"Thirteen Ghosts," its opening timed for Halloween, begins in a Chicago auto junkyard in the dead of night, where F. Murray Abraham's sinister Cyrus Kriticos and his zany yet distraught young psychic, Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) are doing a little spirit-chasing while the elegant Kalina (Embeth Davidtz) apparently means to free any spirits they manage to trap. If this sounds a bit vague, it is, but not to worry, for it is meant to be a suitably bravura prologue to all the thrills and chills to come in this sleek, gory remake of the 1960 William Castle original. Although not for the faint of heart, it's a potent--and very tricky--treat.
At the conclusion of this razzle-dazzle sequence, which ends badly for Kriticos, the setting switches to a cramped apartment, home of Kriticos' nephew Arthur (Tony Shalhoub). The middle-aged math teacher is struggling to hold himself and his family together in the aftermath of a terrible fire that destroyed their home and cost the life of his beloved wife, the mother of his teenage daughter, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and obstreperous younger son, Bobby (Alec Roberts). Their helper and Bobby's babysitter, Maggie (Rah Digga), isn't a triumph of efficiency but has plenty of spunk, a quality the Kriticos family sorely lacks. Naturally, the news that Arthur's Uncle Cyrus, whom he barely knows, has died and named Arthur his heir is cheering news, especially since Cyrus, described in the press as an "adventurer," was a man of wealth beyond Arthur's imagining with an estate in a remote wooded area some distance from the city.
The Kriticoses should, of course, instantly put it on the market, grab the money and run. No wonder they are fascinated with this unique structure, a kind of giant clockwork encased in glass and with sliding glass panels, all of which are inscribed with writing in Latin throughout. It is a triumph of mechanical and architectural design, its rooms elegantly appointed. The vast maze-like structure is fascinating but scarcely inviting.
Entering it is like stepping inside a machine--an infernal device as it turns out. Even if anyone in the group had recognized that the elaborate design of the floor in the structure's immense circular central reception hall is the Black Zodiac, a satanic inverse of the familiar astrological table, it would have been too late.
Written by Neal Marshall Stevens and Richard D'Ovidio from a story by Robb White and directed by Steve Beck for maximum tension, "Thirteen Ghosts" is in essence a classic haunted house story, given some terrifically ingenious and grisly twists, in which a decent family man, already afflicted with tragedy and loss, finds within himself the courage and selflessness to save his family from evil. Rafkin re-emerges, determined to try to help, and so does Kalina, offering counsel. But finally Arthur has primarily to rely upon himself, with a crucial assist from Maggie, a fearless and funny African American woman who wonders aloud about how she ever managed to get stuck in such a predicament with all these white folks.
What the film's title signifies won't be revealed here. It's enough to say that it's a superior horror picture, with co-producer Joel Silver's idea of a glass house a vivid contrast to the usual spooky Charles Addams Victorian mansion, an inspiration that takes the tale to a new level of complexity and implication with all that glass constantly reflecting upon itself, intensifying the family's confrontation with self and one another as well as the house's evil supernatural captives. Production designer Sean Hargreaves and his associates, including virtuoso cinematographer Gale Tattersall, have created one of the screen's most dazzling settings of the year--an enclosed world, actually--and the film's special effects team makes it come alive as the most intricate and sinister of mechanisms. Composer John Frizzell's score keeps the mood suitably ominous, along with some decidedly unsettling sound effects.
Abraham plays Cyrus with appropriate relish, while Shalhoub reveals the extraordinary hiding behind the perfectly ordinary facade of Arthur. Lillard's antic sense of humor and rapper Rah Digga's sass in her feature debut are especially welcome. Elizabeth and Roberts are completely believable young people, and Davidtz is suitably intense. JR Bourne is Cyrus' unctuous lawyer, who comes to a particularly imaginative, horrendous fate.
In the light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "Thirteen Ghosts" has some sequences that may disturb some people, but these are more than balanced by the dark humor and escapist horror as well as the unassuming heroism of Arthur.
MPAA rating: R, for horror violence/gore, nudity and some language. Times guidelines: The graphic film is especially unsuitable for youngsters as it involves images of a mother dying in a fire.
Tony Shalhoub: Arthur Kriticos
F. Murray Abraham: Cyrus Kriticos
Embeth Davidtz: Kalina
Matthew Lillard: Rafkin
Shannon Elizabeth: Kathy Kriticos
Rah Digga: Maggie<
A Warner Bros. Pictures and Columbia Pictures presentation of a Dark Castle Entertainment production. Director Steve Beck. Producers Gilbert Adler, Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis. Executive producers Dan Cracchiolo, Steve Richards. Screenplay Neal Marshall Stevens, Richard D'Ovidio. Cinematographer Gale Tattersall. Editors Edward A. Warschilka, Derek G. Brechin. Music John Frizzell. Production designer Sean Hargreaves. Visual effects supervisor Dan Glass. Special makeup effects by Howard Berger, Gregory Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman. Supervising art director Tim Beach. Art director Don Macauley. Set designers Sheila Miller, Mira Caveno, Andrew Lee, Eric Sundahl, Lynn Christopher. Set decorator Dominique Fauquet-Lemaitre. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun