Directed by Steve Beck
For some reason Hollywood titans Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, responsible for such mega-movies as The Matrix and Forrest Gump, thought it would be a good idea to create a production company dedicated to making horror movies.
That could be a good thing. But for their first releases, they've decided to mine the trough of bad William Castle movies and remake them with today's sensibilities (or lack thereof). As part of this endeavor, they treated us to House on Haunted Hill last Halloween.
Hey guys, chances are what was stupid and cheesy in the 1960s will also be stupid and cheesy in the new millennium. Even with state of the art computer-generated imagery.
The Black Zodiac
The story of Thirteen Ghosts goes like this: Rich Uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus) is obsessed with collecting ghosts and hopes to capture their evil power to rule the world. Or something like that.
Cyrus has this house, out in the middle of nowhere (naturally – this is, after all, a horror movie). In actuality, the house is one big machine. In order to bring it to life, 12 ghosts, representing the 12 signs of the Black Zodiac, need to be captured and taken home. (For those keeping track, the Black Zodiac is basically the devil's rendition of the astrological signs, trading in virtue for ill will.)
There's a loopy catch to all this, a kind of yin and yang thing, that requires the sacrifice of a good heart in order to balance out the pure evil of the dirty dozen.
For that, we have Cyrus' unsuspecting nephew, Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub, Men in Black). He's a down-on-his-luck math teacher coping with the loss of his wife in a house fire. He now lives in an apartment with his two kids, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth, American Pie) and Bobby (Alec Roberts, Traffic).
When Cyrus dies in a freak spook accident, Arthur is the lucky winner of his entire estate.
Taking a tour of the home, the family gawks at it likes it's something great. But it's a mighty darn difficult place to navigate and it seems like it would be an incredibly uncomfortable place to live, what with all the glass walls etched with spells to keep the mean ghosts away. Martha Stewart would lose weight salivating over all the possibilities for fixing the place up and making this house a home for the upscale suburbanites.
One of the hallmarks, as it were, of the original version was that audience members were given special glasses to see the spirits on screen, kinda like 3-D. No such novelty this time around. In this loud and overblown retelling of a forgotten original, only the movie's characters get to sport what amounts to magic Oakleys – or maybe those cheap goggles you wore back in high school chemistry class. Whatever. It's just another contrivance.
As for the ghosts, they seem to be ripped right out of some sort of David Fincher / Clive Barker-inspired hellhole and, via the house's mechanical workings (reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg concoction), they get released from their glass cells (located in the basement, of course) one by one to feed the house's spiritual hunger.
Yes. It is a very convoluted storyline. And, since it such a murky story, it's hard to be scared. Some incredibly gruesome moments splatter across the screen, but grotesque visuals don't equate to a truly scary experience.
A Man's Home is His Castle
At least the film doesn't take itself too seriously and there are some funny bits, mostly supplied by the dorky Rafkin (Matthew Lillard, She's All That). He's a pawn in Cyrus' nefarious plans and lends what amounts to a Scream-like commentary track with his humorous asides.
What is most horrifying about this exercise in the paranormal is the enormous amount of talent in front of and behind the camera, most of which goes to waste.
Mr. Abraham is actually quite good as the sinister Cyrus, but he's a far cry from his glory days as Salieri. His presence almost gives the movie a sense of credibility.
Embeth Davidtz (Schindler's List) does her best to bring some urgency to her character and proves to be a surprisingly diverse talent. As Kalina, an off-the-wall agent in the "spirit reclamation business," she jumps onto the screen loaded with emergency flares that, for some reason, freak out the ghosts. It's a shame her character wasn't put to better use.
And you can't help but think that Ms. Elizabeth might actually be a good actress, if only she'd be given a real role with which to work.
Going behind the camera, first-time feature film director Steve Beck does offer a solid visual style and he can get strong performances out of actors working with weak material. Having worked as a visual effects art director on the likes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it's a safe bet Beck will direct again, but hopefully with stronger material.
Then there are the producers, Mr. Zemeckis and Mr. Silver. My oh my. They are the new poster boys for slumming.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.