The Dark Castle Entertainment production company was created to remake William Castle’s horror film catalog. The director, famous for his populist horror films featuring in-theater gimmicks, both schlocky and surprising, were famous in the 50’s and 60’s and director/producers Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silver decided they would bring his work into the modern age. After the enjoyable House on Haunted Hill, their sophomore effort was Thirteen Ghosts.
Castle’s Thirteen Ghosts sees the eccentric millionaire Dr. Zorba will a mansion to his nephew Cyrus. Cyrus and his wife and son move into the house to find that it is haunted, and haunted by 12 different ghostly entities. Dr. Zorba was fascinated by the occult and has collected these spirits. To study his phantasmagoric menagerie, Zorba invented special glasses that turn the invisible threat of the ghosts into horrifying visions. Adding to the mystery of the house is a pile of hidden money and a scheming lawyer hoping to drive the owners out so he can ransack the place for it. Hauntings ensue and finally a victim is claimed, completing the collection of 13 spirits and allowing the other ghosts to escape.
Castle’s film is quite good, though a product of its day as the visible wires of the special effects and somewhat overdone performances bear out. The scares are gruesome, with ghostly axes chopping off ghostly heads, silhouette spousal murder and a tornado of flame and bones. It’s also in these encounters that the William Castle trademark gimmick appears. In this case it’s ghost vision, meant to mimic the special glasses used in the film by characters to see the ghosts. Castle filtered the actors and backgrounds in blue and overlaid the ghost effects in red. The audience were given viewers with blue and red gels, like old style 3-D glasses. Viewed through the red lens, the overlaid ghosts were invisible, while through the blue lens they stood out in all their ghostly, gory glory. The effect is surprisingly successful and still packs a punch today. Overall, I think this is one of Castle’s best.
For the Dark Castle Entertainment remake Dr. Zorba has been replaced by Cyrus Kriticos, a rich eccentric collecting ghosts; trapping them in containers sealed with magical incantations and installing them in the basement of his bizarre mansion: A house with glass walls; each surface covered in arcane script and capable of being reconfigured by a gigantic clockwork machine at the heart of the house. This device will harness the ghostly energy of the prisoners and deliver untold power to its creator. The family are once again lured in by inheriting the marvelous house but Uncle Cyrus is using them, trying to drive the father to kill himself and fill the role of the 13th ghost that will complete the house machine.
Performing in this remake are Tony Shaloub, F. Murray Abrahams and 4 of the most annoying people you will ever experience. Abrahams is a good imperious and conniving villain and Shaloub is sufficiently depressed and hapless as the hopeless, destitute widower. The son is now death obsessed and possesses an Elmer Fudd level “sacchawinwy” cute lisp. A daughter has been added whose job is to be an obnoxious teenager, constantly lust after a bigger bathroom and flash some cleavage during a very “male gaze” ghost attack. The rap-star-turned-actress is a sassy housemaid and provides the embarrassing rap over the end credits, as must have been required by law during the late 90’s. And then there’s Matthew Lillard; a loud mouth psychic who panics continuously in a way that makes me want to reach into my screen and throttle him.
It’s a shame that such poor performances detract from what is a beautifully designed film. The backdrop of the house is amazing. A construction of glass walled spaces, ever shifting in complex ways and a huge floor of concentric rings ticking off the activation of the house’s devices. In the behind-the-scenes feature the crew describe the unique challenges of working in a set that is simultaneously transparent and reflective and how it required a unique approach to the cinematography.
The ghosts themselves are also well designed and realized, all in prosthetic make-up and practical effects. The ghosts are an occult zodiac and each has a distinctive design (one of the more interesting DVD features is a profile of each of the ghosts.) The gimmick of ghost vision returns but only on screen as the glasses worn by ghost hunters to allow them to see the horrifying spectres bearing down on them.
Despite the impressive production values, I can’t recommend the 1999 remake for viewing by any human being. Visually the film is a success but disappointing performances ruin it. The original ’59 version is fun with a gimmick that deserves a look. Especially if you’re fortunate enough to see it in a theater setting. William Castle’s films were all about the experience of the movies and it’s a shame to miss an opportunity to see them on the big screen