A story in which a character named Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) is decapitated within the first three minutes grabs the immediate attention of a film reviewer.
There turns out to be an entire Kriticos family ripe for every kind of sadistic menacing in Thirteen Ghosts.
Actually, the implied malice meted out to critics pales in comparison to the later treatment of lawyers. A member of this profession finds himself sliced neatly in half, while in a nearby room another character asks: "Did the lawyer split?".
Thirteen Ghosts is a listless blend of horror, action and comedy. A remake of a little-known William Castle B movie from 1960, it tweaks the vogue for haunted house stories (handled superbly in The Others ) by adding a vein of self-parody familiar from the Scream series and overlaying an ambitious architectural design concept.
Most of the film takes place in a bizarre house whose rooms mechanically reconfigure themselves at regular intervals – an idea perhaps borrowed from the low budget, Canadian sci-fi movie Cube (1998).
Arthur (Tony Shalhoub) races around labyrinthine corridors trying to protect his children, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts), and their feisty minder, Maggie (Rah Digga), from a troupe of ugly ghosts – the most memorable of whom is a naked, disfigured, knife wielding teen known solemnly as The Angry Princess.
When Lev Manovich, a "digital theorist" from America, spoke at Cinemedia in Melbourne, he declared that narrative is "the most boring thing on the planet" and that only "spaces and environments" matter in the newest forms of art. Thirteen Ghosts is a perfect illustration of how futile this aesthetic preference for place over plot can be.
Director Steve Beck comes from a visual effects background, and he tries his hardest to make his debut film into a video game. As the characters fight their way from room to room and level to level, the mutilated corpses of humans and ghosts alike indifferently disappear in the blink of an eye.
Contemporary ghost tales, such as Ghosts of Mars (2001) and Thirteen Ghosts, display a warlike theme that chimes in rather eerily with current world events. While the crusading Kalina (Embeth Davidtz) rages around the house like an old leftie labouring to "liberate the ghosts", our heroes keep muttering that they are "behind enemy lines" and must dispense righteous justice accordingly.
Future cinema historians will have to pay attention to this banal exercise for one reason only – in the wake of David Fincher's Seven (1995), which is officially transcribed by pedants as Se7en because that is how it appears on screen, this movie pompously styles itself as Thir13en Ghosts.
MORE Beck: Ghost Ship
© Adrian Martin December 2001