2021 has been a bad, weird year full of dumb, inexplicable behavior, so let’s cap it off by watching a bad movie full of gratuitous weirdness and dumb, inexplicable behavior–but which uses that to kill a lot fewer people and, unlike 2021, makes it all sort of fun.
2001’s Thirteen Ghosts is a remake of a William Castle film, and I think Castle–who loved a good gimmick–would be fine with the fact that what it really feels like is an adaptation of a subpar horror RPG.
Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub, lending the movie a touch of class it doesn’t deserve) is a downtrodden widower and father of two. He’s struggling to make ends meet, but apparently it doesn’t occur to him that his daughter–played by Shannon Elizabeth, then in her late 20s–and roughly middle-school-aged son don’t actually need a full-time live-in nanny. I’m not sure if this is Hollywood not understanding how realistic financial situations work or just the laziest possible way to shoehorn in Rah Digga as a weak source of comedic relief, but either way, it’s a bad choice. Anyway, Arthur gets an unexpected windfall when he inherits an elaborate house from his Uncle Cyrus, who, like all Uncles Cyri, was a sinister devotee of the occult. The house–made up of glass walls inscribed with spells and with a labyrinthine ghost prison in the basement–is really just a way to fulfill some very specific dark magic.
It doesn’t matter, honestly. What matters is that Arthur and Co. have to spend most of the movie’s runtime walking around a gleaming triumph of production design, regularly running into ghosts with lovingly crafted aesthetics and surprisingly elaborate backstories. It exists to look cool, and it doesn’t look that cool–but it’s so earnestly over-the-top that it’s somehow endearing, probably because there’s a horror geek enthusiasm here that makes up for a lack of quality. As glossy as it looks, it has a rambling, amateurish quality to its worldbuilding–if you feel like you might like sitting around while a DM shows you some maps and elaborate ghost character sheets, this movie is for you.
The other thing that makes the movie sort of enjoyable is Matthew Lillard. Shalhoub is a better actor, but he’s not better for the material–understandably enough, he always seems faintly embarrassed to be there. Lillard finds the right (if sometimes grating) blend of camp, post-Scream cheekiness, and actual pathos, and his beleaguered, morally compromised psychic is the only character who has anything close to an actual arc. F. Murray Abraham snags a second-place MVP slot by going gratifyingly over-the-top as Evil Uncle Cyrus. Almost everyone else is either mediocre or nearly unwatchable.
Thirteen Ghosts falls into the very specific category of a bad movie that nevertheless gets fondly remembered, and it deserves its cult following. I’ve seen it more times than I’d care to admit. And if you want to use it to bid farewell to 2021, it’s currently on Netflix.