but also… I like this movie. Is it scary? I mean, not in the traditional sense of terror or even horror, since we neither get a real buildup of anxiety nor do we get time to feel revulsion after the ghosts appear, because all of the cuts are pretty damned quick and the spectres are rarely in focus long enough for us to really get a sense of the panic that we need from it. That said… the setting and the spirits are just too damned good not to love. The film literally takes place in a glass house that moves to create a labyrinth that can save or damn you in a single moment. The ghosts look amazing and they really do convey a ton of backstory just through appearance and movement. Tony Shalhoub actually manages to get a decent amount of emotion out of his incredibly limited parts in the script. Sure, it’s “jump-scare: the movie,” but dammit, it’s SUPPOSED TO BE THAT. This movie pulled off exactly what it was going for, it just was going for something that’s a little corny and a little cheap.
It’s not the best film out there, but I enjoy it. I recommend that you give it a shot, if only to see what a top-notch production design looks like.
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