Two years after they profitably disinterred “House on Haunted Hill” from the William Castle Memorial Crypt of the Great B Movie Graveyard, producers Gilbert Adler, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis have returned to the scene of the crime to recycle yet another moldy oldie. And very much like Dr. Frankenstein, they have managed to make lightning strike twice. “Thir13en Ghosts,” a visually striking and sometimes seriously scary remake of Castle’s more prosaically titled “13 Ghosts” (1960), transcends its source material by transforming an old-dark-house melodrama into a futuristic-bright-edifice thriller. Following in the bloody footsteps of the 1999 “Haunted Hill” reprise, pic likely will scare up some respectable B.O. during Halloween season before it starts to haunt vid stores and pay cable.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Castle, a gleefully shameless showman who delighted in selling more sizzle than steak, produced several supernatural-themed cheapie-creepies throughout the ’50s and ’60, most of them best remembered for shrewd marketing and gimmicky offscreen embellishments.
He hyped the original “13 Ghosts” with special viewing glasses that revealed onscreen spirits photographed in a dazzling new process known as “Illusion-O!” But pic itself is a bland bit of juvenilia about an absent-minded-professor type who moves his family into an inherited mansion that’s haunted by — well, check out the title.
Opening minutes of the remake immediately establish that helmer Steve Beck, obviously armed with a much bigger budget, aims to take an appreciably more serious approach. Rock-the-house prologue intros Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) as an autocratic supernaturalist who leads jumpsuited ghostbusters in a latenight raid on a fog-shrouded auto junkyard. Also along for the ride: Rafkin (Matthew Lillard), a neurotic psychic who serves as Kriticos’ poltergeist-attuned bloodhound.
Kathy (Embeth Davidtz), a kind ghost-rights activist, appears on the scene to prevent Kriticos’ crew from capturing yet another ectoplasm. But neither she nor Rafkin can stop a big, bad bogeyman from wreaking havoc and, apparently, slaying Kriticos.
Under the opening credits, Beck offers a more subtly effective visual trope by providing expository info within a seemingly seamless 360-degree shot in a spacious living room. By the time the camera stops turning, scene has shifted to a cramped apartment, and aud knows recently widowed Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) has descended into bankruptcy and guilt-fueled depression after losing his beloved wife (Kathryn Anderson) in a fire that razed their home. Tragedy left him with two offspring — teen beauty Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and precocious grade-schooler Bobby (Alec Roberts) — he’s raising with a little help from Maggie (rap singer Rah Digga), his sassy housekeeper.
Lawyer Ben Moss (JR Bourne) arrives with good news: Arthur has inherited the spectacularly lavish home of his late uncle Cyrus. But when Moss takes them to the secluded architectural wonder, Arthur, Maggie and the kids find Rafkin already there. No sooner does the latter inform the family that Cyrus left 12 angry ghosts imprisoned in the basement than the spirits are inadvertently freed from the cells. Worse, the exits are sealed, and the humans are trapped inside with the rampaging poltergeists.
Using little more than the bare-bones outlines of Robb White’s 1960 scenario, screenwriters Neal Marshall Stevens and Richard D’Ovidio do a reasonably proficient job of inventing a semi-plausible mythos to support their flights of fancy. All the same, the mystical mumbo jumbo about the house being “a machine designed by the devil and powered by the dead” is merely an excuse for actors to dash from room to room, upstairs and downstairs, hotly pursued by hellish apparitions and shouting dialogue that runs the gamut from “Run for your lives!” and “Let’s get out of here!” to, most succinctly, “Run!”
“Thir13en Ghosts” works best in its first half, while first-time feature helmer Beck — a former visual effects art director (“The Abyss,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) and TV commercials director — establishes and sustains a disquieting mood of steadily escalating dread. Things take a turn toward the disappointingly ordinary when the screenwriters resort to a thoroughly predictable “surprise” twist in order to provide a method behind the apparent madness. But even after the writers run out of novel ideas, thriller never runs out of steam.
To keep pic percolating, Beck relies on world-class f/x trickery, razor-sharp editing, John Frizell’s suspense-enhancing electronic score and Gale Tattersall’s gracefully fluid lensing. But Sean Hargreaves makes the most valuable contribution with his dazzlingly ingenious production design.
The Kriticos mansion is an enormous glass-and-steel folly furnished with art nouveau antiquities, and powered by clockwork-style cogs and gears. The overall impact suggests a confluence of influences ranging from I.M. Pei to da Vinci.
The actors manage to keep from being upstaged by the sets, though just barely. Abraham goes over the top, then further still, but larger-than-life thesping is precisely what’s needed for such a self-aggrandizing character. In her best scenes, Davidtz capably conveys a take-charge attitude, while Lillard is aptly quirky and whiny without being an insufferable pain. Shalhoub plays it straight, but more than holds his own opposite his flashier co-stars.