Sometimes They Come Back: ‘13 Ghosts’ (1960) vs ‘Thirteen Ghosts’ (2001)

Sometimes They Come Back is here to take a look at the horror genre and its love for remakes! We’ll be discussing both the original movie and its remake (sometimes multiple remakes) in detail before deciding who comes out on top! Are the originals always the best? Let’s find out!

13 Ghosts (1960)

13 Ghosts (1960) is the first film I’ve watched for this series that I’ve never actually seen before. As a teenager, I watched Thirteen Ghosts (2001) multiple times, without even realising it was a remake. This was probably because the original and the remake share very little in common, apart from the setup and the fact there are 13 ghosts at the centre of the story.

The movie opens with the director and producer, William Castle, explaining to the audience that if you want to view the ghosts in the movie, you will have to view them through a special viewfinder. Audience members have the option of looking through the believer’s section (which displays the ghosts) or the non-believer’s section (which hides the ghosts) of the viewfinder when the film changes colour to a dark blue instead of black and white. Now, the ‘Use Viewer’ instructions that pop up on the screen whenever a ghost is about to appear sort of ruin the tension, though you can view releases of the film which don’t have these instructions, though the screen would still change colour…so yeah, it’s hard to feel the fear.

After all that is said and done we meet our main character – Cyrus Zorba – who works at a museum and has a family that is in a massive amount of debt. While Cyrus is at work, his wife Hilda phones to tell him the debt collection agency have been round to repossess all their furniture, leaving them with an empty house and about two dollars in the bank.

While celebrating their son Buck’s birthday that night in the empty apartment, Buck makes a birthday wish that they had a real house with furniture that couldn’t be taken away from them. An ominous wind blows the window open and the birthday cake candles out with it, as there’s a knock at the door. A creepy and very stealthy messenger gives Cyrus a message from a lawyer, Benjamin Rush, to meet him the next day.

Cyrus and Hilda’s meeting with Benjamin reveals that the family have inherited a house which belonged to Cyrus’ now dead uncle. The uncle, Dr. Plato Zorba, apparently conducted some weird experiments and collected ghosts, which Cyrus will inherit as well. This is literally what the lawyer says to him like it’s the most normal thing in the world. People in this film are not remotely worried about the fact there are so many ghosts lurking in this one house. He also gets given an ornate box with a fancy pair of glasses in it, although Cyrus is given no explanation as to what these are for.

With nowhere else to go, the family decides to move into Dr. Zorba’s house, even though Benjamin tries to talk them out of it multiple times – apparently only out of fears for their safety. They also inherit Dr. Zorba’s creepy housekeeper Elaine (played by Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz (1939) fame) who the children think is a witch.

After the family moves in the first thing they do is find a creepy book written in Latin, and an Ouija board, which they immediately use to contact the ghosts they have been told are mulling about the house. The Ouija board confirms the presence of the ghosts, who are apparently out to hurt the family, and imply they are going to kill the family’s daughter, Medea.

After hearing a fair amount of ominous voices and shrieking, Cyrus finds a secret door in the wall of the house. At this point, he decides to try the strange glasses his uncle has left to him and finally gets to see the ghosts in person. Or in terrible, red lighting that you can barely focus on. I’m not sure if the ghosts would have looked better if we had viewed them through one of the special viewers, or if it was just the copy I was watching (thanks YouTube) but man, it is hard to see the ghosts at all. I had no idea what was going on half the time, and I’m not sure what you’re actually meant to be seeing. Which is a shame because one of the ghosts is a lion!

Cyrus has given the weird Latin book to his colleague at the museum to translate, and through this, we find out that Dr. Zorba was working on ghost viewing glasses and cameras because if you can see a ghost, you are then able to control it. Zorba travelled the world capturing ghosts, which he has catalogued in his book.

Back at the house, the ghosts are causing all sorts of shit by pouring food all over the kitchen. The family seems pretty resolved to live with the ghosts because they literally cannot leave due to a clause in the uncle’s will. Buck even seems to have a quite close relationship with all the ghosts and knows their names and how they died. Again…no one seems bothered they are living in a house full of ghosts.  

After talking to Elaine, the family finds out that shortly before he died Dr. Zorba withdrew all his money, though there is no record of what he did with it. Elaine claims he was killed by the ghosts, as the official cause of death was suffocation, but there was no indication what caused this. With Cyrus left alone in the room, a single candle floats across from the table and highlights a button on the frame of the bed. When Cyrus presses it, the canopy of the four poster bed sinks down, suggesting Dr. Zorba’s death may not have been caused by the ghosts after all. Considering how little time it took Cyrus to find the button, I’m surprised the police didn’t stumble across this as part of the investigation into Zorba’s death. Also, did Zorba know he had a death bed in his house or did the killer slyly install it at some point?

