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Whew! Now that Uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham) is dead, everything's starting to look up.
Don't take that the wrong way, though. There's nothing the least bit heartless or mercenary about Cyrus' nephew Arthur (Tony Shalhoub), who barely even knew the guy, and his kids Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts) didn't even know they had an uncle. But still, the family's suffered all sorts of loss in recent years. Their old house went up in flames, taking their mother/wife Jean (Kathryn Anderson) with it. Now flat broke and mired in debt, the surviving members of the Kriticos family are barely scraping by in a cramped, dingy apartment. They're so overjoyed at the prospect of high-tailing it out of Dodge that they're not the least bit bothered that what they've inherited is a colossal glass house smack dab in the middle of nowhere. There's zero privacy, and I don't even wanna guess what the bathroom situation is like. Sleeping in on sunny summer mornings isn't all that much of an option. There's all sorts of eerie Latin writing on every wall and floor. Oh! And then there are the tenants downstairs that the late Cyrus' sleazy lawyer (JR Bourne) never quite got around to mentioning:
You know, I'm starting to think that Uncle Cyrus wasn't bequeathing his life work to his nephew out of the goodness of his heart but that this is instead the next phase of some unspeakably nefarious scheme...!
On paper, anyway, I ought to love the hell out of Thir13en Ghosts. I caught Dark Castle's previous production, House on Haunted Hill, six times theatrically – a record I haven't come close to rivaling a couple decades on. The broad strokes of their sophomore outing are pretty much the same too. A broke group of folks are enticed by an eccentric millionaire to visit an unusual, hopelessly remote, sprawling estate that turns out to be haunted. There's a similar lockdown sequence, with heavy metal shutters slamming down over every conceivable exit. Not everyone trapped inside is who they make themselves out to be. Matthew Lillard takes on the Pritchett role this time around – the guy who knows more about the house's most sordid details than he wishes he did, guiding the other 'guests' as best he can even though he just wants to grab his money and get the hell outta there. Hey, if this whole thing worked once...!
Thir13en Ghosts benefits further from jaw-dropping production design. The house is an astonishing sight to behold, as virtually every surface is thick glass covered in immediately unnerving script. There's just about always something gorgeous to gawk at in the frame, whether it's Cyrus' seemingly endless collection of artifacts or the concentric metallic circles at the heart of his creation. Thir13en Ghosts doesn't settle for a series of non-descript spooks; even if we learn little about them in the film proper, an enormous amount of thought and creativity has clearly been invested in making every last one of them distinctive and memorable.
And the cast...! You don't need me to sing the praises of Tony Shalhoub and F. Murray Abraham, but I'd be happy to if you want. Matthew Lillard's manic energy makes for a terrific comic relief-slash-expositive tour guide in ghost whisperer Dennis Rafkin. I can't get enough of Alec Roberts' demented glee as a wittle kid with kinda morbid interests. Shannon Elizabeth does a marvelous job selling that wide-eyed excitement and blissful unawareness of what's soon to come. And while I neglected to mention People for the Ethical Treatment of Apparitions' Kalina Oretzia in the plot synopsis above – and no, that's not the actual name of the group she represents – it's always a good thing when the supporting cast includes the likes of Army of Darkness' Embeth Davidtz.
The tragedy of Thir13en Ghosts is that there are all these individually extraordinary elements and the making of something that oughtta be an instant Halloween classic, and none of it really comes together. I mean, it's little wonder that House on Haunted Hill opened with an extended jaunt on the Incredible Hulk Coaster because what followed pretty much was a rollercoaster ride. Alas, there's not really any of that same sense of fun or spookhouse thrills this time around.
We as the audience know on some level that no one in the family is going to suffer some nightmarishly grisly fate, and...well, that's the bulk of the living, breathing cast. There aren't a bunch of disposable red shirts to knock off every ten minutes. Too few of the ghosts are given standout, showcase moments. As much as I like the actors behind 'em, I don't really feel any emotional investment in the Kriticos clan or their plight. Besides, can you really be that broke if you have a friggin' live-in, full-time nanny? Rah Digga's Maggie feels awkwardly stapled on to infuse a little more color into the cast, muttering one audience-pandering swing and a miss one-liner after another. And at no point is there any danger of giving a shit about the plot, which the movie itself doesn't, really. Even with as much as I'm awestruck by the design of this glass house, Thir13en Ghosts never really offers a meaningful sense of the size or scale of the place.
