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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - Thirteen Ghosts

eclectic reviews and opinions

Thirteen Ghosts

2001, D: Steve Beck; S: Neal Stevens, Richard D'Ovidio

Two really cool ideas and one good performance can't quite save this one from mediocrity. After a confusing prologue with F. Murray Abraham over-doing his best Vincent Price to a turn, we get to the heart of the matter: the down-on-their-luck remnants of a happy nuclear family; Daddy, daughter, scooter-riding son and nanny -- Mommy got fried to a crisp a while back -- inherit an enormous, beautiful house from eccentric Uncle Cyrus Kriticos. Scattered around the house -- cool idea one, retained from the 1960 version -- are special spectacles through which even the un-psychically gifted can see ghosts. Cool idea two: the house, with its myriad sliding panes of incantation-etched glass, isn't really a house so much as a gigantic arcane machine built to unleash infernal powers, when properly juiced up with its twelve -- or is that thirteen? -- ghosts.

The biggest problem, I think, is that the film can't quite make up its mind whether it wants to be an out-and-out horror movie or a dark fantasy; the pacing and tone are inconsistent. It's long on visual appeal, short on shocks and on sense, but it's also a little too bloody to be shelved alongside Beetlejuice. Not to mention: not very funny.

Actually, I think maybe the set for the house itself had mysterious evil powers. It really does look great. It looks so good, in fact, that it seems to have possessed the film-makers, and commanded them to insert long montages of the house-machine whirling and whirring along to itself. These pump up the running-time, but sap suspense, first because they're more interesting than scary, later because they grow tiresome, and because they're supplemented by even more shots of the humans looking at various bits of the house-machine with assorted stock-reaction faces.

Perhaps the house-set commanded most of the budget for itself, too, which might explain why the ghosts are a sad and motley lot are they rejects from a Clive Barker movie, or just Marilyn Manson's next back-up band? And one of the major "huh?"s of film lurks herein: Uncle Cyrus's "Dark Zodiac" of spirits are a violent and powerful crew with monickers like "The Juggernaut," "The Jackal" and the "The Angry Princess," but, uh, guess who "The Withered Lover" is?

The other major drawback is that when humans encounter ghosties, director Steve Beck (it's the first picture for the Industrial Light and Magic effects dude) goes beserk. I don't know if he, or cinematographer Gale Tatersall (Tank Girl, Wild Orchid) are actually possessed by the evil set they built, but it scarcely matters. They're probably wise not to give us a long steady look at the bogies, but the camera jerks around so much that it's often genuinely hard to figure out what's going on until everyone stands still for a few seconds. And there are really a few too many cuts back and forth from person-tossed-around-by-invisible-forces to person-tossed-around-by-guy-(or-gal)-in-makeup. We get it, OK? Without the glasses you can't see them.

Matthew Lillard (SLC Punk, etc.) gives far and away the best performance; he's got a wonderful plastic ability to make weird distored scared-faces, and the screenwriters (also both first-timers) give his character a little more depth than the rest of the cardboard cut-out crew. That's the final major problem: there just aren't any real characters to care about. Plus all the usual clunky stupid stuff I gotta tell ya, for a bunch of supposed master-murderers, these ghosts are not just very efficient at tracking and killing their prey.

But you should go see it anyway, in theaters, several times, because the set for the house is really cool. And buy the DVD. Buy many copies. I typed that of my own free will. Nothing is controlling me. Go. Look. At. The. Cool. House. Buy. Go. Now.

...special note for horndogs: it surely won't have escaped your notice that the voiceover in the TV ads advises that the film has been rated "R" for violence, gore, language and "some nudity." Does this nudity refer to American Pie's scarcely legal Shannon Elizabeth? or to the more mature charms of black-clad, nose-pierced witchy Embeth Davidtz? No, it's only pancake-makeup-coated, prosthetic ghostly nudity for you. Bad horndog. Down.

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