I saw the 2001 version of Thir13en Ghosts when it came on my college’s free movie channel (it showed second run theater films). When first watching it I really enjoyed it for its genre-spanning qualities, it was a bit funny, a bit creepy, a bit gory, and a bit action-y. It came to my utter surprise a few years later when I found out it was a remake. I saw 1960’s 13 Ghosts on basic cable and at the time I thought it was actually a goofy comedy, not a horror movie. I’ve since re-watched them both and have to say they are both great fun and a fine example of how to do a modern remake.
The basic plot for both films is essentially the same: A family having money problems receives notice that a wealthy Uncle has died and left them his house. The catch is that the house is haunted by twelve ghosts (the thirteenth being a mystery) and the spirits seem angry and threatening. The ghosts interact with the characters but can only be seen using special glasses, something that surprised me was in the original.
In the original the family is told up front, the house is haunted, and it displays the classic “can you spend the night in a haunted house for a lot of money” trope. The ghosts threaten the characters via Ouija Board and the whole thing plays like a really great episode of Scooby-Doo, with a lot of misdirection and a good combination of real-world villains and supernatural spooks. The family doesn’t know it but there is treasure in the house and the son, Bucky, finds some money and the Lawyer, Ben, asks him to keep it a secret. We find the uncle, Plato Zorba, communed with ghosts with his housekeeper, Elaine Zacharides (played wonderfully by Margaret Hamilton of Wicked Witch of the West fame and even called “a witch” several times in the film) and twelve of the unfortunate spirits they channeled are trapped in the house awaiting a thirteenth to free them.
The remake is very much in the spirit of the original. A father, Arthur Kriticos (played by the terrific Tony Shaloub) loses his wife and now cares for his two kids (one of whom is Shannon Elizabeth) along with his live-in housekeeper. His Uncle, Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham!) leaves him his house and the family moves in. Unbeknownst to them but “knownst” to us (to quote Mel Brooks) Cyrus used to hunt ghosts and trapped twelve of them in the house for nefarious purposes. The lawyer, Ben, is still there and plays a similar if minimized role. Hamilton’s character is split between Matthew Lillard’s Dennis Rafkin and Embeth Davidtz’s Kalina Oretzia who hunted ghosts with Cyrus. Here the ghosts are part of a grand evil scheme of Cyrus’, but are still prisoners in the house waiting to be freed by a thirteenth ghost. It’s a clever way to update the story and stay true to the original.
The ghosts in the original aren’t all as well defined but the effects on them work well to make them eerie, especially for the time. We know of a hanging ghost, an executioner, a lion and his tamer, a skeleton, an Italian chef, and eventually Zorba himself. The film effects used by theater-experience pioneer William Castle made for pretty good ghosts, even if the effects were rudimentary even for their time (yes at one point you can even see the strings on a fly!) The ghost footage is used and reused but it’s so interesting it catches the eye every time. Character reactions range from fear (the older sibling Medea is threatened and the father is afraid) to indifferent fun (Bucky actually enjoys their antics sometimes) but at their scariest you can see how well even low-budget effects can work when used correctly. In this film the thirteenth ghost is created by Ben, when the ghost of Zorba attains his vengeance on the lawyer for murdering him and prevents him from killing Bucky to claim the treasure for himself, thus freeing the ghosts but Elaine later reveals they will be back…but not in an ominous manner.
In the remake the ghosts have a defined purpose in the “Black Zodiac” and the house is a machine “designed by the devil and powered by the dead” from plans by an astrologer name Basileus used to open a portal to hell granting the machine’s master powers. What’s interesting about these ghosts is their design, each is appropriately gruesome with great names, “The First Born Son, the Torso, The Bound Woman, The Withered Lover, The Torn Prince, The Angry Princess, The Pilgrimess, The Great Child & Dire Mother, The Hammer, The Jackal (who is GREAT), and the Juggernaut,” with Arthur representing the thirteenth ghost created out of an act of pure love. Instead, the machine is thwarted and the ghosts captured by Cyrus (who is revealed to be alive!) turn on him and are freed from captivity. The design of the house is a little more out-of-reality but is still very creative and the use of glass and sealing spells adds even more to the looks unique look. The entire mythology created around these ghosts is terrific and it builds up to a fantastic conclusion.
What Makes them Work?
Both movies mix horror, humor, and mystery together in perfect doses. The 1960 version is a goofier film, both in some of its characters and its production values, but it is still very enjoyable. It’s not perfect but highly entertaining and like the original Dark Shadows TV show is charming and loveable for its William Castle cheesiness and skinflint budget. The story is still pretty solid and it even has a moderately positive ending. The remake is less “goofy” but is still silly and has some downright laugh-out-loud portions and a winking style that makes the audience know they aren’t taking it seriously while still playing it straight. It also holds its story together well with excellent characters and also a positive ending, rare in modern horror.
Is surprisingly a TIE. I enjoyed both equally but differently, the original appealing to the simplistic ghost story lover in me, the remake to my modern, slick horror cravings. Neither strive to be cinematic classics or masterpieces but both are highly entertaining and make for terrific, ghostly viewing.