Film Review: Thirteen Ghosts (2001)

Also known as: Thir13en Ghosts (stylized title), 13 Ghosts (alternative spelling), 13 Fantasmas (Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Portugal, Spain, Venezuela)
Release Date: October 23rd, 2001 (Westwood premiere)
Directed by: Steve Beck
Written by: Neal Marshall Stevens, Richard D’Ovidio, Robb White
Based on: 13 Ghosts by Robb White, William Castle
Music by: John Frizzell
Cast: Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, Rah Digga, F. Murray Abraham, Ken Kirzinger

Dark Castle Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros., 91 Minutes

Review:

“Hey, Glass Family Robinson, you’re wasting your breath!” – Dennis Rafkin

I know I’ve seen this movie or at least most of it. I’m not sure if I ever saw it in its entirety but I also don’t know if that even matters, as it’s kind of a disjointed mess that relies more on cool visuals than its plot and characters.

Ultimately, this movie is a massively wasted opportunity. It establishes a really cool mythos with its ghosts, each having a unique story and visual look. However, it kind of just gives you a quick rundown of the ghosts and expects you to retain that without giving you much more. Plus, half of the info dump is easy to miss, as it is told at a rapid pace with disorienting quick edits that overload your brain preventing you from sponging up the information.

Now the film looks great from the ghosts, the really cool, opulent ghost house and because Shannon Elizabeth is in it. However, all the window dressing is mostly destroyed by the constant strobe light effects, atrocious editing and even more atrocious pacing. This thing is made to look like an industrial music video from the late ’90s but music videos are only four minutes, not ninety minutes. Essentially, this entire film assaults and overloads the senses from start to finish and if you can get through it without multiple seizures, you deserve a trophy.

Coming off of the 1999 House On Haunted Hill remake, I thought that this could be equally good or surpass it. This is made by the same studio and it is also a remake of another William Castle movie just like Haunted Hill was. I think the mistake may have come from this not utilizing the same creative team.

While this movie mimics the visual style and effects of the previous movie, it takes it so far over the top that it wrecks the whole picture.

It also doesn’t help that other than Shannon Elizabeth, there isn’t a likable character in the entire film. And if I’m being honest, once you get midway through the movie, Shannon Elizabeth is barely in this thing, as she’s held captive off screen.

Instead, we’re treated to Rah Digga from Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad and Matthew Lillard yelling at each other with Tony Shalhoub a.k.a. Monk jumping in every few scenes. Then we have F. Murray Abraham and his weird domestic terrorist lover arguing over nonsense while dumping more info so fast that it’s like watching two people in a fill-the-bowl diarrhea contest.

This entire movie is a good primer on how not to make a horror movie. Also, this may have been where the horror genre really went off the rails, as the ’00s became a cesspool of shit for horror fans that weren’t thirteen year-old girls obsessed with putting sparkle graphics all over their MySpace profiles.

Rating: 4.5/10
Pairs well with: the other Dark Castle remakes of classic horror films, as well as other late ’90s and early ’00s ghost movies.

Film Review: House On Haunted Hill (1999)

Release Date: October 27th, 1999 (premiere)
Directed by: William Malone
Written by: Dick Beebe, Robb White
Based on: House On Haunted Hill by Robb White, William Castle
Music by: Don Davis
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Chris Kattan, Peter Gallagher, Bridgette Wilson, Max Perlich, Jeffrey Combs, Slavitza Jovan, Lisa Loeb, Peter Graves (cameo), Greg Nicotero (uncredited)

Dark Castle Entertainment, Warner Bros. Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Dr. Richard Benjamin Vannacutt. He out-butchered Bundy, made Manson look meek.” – Peter Graves

Man, it’s been a really long time since I’ve watched this but for some odd reason, it holds a special place in my dark heart. I’m not sure if it is due to when it came out and the effect of nostalgia or because I actually consider it to be better than the film it is a remake of, which almost feels sacrilegious to type because Vincent Price, that film’s star, is why I fell in love with horror to begin with.

Generally, I’m not a fan of remakes in the same way I’m not a fan of cover songs. I really feel as if these things should only exist if they can justify themselves by being better or at the very least, being an interesting new take on the source material they are borrowing from.

1999’s House On Haunted Hill is a really good example of a film that takes its inspiration from its predecessor and makes it something else without sacrificing what the original vision was. It’s not an easy task to achieve but Dark Castle really started out on a good foot with this, their first of a few classic horror remakes.

Ultimately, this takes the formula from William Castle’s classic haunted house tale and ups the ante in a way that is very ’90s. It’s more extreme, has a fair bit of good gore and it updates the concept into something contemporary for the time. It’s also more of a psychological horror film and goes places that the original one couldn’t. The scene in the hallucination chamber is well done and actually kind of terrifying, even for a horror aficionado like myself.