Meanwhile, Medea returns home from a date with Benjamin. There’s apparently no conflict of interests there at all, but it does give him a reason to continue to hang around the house. After Medea gets out of bed to close her rattling window, a zombie/ghost character springs at her from behind her curtain. I think it’s pretty clear he’s not a real ghost, mainly because we’re not alerted to look through our viewfinder in order to see him.

The next day, Buck slides down the bannister on the stairs, and two $100 notes appear on the floor. Benjamin shows up and asks him where the money came from, but Buck didn’t get a chance to see where they appeared from. Benjamin suggests they keep the money between them, as they can surprise his dad with it when they find the rest of it, and Buck agrees to keep looking for the rest of the money in the meantime.

Benjamin suggests the family move out of the house, stating he will create a loophole in the will condition that means they can’t sell the house. However, Cyrus says they need to hold a seance with Elaine that night to try and find the missing money, and then they will leave in the morning if they don’t find it.

While the seance is taking place, Buck finds the rest of the money hidden in the stairs and shows it to Benjamin who is at the house…again. I find it weird that Buck repeatedly tells his dad that he and Benjamin have a secret and Cyrus doesn’t find this strange, considering it involves his young son and a grown-ass man they’ve known for a few days.

Now he has the money; Benjamin decides to crush Buck to death in the murder bed and make off with the fortune for himself. Standard. Luckily for Buck, the ghosts are having none of his shit, and Zorba’s ghost attacks Benjamin, pushing him into the bed as Buck makes his escape!

We’re treated to a lovely summary in the ending scenes of the movie, as the family cheerily remember that time their lawyer dressed up as a zombie to try and rob them and then died trying to murder their son. Great family memories there! With all the money found and at their disposal they decide to stay in the house that two people were murdered in and that is full of ghosts for…reasons.

Thirteen Ghosts (2001)

As I said above, the remake Thirteen Ghosts doesn’t share a lot of details with the original movie. The basic premise is the same, but everything that happens after we head to the dead uncle’s house is very different.

This version opens in a junkyard, with Cyrus (which is the name of the ghost-hunting uncle this time) setting up his state-of-the-art ghost hunting equipment. He has a massive team of ghost hunters, all in fetching see-through raincoats, and a psychic called Dennis, who can see visions of the past and the future just by touching objects or people. All of the staff wear clear glasses which enable them to see the ghosts, much like the original movie. They are in the junkyard to capture the ghost of a murderer, who has done a lot more murdering since he died it seems.

As Dennis does his best to track the ghost in the junkyard, Kalina and Damon show up, who are sort of ghost activists that are against Cyrus using dead people as slaves in his monstrous plan, which seems to be foretold in the large, ominous book Kalina is carrying. Damon tells Cyrus he won’t be able to carry out his plan without the right spells or the thirteenth ghost, which Dennis questions as he was only hired to acquire twelve ghosts.

The team sets up a containment cube which will trap the ghost, and then they play some creepy sounding spells over the loudspeaker which lure the ghost into the cage. The ghost murders a lot of staff on his way to the magic box where they finally manage to trap him, but the celebrations of catching him are short lived as Dennis finds both Cyrus and Damon dead, apparently murdered in the carnage.

We cut to a montage featuring the happiest family in the world as the camera pans from a window around a living room. The pretty teenage daughter and super-cute son frolic in the garden as we hear their parents talk about what a happy family they are. We then hear a fire alarm, a lot of screaming, and questioning where the mother is. Then we hear a doctor apologising as a heart monitor issues a continuous beep. As the camera pans we go from a lovely, suburban-looking living room with Arthur (Tony Shalhoub) sitting in the window, to a dingy apartment with a much more broken looking Arthur, his walls plastered with overdue bills.

We’re introduced to the rest of the family – Arthur’s son Bobby and daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth), as well as their nanny Maggie. As they squabble over breakfast over how poor they are, the very ominous lawyer Ben Moss shows up to inform Arthur that his rich and eccentric uncle Cyrus has died, and left his house and fortune to Arthur and his family. They immediately drive a couple of hours out of the city to a house that I’m sure no real person would actually want to raise their family in. Not only is it made entirely of glass, but the walls are covered in Latin spells, and there are many rooms in the house which are just full of random, spinning parts.

