Exceptions to the Rule: The Beautiful Bombast of THIR13EN GHOSTS
Why is it that horror from the early aughts is often memorialized with negativity? Have we become too prude to appreciate how much studios like Warner Brothers were willing to spend on insane-in-the-reanimated-membrane concepts? At the expense of sounding like a cliché, they don’t make ‘em like they used to and Thir13en Ghosts is the shining 2001 diamond in a misremembered “rough patch.” The extravagance, the 00s alt-rock anthems, the investment in practical applications wherever professionally possible; how can anyone reconnect with this ludicrous occult labyrinth and wish we skipped over such an enthusiastic period in horror history?
Thir13en Ghosts has all the charms of Jurassic Park with ghost “attractions,” albeit swapping admission tickets for the selfishness of peering into the “Ocularis Infernum” (Eye Of Hell). Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) is the film’s John Hammond, chastised for playing god before the first corpse appears. An opening scene involving ghost capture gone awry plays out like Jophery Brown’s death in the raptor containment unit as psychic Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) bangs against enchanted glass while “The Juggernaut” mutilates his victim inside. Hell, even the lawyer gets violently murdered. It’s with this fanatical charm that Thir13en Ghosts lays an outrageous foundation that hinges on Arthur Kriticos’ (Tony Shalhoub) doomed family when the too-good-to-be-true “park” (Kriticos’ estate) unleashes its monsters from cages.
For Thir13en Ghosts to succeed, director Steve Beck needed a devilish playground to scramble like a puzzle. The architecture of Cyrus’ mechanical prison is enough to gawk at, as twirling turbines (a rare utilization of CG) run on ghost essences to unlock underworldly powers. A transparent house of sliding glass panes marked with protection spells and damned symbols keeps reconfiguring to redirect inhabitants like some Halloween maze torture device.
Enter the Black Zodiac and Cyrus’ titular thirteen ghosts: the First Born Son, the Torso (played by a double amputee), the Bound Woman, the Withered Lover, the Torn Prince, the Angry Princess, the Pilgrimess, the Great Child and the Dire Mother, the Hammer, the Jackal, and the Juggernaut, each a collected soul that remains tortured in their eternality.
As Dennis first waltzes through Cyrus’ basement prison, the physical presence of each ghost emphasizes the laborious spectacle of prosthetic and cosmetic applications that summon evil through divine practical effects. It’s not just gratuitous deaths that impress — though the scumbag suit who’s halved horizontally by a door panel, each piece sliding down independently, is a treat — but the unshakable to nauseating creation of living nightmares. We can’t expect anything less from a team including Robert Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero.
There’s a reason why horror fans argue over their most cherished Black Zodiac member, from the Jackal’s hysterical cackle screeching from behind busted metal headgear to the Juggernaut’s bullet-riddled jailhouse Lurch. I’d reckon nine out of ten fans can picture the Angry Princess (Shawna Loyer), covered in gashes with her knife in a plunge-ready position. How many contemporary genre ventures suffer from homogenous hordes of copy-and-paste zombies or blurry spiritual figures who barely get enough screen time to shine? Thir13en Ghosts ensures each paranormal inmate could be a FANGORIA centerfold, cementing the visual legacy of a production that relegates animation anywhere but character design out of respect for the genre and those who paved the way without digitization.
I’m not arguing Thir13en Ghosts is perfect. Still, I will nostalgically gush over a brand of extra-as-heck horror that introspectively chuckles without becoming an overindulgent meta-comedy mess. Dennis spastically recoils when the Hammer bashes against the barrier he’s face-to-face with as only Matthew Lillard could — with too much spitty, hyper expression. Shouting “I HATE IT WHEN THEY DO THAT” works because you can laugh at jump scares without literally turning and winking at the camera.
It’s the kind of film where Tony Shalhoub can heroically brave certain death for his children one minute, while Rah Digga plays DJ distraction with Cyrus’ switchboard the next — record scratches included — because that was the ‘00s, baby. Insert intense family dramas, blast some nu-metal, and engage the gorehounds calling for spilled blood at the same time. You didn’t have to elevate or mock or prove you’ve seen more horror movies than the entire audience combined. Horror was just horror, and that simplicity of effects-driven masterclasses mixed with heartfelt, hellacious desires makes Thir13en Ghosts the purest strain of genre enlightenment — no magic glasses required to see this truth.
Matt Donato is a freelance writer who stays up too late typing words for such outlets as /Film, Collider, Bloody Disgusting, and What To Watch. You can follow his work on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.