I get that Thir13en Ghosts has a rabid fanbase, and pretty much everyone I follow on Horror Twitter is losing their minds with excitement over Scream Factory's long-awaited special edition. And I guess I have warmed to it at least a bit over the years, with my active distaste for the flick mellowing to more of an indifferent shrug. But unless you already know and love Thir13en Ghosts, I wouldn't really recommend shelling out $25-$30 for this collector's edition sight-unseen. Rent It / Stream It first.
I've gotten so used to seeing "NEW 2K Scan of Original Film Elements" and "NEW 4K Film Scan from the Original Negative" in Scream Factory's announcements anymore that I completely overlooked that they didn't boast the same about Thir13en Ghosts. And, well, that tracks, 'cause this is pretty unmistakably not a new scan. The 1.85:1 image is disappointingly soft and flat. Its colors don't pack a meaningfully more substantial wallop than the nearly twenty year old DVD. Grain is chunky and indistinct. There's not a whole lot in the way of fine detail. I mean, it's a noticeable refinement compared to that DVD from way back in 2002:
...but, despite being crisper and more detailed by comparison, this disc still very much looks like a relic from another era. Thir13en Ghosts was finished on film rather than doing the whole digital intermediate thing, so there's nothing standing in the way of a fresh scan aside from Warner's willingness to do it. And I assume that's the roadblock, and that the decision to shrug off a remaster was out of Scream Factory's hands. To be fair, they've done the best they could with the materials provided; Scream Factory has just about maxed out the capacity of this BD-50 disc, with the AVC encode of the film itself spanning both layers. At least I'm not left with any concerns about compression artifacts or the like.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not frothing at the mouth over here about what a dire, indefensibly dreadful presentation this is. Despite being sourced from what certainly appears to be a nearly twenty year old master, Thir13en Ghosts still looks okay in high-def. There are some discs where a lackluster presentation actively gets in the way of the experience, and that's not at all the case here. But it is disappointing, especially when Thir13en Ghosts packs the same price tag as the newly-remastered likes of House on Haunted Hill. Watchable, sure, but I was hoping for a lot more than that.
Thir13en Ghosts piles on a pair of 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks – the first in 5.1 and the other in straightahead stereo. And just about from word one, the lossless, six-channel audio is every bit as aggressive as you'd hope to hear. Bass hits like a sledgehammer, and not just...y'know, when there's a literal sledgehammer being flung around. Imaging is exceptional, with an extremely strong sense of separation across channels. And I can't get over how immersive the sound design is, between haunting moans, the panels of the house slamming themselves shut and relentlessly shifting around, the violently whirring gears at the heart of Basileus' Machine, and the staggering amount of havoc wrought by the undead. From the stacks of wrecked cars tumbling over throughout the opening sequence to the destruction that defines Thir13en Ghosts' final moments, this is so often a world-class soundtrack and undoubtedly a disc I'd reach for to show off my home theater rig.
And yet despite that glorious everything-louder-than-everything-else bombast, a few critical elements don't shine nearly as brightly. Sound effects are prioritized over John Frizzell's score, and there are some frenzied sequences where I'd expect the music to snarl and thunder, only...no, not so much. The score itself is fantastic but at times too diminished in the mix to wield the impact I was hoping to hear. Readily discerned though the dialogue is, it still sounds rather meek to my ears. It's better balanced on the stereo mix, but in 5.1, dialogue is dialed down a good bit more than I would've expected, and there's something kinda thin and tinny about it besides. Here's one example of what a dialogue-heavy sequence sounds like, downmixed to stereo:
There's also a flicker of distortion to Bobby's "you guys, I'm gonna tell Dad!" right at the forty minute mark on both soundtracks, although I didn't spot anything else like that. But anyway, it's a bit frustrating the audio gets so much right, and yet it doesn't quite stick the landing with dialogue and, at least at times, with the score.
