You know you’re in trouble when a movie’s stylized title (Thir13en Ghosts) hurts your brain to process. Most of what follows is cacophonous and incoherent to the point of distraction. Like a Vegas casino, the plot of this film seems designed to get you lost: It takes place within a haunted house, where its walls and windows are constantly shifting, and the rules to defeat its horror only grow more confusing as the film goes along. As my mind drifted into deep space, I could only think of the time I walked in circles at the Cosmopolitan, passing the same Willy Wonka slot machines over and over. At least in that case, I had some hope for a payoff.
A loose remake of the 1960 classic, the film begins, appropriately, in a sprawling junkyard. Grimy raindrops pelt the rusted husks of crunchy cars. It’s an ugly, indecipherable way to kick off the movie: If you’re like me, you’ll spend a lot of time squinting and shrugging. As best I can tell, an arrogant ghost hunter named Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) has assembled a team to catch the Juggernaut, a sadistic spirit. Cyrus deploys a blathering medium (Matthew Lillard) to help sense the monster and track him down. Predictably, shit smacks right into the fan, and a murderous rampage ensues.
Next, we cut to the main plot, which is both more sensible and infinitely more boring: Arthur (Tony Shalhoub), Cyrus’ widower nephew, desperately tries to keep his family financially afloat. (Side note: The film helpfully explains how broke Arthur is by panning across an entire wall papered with past due and cutoff notices. Would anyone in real life actually decorate their house with letters from collection agencies, or is this just lazy screenwriting?) Anyway, Arthur struggles to raise two kids (Shannon Elizabeth and Alec Roberts), even though he has help from Maggie (Rah Digga), a live-in nanny. (Also, I’m not a financial guru, but if you’re drowning in debt, you miiiiiiiight wanna ditch the nanny. But that ain’t none of my beeswax, y’all.)
Wouldn’t ya know it? Cyrus bequeaths his psycho Scooby Doo mansion to Arthur and his scrappy kids! The family eagerly moves into their roomy new digs, ignoring the red flag that the place looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher, Tim Burton, and Norman Bates. Before long, it becomes clear that the family is trapped in a house filled with ghosts, and a nefarious, supernatural plot is unfolding before their very eyes. Eventually, a resourceful ghost hunter (Embeth Davidtz) and Cyrus’ squirrelly medium arrive to help, presumably because the movie needed a few more speaking characters.
Of course, the unfortunate reality is that this movie doesn’t need a few more anything. The filmmakers bludgeon the audience with gory violence, strobe-laden visuals, bewildering jump cuts, and shaky camera work. This onslaught has the same effect as getting thwacked over the head with a handbag filled with horse apples: Sure, it hurts for a while, but you’ll eventually grow numb and stop caring. About anything at all, really.
And that’s a damn shame, because Cyrus’ house is an impressive achievement. Production designer Sean Hargreaves delivers an astounding, steampunk nightmare that deserves to be showcased in a better movie. Ghosts had a hefty budget–Hollywood titans Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis get credit as producers–and it’s clear that most of those dolla dolla bills went into this incredible set design.
Fat paychecks must’ve also secured a talented cast. Shalhoub is an exquisite character actor, and he delivers every line of idiotic dialogue with the conviction of a true professional. Abraham–an Oscar-winner, Jerry, an Oscar-winner–devours the scenery in a big, campy performance that infuses the film with a rare burst of liveliness. On the flip side, Lillard overacts with such a haywire frenzy that he makes William Shatner look like James Mason. A little less of his sweaty, histrionic character would’ve been a big plus for the whole movie.
Basically, Thir13en Ghosts is a big ol’ mess to behold. Its narrative is jumbled, the dialogue is ragged, and the visuals require a Dramamine patch. Ghosts may have a few strengths, but they get eclipsed by its flaws. If you want to cozy up to a scary movie, there are many better options than this.
91 mins. R. HBOMax.