It's been years since Thir13en Ghosts hit theaters, and while it didn't get much love from critics at the time, it's since become something of a cult classic among horror fans.
Steve Beck's 2001 Thirteen Ghosts remake of William Castle's 13 Ghosts (1960) makes its predecessor look like a children's movie. It stars Tony Shaloub, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, and some of the coolest ghosts and set design work that horror cinema has yet delivered. No matter what you might've thought when you saw it on VHS two decades ago, it still holds up to this day.
Though a 13th ghost does eventually show up in the film, the action mainly centers around 12 of the intimidating specters. Each ghost corresponds to one of the twelve signs of the Black Zodiac, the normal zodiac's evil counterpart. It is by collecting 12 ghosts who fulfill the various roles of the Black Zodiac that ghost hunter Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) hopes to power his evil machine - the house in which the film is set.
The first ghost in the Black Zodiac is the First Born Son, a little boy named Billy Michaels who was obsessed with Westerns. Next is the Torso (played by actor Daniel Wesley, a double amputee), a literal human torso that walks around wrapped in plastic. He's actually the remains of a gambler named Jimmy Gambino who angered a mob boss. Harold and Margaret (AKA the Great Child and the Dire Mother) were members of a circus that terribly mistreated them.
The remaining ghosts all have equally gruesome and tragic backstories, and are represented in the Black Zodiac as the Bound Woman, the Withered Lover, the Torn Prince, the Angry Princess, the Pilgrimess, the Hammer, the Jackal, and the Juggernaut.
No matter what role he's given, Matthew Lillard always plays it to the hilt. In Thirteen Ghosts, Lillard's Dennis Rafkin is the main comic relief: a ghost-hunting psychic who freaks out from the first second he appears on screen.
Rafkin has a seizure every time he sees or feels a ghost (which happens a lot during the film) and the actor spends a good part of the film whimpering and even drooling. His performance - which includes one-liners like, "I sure as hell hope I don't bleed to death; that would suck," and, "I used to hunt displaced spiritual energy with your uncle," carries what would be an otherwise way-too-serious film.
And yet Rafkin is also a highly sympathetic character. Because Lillard gives so much to his performance, you really believe that he's been living with this terrible "gift" all his life.
Even without any proper knowledge of how films are made, one can still assume it's pretty hard to build a mansion entirely out of glass on a $20 million budget. But the design, in addition to making for a unique haunted house adventure, actually serves as a major plot point. The Latin inscribed on the glass walls serve as magical seals against the dangerous ghosts. When the walls start moving, the ghosts can roam through different areas of the house.
Instead of a standard two-story mansion, Basileus's Machine is constructed to resemble a big clock-like apparatus, with the basement containing a central core of mechanical gears and rotating rings. Literally and figuratively, the movie's plot involves a ticking clock, as the mansion's evil purpose kicks into gear once the Kriticos family is sealed inside.
The house is a labyrinth made entirely of glass, and the walls are constantly shifting. The set design used a gear-driven pulley system that would change the position of the glass walls at different intervals. Because of this, both the audience and the characters face the same dilemma: It's hard to tell which ghost is behind which glass panel or when said panel will shift and release one of the ghosts.
To add to the anxiety, the characters don't know when a ghost is near unless they're wearing the special "spectral viewers."