That being said, there are three key things that make this remake a solid one.

The first is the ensemble cast. For a horror film with slightly more than a half dozen main players, we have an assemblage of some really good talent. Everyone sort of plays a typical horror archetype but they are all really good at it. I like everyone in this, top to bottom, regardless of whether or not they’re playing the innocent and good character thrown into a literal hell or they’re playing the evil, conniving bastard with some sort of dastardly trick up their sleeve.

Frankly, as good as everyone is in their roles, Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen steal every single scene they’re in. I can’t say that they outclass and out act every other actor here but they just rise to a different level and they seriously look like they are enjoying hamming it up in this twisted movie.

The second thing that makes this film work is the atmosphere. This isn’t the house from the original film. Instead, we’re trapped with these characters in a burned out art deco styled fortress of the 1930s, which was used as an insane asylum ran by an evil and sadistic doctor that used to butcher his patients.

Beyond that, the sets are incredible and the art direction in this film was magnificent. I really dig the lighting, the visual effects, the general cinematography and just about everything visual. The practical effects are great and even if the CGI feels dated now, it works for what this is and it doesn’t take you out of the picture like some of the CGI you’d see from this era. The Lovecraftian inspired blob of spirits is actually kind of cool and it works tremendously well with the tone of the film.

The third thing that works wonders is the score. The music is a great mix of a classic horror movie soundtrack and ’90s era industrial styled instrumentals. The film even features Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams”, which adds another level of dread and atmosphere to the already effective presentation of the picture.

I’d like to give credit to the director, William Malone. He managed this project well and I have to give credit where it’s due, especially since I don’t like the other films that I’ve seen of his: Creature, FeardotCom and Parasomnia. But maybe I will give those movies a re-watch soon, as it’s been a long time.

When this came out, it was a film that critics hated but I remember most people enjoying it. It’s got a ’90s campiness to it but it’s far from comedy and I’d say that it’s aged well. It’s certainly better than what the modern standard seems to be in the horror genre.

I think that I’ll revisit Dark Castle’s Thirteen Ghosts remake soon, as it has been a long time since I’ve seen it but I had a good experience with it, back in the day. I may also finally watch the sequel to this film. I heard it’s nowhere near as good but with this fresh in my mind, I’d like to take another trip to the haunted asylum.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: the other Dark Castle remakes of classic horror films, as well as other late ’90s and early ’00s ghost movies.

Documentary Review: Spielberg (2017)

Release Date: October 5th, 2017 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: Susan Lacy
Cast: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Richard Dreyfuss, John Williams, J.J. Abrams, James Brolin, Bob Balaban, Tom Hanks, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Oprah Winfrey, Frank Marshall, Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Zemeckis, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tom Cruise, Eric Bana, Daniel Craig

HBO Documentary Films, Pentimento Productions, 147 Minutes

Review:

This was a pretty stellar documentary for fans of not just Steven Spielberg but filmmaking and film history in general.

It reminded me a lot of the 2001 documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, in that this spent a lot of time breaking down most of the key movies in Spielberg’s oeuvre.

Every segment here was rich, detailed and featured interviews with some major directors, actors and producers. But the film also gets into Spielberg’s personal life and how real life experiences influenced his movies.

This was a lengthy documentary, just as the Kubrick one was and rightfully so. In fact, this could have been the length of a ten part, two hour apiece Ken Burns documentary and I still would have been fully engaged.

Spielberg’s career has been long and full of at least a dozen classic films that will be remembered forever. Each segment could’ve been it’s own documentary film and it actually kind of sucks that a few films were mentioned but not given as much detail, most notably A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the Jurassic Park sequels and some of his production work like Back to the Future.

Still, this is pretty thorough and there is so much to unpack and take away from this. It is one of the best documentaries on a filmmaker’s life and career.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries on specific directors but this reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures.

Film Review: Back to the Future, Part III (1990)

Also known as: Three (fake working title)
Release Date: May 25th, 1990
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue, Flea, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Weissman, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, Donovan Scott

Amblin Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 108 Minutes

Review:

“Listen up, Eastwood! I aim to shoot somebody today and I’d prefer it’d be you. But if you’re just too damn yella, I guess it’ll just have to be your blacksmith friend.” – Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen

The Back to the Future trilogy is one of the greatest trilogies in cinematic history. It’s damn near perfect and the films are still just as enjoyable now, as they were thirty years ago.

Each one is a tad bit weaker than the previous but since the first one is an absolute masterpiece, the sequels are still better than 95 percent of all the movies ever made.

Part III is my least favorite chapter in the trilogy but it is still one of the best popcorn movies a film fan could ask for.

This takes the Back to the Future formula and throws it into the Old West. I like that they did this and it opens up the series for some fresh takes on some of its tropes but I also feel like the western twist maybe wasn’t strong enough on its own to carry the whole film. What I liked most about the second film, the one I find to be the most entertaining, is that it jumped around and showed us a variety of different times and alternate timelines.