When the family arrive, Dennis is hanging around, pretending to be an electric worker in order to gain access to Cyrus’ house. I think this is because he’s looking for the money Cyrus owed him, though he quickly regrets his decision when he recognises the spells all over the walls as the barrier spells that keep the ghosts contained within the walls.

As the lawyer gets Arthur to sign some important papers, the rest of the family head off to explore, and Dennis heads down to the basement. There he finds a glass zoo of all the murderous ghosts he has helped Cyrus capture. Dennis then takes on the role of the only remotely clever person in the film and basically tells Arthur to grab his kid and get the fuck out of there. In the argument, Arthur touches Dennis, who then receives a vision of Arthur’s wife’s fiery death. Deciding it’s probably a good idea to vacate the spinning death house, Arthur and Dennis set off to find everyone else, as the lawyer sneaks off to the basement by himself.

In his haste to escape with a massive bag of money, the lawyer unwittingly sets the spinning death house in motion, which starts to release all 12 of the captured ghosts one by one. The lawyer knows the ghosts are there, as he pops on a pair of the ghost glasses and taunts the ghosts through the glass on his way into the room, but it’s not clear if he knows the full extent on the plan for the new inhabitants of the house. However, he doesn’t need to worry about it for too long as he promptly gets sliced in half with what must be the sharpest sliding glass doors in the world. There’s not a huge amount of deaths in this movie, as there’s a limited amount of characters who aren’t already ghosts, but the ones we do see are fucking graphic.

Meanwhile, Bobby, the most annoying kid in the world on a scooter, has been separated from everyone else and finds his way into the basement. After being attacked by one of the malevolent ghosts, Bobby sees an apparition of the ghost of a woman in a hospital gown, before he’s greeted with the ghastly image of Cyrus lurking in the corner and that’s the last we see of Bobby for a while. And his stupid scooter.

The rest of the gang have found each other and decide to split into two groups to look for Bobby, with Dennis and Maggie heading in one direction and Kathy and Arthur going the other way. While everyone is still sceptical of Dennis’ ghost explanation, Kathy doesn’t have to wait long to be convinced, as she is attacked by a ghost with a metal cage on his head and a straight jacket on. 

Now…this is a movie where most of the cast are family, and unless someone decided to get down and dirty with Matthew Lillard halfway through the movie, there were limited chances to get any nudity in there. Not only are we ‘treated’ to a completely naked female ghost, but Kathy also pops a boob mid-attack, just to fulfil the naked quota.

Suddenly Kalina springs the rescue with a flare, which the ghosts are pretty adverse to. They bump into Dennis and Maggie on the way, and head to the library, the only room with spell protection on every wall, to figure out a plan. Along the way, someone finally gave Arthur a pair of ghost glasses and he sees the ghosts for himself and believes the whole sorry state of affairs, which is just as well because Kalina is about to dump a whole load more shit on the situation.

The spellbook from the junkyard makes a reappearance as Kalina explains that the house isn’t a house at all, but is a machine, designed to allow the owner to see the past, present and future and be the most powerful man in the world. Essentially it is used to open the eye of Hell. Described as “designed by the Devil and powered by the dead”, the house needs the souls of 13 very specific ghosts to power the machine.

The ghosts represent the signs of the Black Zodiac and are as follows:

  1. The First Born Son.
  2. The Torso.
  3. The Bound Woman.
  4. The Withered Lover.
  5. The Torn Prince.
  6. The Angry Princess.
  7. The Pilgrimess.
  8. The Great Child.
  9. The Dire Mother.
  10. The Hammer.
  11. The Jackle.
  12. The Juggernaut.

The only way to stop the machine is for someone to sacrifice themselves through an act of pure love. Arthur realises that this means he will need to kill himself in order to save his children and stop his evil, dead uncle. Unfortunately, along the way he also discovers that ghost number four, The Withered Lover, is his dead wife, so his trust for Dennis sort of goes out the window a little bit. However, Dennis claims he had no idea until the vision he experienced earlier, and says since he realised what’s been going on he’s been trying to help Arthur.

Maggie and Kalina head down to the basement, to blow the whole house up with dynamite if Arthur fails, while Arthur and Dennis take a slice of the glass wall with them to try and offer them some protection as they head to try and find Arthur’s kids.

Back down in the basement, the whirling gear machine that is powering everything is looking a bit worse for wear and is spinning faster than it looks like it can handle. As Kalina apparently sets up the dynamite, Cyrus appears in front of Maggie even without glasses, and she is then knocked out from behind by Kalina. It turns out Cyrus faked his own death to lure Arthur to his house and Kalina has been on his side the whole time. Kalina’s story to Arthur is a pile of shit, and in fact, they need Arthur to kill himself in order to be the final ghost to power the machine – the elusive 13th ghost. Without him, it won’t work. Kalina even killed her partner Damon in order to get the last lot of spells that Cyrus needs to control the ghosts. With the spells in his possession, Cyrus crushes Kalina to death between two glass panels, and heads upstairs to take care of business.