Also along for the ride are two commentaries and a set of optional English (SDH) subs.
Aside from the text-based extras and the music video for Tricky's "Excess", all of the special features from the nearly twenty year old DVD have been carried over, along with quite a few newly-produced and never-before-seen bells and whistles. Still no deleted scenes, though, alas.
- Audio Commentaries: Thir13en Ghosts' new commentary with director Steve Beck was recorded during the current pandemic, so it's not the most traditional track. It's not a screen-specific commentary so much as a feature-length interview with Justin Beahm, and the nature of the recording – conducted over Skype or the like – leaves Beck's end sounding rough around the edges.
Beahm is a gifted interviewer and asks plenty of terrific questions, among them Beck's role in building up ILM's art department, how the director first got into the VFX industry, and his other film – also for Dark Castle, and also coming soon to Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory – Ghost Ship. To rattle off just a few of the many other highlights, Beck discusses building what's essentially a skyscaper of glass and steel inside a soundstage, the casting process not being perhaps what most would expect, their VFX budget going down the tubes when Manex went out of business in the middle of production, that prequels were at one point considered for some of the film's ghosts, the struggle to get Matthew Lillard to speak some days, F. Murray Abraham looping his dialogue with his pants down, and Rah Digga accidentally blasting Abraham in the eye with some shrapnel from a flare. In the running as my favorite of the disc's many extras.
The second commentary is a holdover from the 2002 DVD, with Beck joined by production designer Sean Hargreaves and special makeup effects artist Howard Berger. This archival track sounds as if it's been pieced together from several recording sessions, which admittedly isn't my preferred approach. This was also the last of the disc's extras that I reviewed, and by that point of such a hefty special edition, I felt as if I'd heard pretty much all these stories already. There is some new stuff in here – Matthew Lillard's character perhaps originally having been written with an actor of color in mind, visual flourishes on the ghosts that you might not have noticed the first time around, several significant differences between early drafts and the shooting script, a bit more details on the discarded ending, and a far more graphic head-squashing that was shot but went unused – but you'll have to trudge through a lot of familiar territory to get there.
- Haunted in Canada (10 min.; HD): The first of the disc's five new interviews is this exceptionally charming conversation with Shannon Elizabeth. On the docket here are her not-altogether-successful attempts at bonding with Joel Silver over Xanadu, rewriting parts of the screenplay with Tony Shaloub on flights to and from Vancouver, some chaotic crashes with a Steadicam during the frenzied Jackal assault, how wonderfully surreal it was to just hang out with the ghosts in full makeup between shots, and, despite her longtime love of horror, the terror routinely following Elizabeth to her apartment after filming would wrap for the night.
- The Voice of Reason (15 min.; HD): Okay, okay, Damon may not have survived past a single scene, but damned if Matthew Harrison doesn't deliver the best of Thir13en Ghosts' interviews just the same. The pressure that comes with realizing you're saying the title of the movie, ensuring that you'll be immortalized in trailers and TV spots! Figuring out what to do with direction about "supercilious insouciance"! Thinking that Matthew Lillard is insulting you with all sorts of loudly shouted obscenities, only to realize that he's just hyping himself up! Having fake blood spill out all over your crotch outside in -20°C temperatures! Along with being a hell of a storyteller, Harrison also offers some insight into the character of Damon and what makes him stand out in a movie with so much betrayal, deception, and manipulation.
- The Juggernaut Speaks (13 min.; HD): I loved hearing John DeSantis talk about getting his start in acting and what a seasoned professional he was by the time he took the mantle of the Juggernaut here. After showing off a cast of his head with the Juggernaut prosthetics glued on and painted – still looking incredible all these years later – DeSantis chats about the origins of this mass murderer from beyond the grave, stuntwork, their reshoot day happening to fall on 9/11, and, standing a towering 6'9" and practically blinded by occluded contact lenses, accidentally stepping on Matthew Lillard during a standout clash. With the life and career that DeSantis has had, I could listen to him all day.
