13 Ghosts starts in a car graveyard, which, to the modern mind, is much spookier than a people graveyard. Like, imagine the haunted Impalas and Gremlins and K-cars. Very scary! Into the car graveyard swaggers F. Murray Abraham, who looks around, wonders what he's doing in a cheesy horror movie, and then dives into the role like he's the reincarnated Vincent Price, only somewhat less gay.
F. Murray (as his friends call him) plays Cyrus, an adventurer who goes around enslaving ghosts. We know he does this because he is immediately confronted by a woman who shouts at him, "What you're doing is wrong! You're enslaving ghosts!" Or something like that. Anyway, as she gets all supernaturally politically correct in his face, the ghost he's trying to enslave goes on a zany, madcap killing spree, just like all the ghosts in the old Scooby Doo cartoons used to do, you know, with the decapitating and crushing people beneath cars and the spewing forth of human innards.
This seems to upset Cyrus' accomplice, a deranged young man named Rafkin. Rafkin is played by a deranged young man named Matthew Lillard, whose rubber-faced antics have either been delightful or incredibly annoying in such films as Scream, She's All That and, of course, the unforgettable Ghoulies 3: Ghoulies Go to College, in which the Ghoulies actually go to college. Lillard is essentially the mutant love child of Jerry Lewis and Gumby, although on the plus side he did seem to get Gumby's intelligence.
Lillard's Rafkin is a psychic who can sense the presence of ghosts. Ghosts give him horrible headaches and make him blow a lot of mucous out of his mouth and nose, which is not exactly a pretty sight, but hey, this is a horror film. Anyway, as Rafkin watches in terror, Cyrus gets killed by the big bad ghost, thus ending his dream of collecting 13 ghosts for some unknown, but no doubt malevolent, purpose.
Or it might just be a diabolical purpose. No, wait, I think it was an infernal purpose. In any event, Cyrus' estate devolves upon his nephew Arthur, who's played by Tony Shalhoub, one of the most versatile and talented actors in Hollywood. Shalhoub doesn't exactly get to show off his thespian range here, as this is your basic horror film, but still, his presence in a movie is kind of like having a Glock Nine in your pocket: You just feel more secure knowing it's there.
Anyway, poor Arthur has lost his wife and most of his money in a fire, and now he's barely scraping by, trying to take care of his annoying 8-year-old son, Bobby, and his supernaturally beautiful daughter, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth). In a swipe from the old Jeffersons TV show, he also has a sassy, wise-cracking maid working for him who's a terrible cook and can barely keep track of the kids she's supposed to be watching. Because, of course, one never hires household help based on housekeeping skills, but rather on the quality of their zany back-talk.
So Arthur, his daughter, son and maid get a visit from a slimy lawyer who shows them a computer video presentation of dead Cyrus, shot against a background of creepy occult symbols, offering them his home. You can almost hear him cackling maniacally as he says, "I'm sure you'll enjoy living there for a very long time!!!!"
It turns out, though, that when they get to the house, it's haunted. By ghosts! Probably somewhere between 12 and 14 ghosts; I'm not sure, I didn't count, but definitely in that region.
The ghosts are really super cool. You can only see them when you look through special ghost glasses, so sometimes the camera will dip low, swing through a pair of ghost glasses, and then show the room from the supernatural perspective. This is really a great effect. First-time director Steve Beck had previously worked as a visual effects man, and it shows, as 13 Ghosts is all cool eye candy.
Some of the best visuals are in the form of Cyrus' house, which is made entirely of glass and brass, and which rotates and changes shape within itself. It's like a giant astronomical model done up in gothic creepy and powered by, yes, evil.
As the family makes the ever-popular move of splitting up while in the haunted house, the house seals itself up automatically and traps them inside. Then there's lots of blood and people getting squashed and some kissing. Eerie!
13 Ghosts is not exactly Howard's End, but it is reasonably fun, if only for the visuals. I should point out that, while this is the first movie I've ever seen that proudly promoted its R rating by announcing in an excited tone, "Rated R for horror, violence, gore and nudity!!!" that there is, in fact, no actual nudity, so all you Shannon Elizabeth fans who were thinking that this would be another of her trademark topless roles, well, sorry to disappoint. On the other hand, there is plenty of horror and violence and gore, and also, about a dozen ghosts, give or take.