The roving glass wall works quite well for Dennis and Arthur for a little while, but when the Hammer and the Juggernaut (who is the ghost from the junkyard at the beginning in case you’re wondering) attack at the same time, Dennis sacrifices himself to keep Arthur safe in the limited ghost-proof space they have. I love Dennis in this movie and I am seriously pissed that he is the only good guy that dies. Honestly, I would rather scooter kid bit the dust. “I’ve been looking for a reason to like myself for a long time”, Dennis says before the Juggernaut breaks him in half on the corner of a wall. The guilt of what he’s done to Arthur’s wife and all the other ghosts finally gets the better of him and he does the only thing he can think of to make amends to Arthur. 

The spells which call all the ghosts together kick in, leaving the path clear for Arthur to find his children without further attack, though unfortunately, Cyrus has tied them up in the middle of the spinning death machine, which all the ghosts have now surrounded. This scene is incredibly cool, ignoring the bad CGI of the spinning wheels, but seeing all the ghosts surrounding the machine in a circle just looks brilliant. Just as Arthur is working up the courage to decide whether he can throw himself into the eye of the machine or not, Cyrus appears, clearly alive, and ruins the whole plan. Luckily Maggie has more sense than Cyrus or Arthur put together and starts fucking with the machine in the basement. Her approach of pulling random levers not only breaks the spell on the ghosts but also sends the machine into self-destruct mode. Now they’re not trapped, the ghosts finally get their revenge on Cyrus and throw him into the spinning wheels of the machine, which slice him into several bits.

With the machine about the explode, Dennis’ ghost makes an appearance with some advice for Arthur, and he decides to make a leap of faith to be with his children, whatever the outcome.

The death house finally explodes, destroying the machine and freeing the ghosts…which I might be a little bit more worried about than any of the other characters seem to be, as all the ghosts seemed pretty murderous. The family gets a fond farewell with their dead mother before her soul is released, and I can only hope that Arthur gets some money in Cyrus’ real will, or they went through all that trauma for nothing.

13 Ghosts (1960) vs Thirteen Ghosts(2001)The Final Verdict

13 Ghosts

It feels weird comparing these movies because I feel like they are two very different stories. 13 Ghosts is a story which just so happens to involve a whole bunch of ghosts, but the real villain is the corrupt lawyer. Thirteen Ghosts is a story where the uncle, the lawyer, the ghosts, hell – everyone apart from Arthur’s family is a bit evil.

In 13 Ghosts the ghosts didn’t even feel like main characters. We never really got to know who they were, why they were captured, and whether they were happy. Thirteen Ghosts spends a lot of time setting up the lore of the Black Zodiac, and if you have the DVD there’s an excellent special feature going into the backstory of all the ghosts and how they came to be.

I appreciate the gimmick of 13 Ghosts with the ghost viewers but it honestly killed any potential tension with the ghosts as you always knew when they were going to appear. It also clued you in on the fact the zombie-looking fellow wasn’t dead the minute you saw him. Finally, I could not get my head around the fact that no one was remotely arsed that their house was full of ghosts! If you’re trying to make your film seem scary maybe at least have your main characters seem scared themselves!

While Thirteen Ghosts isn’t the most terrifying movie in the world either at least it tries, and the claustrophobic aspect of being trapped in a house that could potentially kill you with its moving walls makes the whole thing more interesting.

When I first saw Thirteen Ghosts I loved all the ghost lore attached to the movie, and I still get a little geeky surge of pleasure from being able to rattle off all the names of the ghosts.

To me, 13 Ghosts just doesn’t feel like a horror movie. And it’s not because it’s old, because Psycho (1960) came out in the same year and it’s scary as shit. It feels like they were more concerned with the gimmick of the film than anything to do with the story, and even the conclusion feels fake and rushed. It’s all wrapped up in a nice bow with happy characters, rather than allowing your characters to be rightfully traumatised.

Thirteen Ghosts is the epitome of 2000’s era horror and I love it. It’s a bit creepy, has characters you care about, a story you can follow, gory deaths, and cool villains. It’s everything I wanted in horror movies as a teenager and it gets more fun with repeat viewings.

Winner:Thirteen Ghosts(2001)

Why not check out more editions of Sometimes They Come Back here!

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