- The Hammer Speaks (6 min.; HD): Herbert Duncanson talks about taking over the role of The Hammer after the first actor flaked, as well as briefly touching on the ghost's backstory, the grueling hours of makeup, set design, working with director Steve Beck, and his introduction to stuntwork. It's pleasant enough a conversation but the least essential of the disc's five interviews.
- Sophomore Spookshow (8 min.; HD): After charting the rise of Dark Castle Entertainment, producer Gilbert Adler touches on the emphasis on characterization, Thir13en Ghosts' production and set design, the challenges the sheer volume of glass posed to the cinematography, and the healthy conflict-slash-collaboration with director Steve Beck. The standout note to me is that the Latin lettering on the glass was mostly there so people wouldn't walk into it.
- Thir13en Ghosts Revealed (19 min.; SD): This archival making-of featurette covers an enormous amount of ground in less than twenty minutes: updating the original concept of William Castle's film for a modern-day audience, the process of bringing this baker's dozen of ghosts to life (errr, so to speak), the disinterest in settling for a conventional haunted house, the challenges of shooting in this three-dimensional glass maze, and a peek at several critical visual effects coming together. It's appreciated that the emphasis is placed as heavily on why some of these choices were made – such as the importance of fleshing these ghosts out with backstories and maintaining a physical presence on the set – rather than simply explaining how they were executed.
- Ghost Files (14 min.; SD): F. Murray Abraham – in-character as Cyrus! – shows off artifacts associated with each of the twelve spirits he'd captured. Back in the DVD era, you had to select each one of them individually, but this Blu-ray release skips past those sorts of headaches, instead playing all this footage consecutively. This includes an introduction to each ghost, complete with names, sizeable backstories, lightly animated artwork, and a bit of video, building out a mythology that goes largely unexplained in the film itself.
- Original EPK (43 min.; SD): The first half of this vintage electronic press kit is a Gatling gun barrage of soundbites from Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, Rah Digga, F. Murray Abraham, director Steve Beck, producer Joel Silver, production designer Sean Hargreaves, special makeup effects artist Howard Berger, and visual effects supervisor Dan Glass. The comments are deliberately quick and cursory, so don't expect any piercing insight. Lotsa spelling out who these characters are, recapping the plot, touching on what makes Thir13en Ghosts unique: y'know, stuff that's really meant for people who haven't actually seen the movie yet. The best comments come near the end, as Hargreaves mentions that bridge welders were brought in to help construct the house and Glass delves into the challenges of recreating all those layers of transparent, reflective surfaces in the digital domain.
The second half is twentysomeodd minutes of fly-on-the-wall behind the scenes footage, documenting many of Thir13en Ghosts' key setpieces as well as its visual effects, makeup effects, and even conceptual art. Its cameras also walk through the glass house set and show off the attention to detail in the film's production design.
- Trailer & TV Spots (5 min.; SD): Last to bat are a trailer and a reel of something like seven TV spots.
Thir13en Ghosts does, of course, come packaged in a slipcover. If you're not wild about Joel Robinson's new artwork, the interior cover reverses to reveal the art from the original one-sheet.
The Final Word
If you're a longtime Dark Castle fanatic, the smart money says that you'll be bowled over the wealth of extras here – well over five hours' worth, most of which is either brand new or has never before been released on disc. Thir13en Ghosts is a tougher sell if you're not so much one for special features or if you hadn't ever gotten around to watching the movie before. This disc surely shares the same dated master as the House of Wax double feature that was routinely under ten bucks on Amazon for years, and Thir13en Ghosts itself ranks somewhere down there with The Reaping as my least favorite of the Dark Castle flicks that I've seen.
Since Thir13en Ghosts would be difficult to recommend sight-unseen even under the best of circumstances – and, with a sub-par visual presentation like this, the best of circumstances aren't on the menu – I have to say Rent It / Stream It to anyone who's on the fence.