Robert Zemeckis’ inexplicable drive to revisit the films of William Castle continues unabated. The late director’s laughable thrillers from the fifties and sixties, with their ghastly scripts, inept acting and slovenly production, were instant camp, and it seems a fool’s errand to resurrect them in new, expensive dress for modern audiences. But that hasn’t stopped Zemeckis. First he made “What Lies Beneath,” about as complete a homage to Castle’s output as could be devised. Then he co-produced last year’s terrible juiced-up remake of “House on Haunted Hill.” And now he and his cohorts offer a refashioning of an even worse Castle effort. (The 1958 “House,” with Vincent Price, was hilariously awful, but the 1960 “Ghosts,” with Charles Herbert, was virtually unwatchable.) Of course, Zemeckis has always had a soft spot for grisly junk: he was one of the brains behind the “Tales from the Crypt” TV series and spinoff features, after all. In that context the devotion that he, Joel Silver and Gilbert Adler have shown to Castle’s memory is perhaps understandable.
But that doesn’t make it any more forgivable. The 2000 “House” was a wretched movie, and this new one–released for the Halloween trade–is at least as bad. The utter childishness of the original has been jettisoned, of course, in favor of a thrill-ride atmosphere larded with flashy special effects, but the outcome is no more enjoyable. All that’s retained is the basic premise of an impecunious family inheriting the home of a crazy uncle who spent his time collecting wraiths. In this version, however, the abode isn’t a “Psycho”-style creaky old mansion, but a futuristic-looking edifice which encloses a maze of glass corridors whose walls are covered with Latin spells to entrap spirits, along with a huge machine that shifts the interior panels periodically in accordance, we learn, with a series of utterances in a Satanically-inspired book dating from the fifteenth century. This description alone should demonstrate that it’s just about impossible to decipher, to any degree, the plot, which is more labyrinthine and illogical than the house; suffice it to say that the story has something to do with the uncle’s plan to open “the eye of hell” (with “eye,” it should be noted, consistently mispronounced in Latin as “ocularis” rather than “oculus”) by imprisoning thirteen spirits, most of them grotesquely disfigured and violently homicidal, and using his nephew’s commitment to keep his kids from being harmed by them to complete the requirements of the old prophecy. (Why anybody should want to open the eye of hell is left unexplained–sheer nastiness, one supposes from the portrayal of old Uncle Cyrus presented here.)
Whatever the premise, much frantic idiocy results from it. This “Thirteen Ghosts” is essentially an extended chase movie, in which the various Kriticos family members–dad Arthur (Tony Shalhoub), daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and tyke Bobby (Alec Roberts), along with wise- crackling housekeeper Maggie (Rah Digga), sleazy lawyer Ben Moss (JR Bourne), wacko psychic and former ghost-hunter Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) and self-described spirit protector Kalina (Embeth Dadidtz)–run about the Kriticos house for ninety minutes periodically threatened by the assortment of ghouls trapped there, who appear in sudden flashes and sometimes stab or pummel the living whenever their ever-changing glass cells permit. Maybe all the rushing about would be more interesting if the geography of the mansion were made clear, or if the trek through it weren’t reminiscent of those chintzy old jungle movies in which the heroes kept walking past what were obviously the same rocks and trees. (The design of the corridors makes it look as though one small set had been constructed and then persistently rearranged to represent successive stages on the journey.) It would also help if there were any characters to care about. But Shalhoub makes a pallid father, Elizabeth an annoying daughter, and Roberts an obnoxious little brother. The only people who make impressions do so for entirely the wrong reasons: Davidtz, Bourne and Digga come on too strong, but even still they seem positively comatose beside Lillard and Abraham, two hambones who masticate the scenery so energetically that you wish they had the opportunity to swallow (and perhaps to choke on it). If there’s a worse actor than Lillard working in films today, one doesn’t want to encounter him; in his desperate search for laughs he’s become a “Spinal Tap” performer, with a range on the hysteria amplifier that goes only from ten to eleven. Abraham is a much sadder case; when we won an Oscar for “Amadeus” it seemed that he might have a career, but he proved congenitally incapable of understatement, and so has become fodder for direct-to-video rubbish and occasional big- screen bombs like this. First-time director Steve Beck certainly doesn’t rein either of them in; he does manage a couple of quick shocks, but mostly his film is more boring and unintentionally risible than frightening.
Lillard’s character, it should be noted, does deliver one line of dialogue that goes far to describe “Thirteen Ghosts.” Discussing the agony attendant to seizures he suffers when in the presence of spirits, he says, “Bad? That’s one way to describe it.” It’s a sentiment viewers can embrace with reference to the movie itself, which might cause them to writhe and squirm a bit, too. Zemeckis is currently preparing a remake of another of William Castle’s masterpieces, the ghoulish “Macabre” (1958). Lord preserve us!