Also, I feel like going further back in time to the Old West might have worked better in the second film. Like maybe they could have flip-flopped the second and third pictures. Which also could have given us the wonderful Mary Steenburgen in two movies instead of just this one where she was actually a bit underutilized. Sure, you’d have to rework some narrative details.

I am going off on some tangents and most people will probably disagree with my take but in the end, this was still a superb motion picture and one of the best from its era.

While it is still exciting it is a bit bogged down by the scenery and is the slowest of the three films, which also adds to my thoughts on it not being the best choice for the final chapter. This feels more like a second act and when it ends, it ends quite abruptly.

But I love the tone of the film and it still captures the amazing Back to the Future spirit. It also probably would have played better, at least for me, if they kept making these and just didn’t cap it off at three films like every other movie franchise of its time. They could’ve given us two more of these pictures, had they made them shortly after this one and frankly, I’m pretty sure they would have maintained the same quality had they utilized the same creative team.

Back to the Future, Part III is the weakest of the three but the bronze medal winner in the strongman championships is still stronger than just about everyone else in the world.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: the other two Back to the Future movies, as well as ’80s Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante Films.

Film Review: Back to the Future, Part II (1989)

Also known as: Paradox (fake working title)
Release Date: November 20th, 1989 (Century City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue, Flea, James Tolkan, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, Jeffrey Weissman, Charles Fleischer, Jason Scott Lee, Elijah Wood, Joe Flaherty, Buck Flower, Marc McClure (uncredited), Crispin Glover (archive footage), Mary Ellen Trainor (uncredited)

Amblin Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 108 Minutes

Review:

“The almanac. Son of a bitch stole my idea! He must have been listening when I… it’s my fault! The whole thing is my fault. If I hadn’t bought that damn book, none of this would have ever happened.” – Marty McFly

Back to the Future is pretty much a perfect film. Back to the Future, Part II isn’t perfect but it’s so damn good, it’s hard to see the flaws unless you really look for them and then, they’re mostly narrative issues that can be dismissed if you look at this with a Doctor Who “timey wimey” sentiment.

This chapter in the classic and awesome film series sees our heroes go to the future, return to an alternate present and then take a trip back to the past where we saw them in the first film. Part II takes you to more places than the other two films combined but it works really well for the middle act of this three act trilogy. It also does the best job of showing the consequences that can arise from disrupting the timeline.

I think that this has the most layered plot and with that, tells a more complicated story. I remember some people back in 1989 saying it was kind of hard to follow but these were also people significantly older than me. As a ten year-old, I thought it all made sense and I still do. Granted, there are some other paradoxes that this would have created and the film just conveniently ignores them but if it were to follow science to a T it would have broke the movie.

The cast is still solid in this film but Crispin Glover is sorely missed. I really wish he had returned to this just because I think it would have made the story better. While he appears in archive footage and another actor stands in for him and wears a mask of his face, this all lead to a major lawsuit that forced Hollywood to change how they use the likeness of non-contracted actors.

While I can’t say that this is better than the first movie, it is my favorite to revisit just for all the things it throws at you. It’s certainly the most entertaining overall and it sort of embraces the absurdity of its subject matter without overdoing it. It’s mostly a comedy but it is balanced well with its more dramatic moments. There is an underlying darkness in this chapter that the other two movies don’t have and I think it gives it a bit of an edginess lacking in the other two. Not that they needed to be edgy but that element works well here.

Back to the Future, Part II is how you do a sequel. It upped the ante, was more creative than its predecessor and enriched its universe, giving it more depth while developing its characters further.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: the other two Back to the Future movies, as well as ’80s Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante Films.

Film Review: Back to the Future (1985)

Release Date: July 3rd, 1985
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells, James Tolkan, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, George DiCenzo, Frances Lee McCain, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, Jason Hervey, Maia Brewton, Courtney Gains, Buck Flower, Huey Lewis (cameo)

Amblin Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 116 Minutes

Review:

“If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious shit.” – Dr. Emmett Brown

Back to the Future is a classic, which makes it kind of hard to review. It’s a film I’ve put off reviewing for awhile because I can’t really come up with anything other than paragraphs of praise. It’s perfect.

Do I need to run through all the regular tidbits about it having a great story, script, director, cast, composer, cinematographer, special effects department and everything else under the sun?

I’m reviewing this right after I reviewed RoboCop, which I also gave a 10 out of 10. But don’t take that score lightly, it is really hard for me to give out 10s but this film certainly deserves it and maybe even a score slightly beyond that. The only other movie from my childhood that can really compete for this as the best film from that era is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While the Roger Eberts, Gene Siskels and Pauline Kaels have their Citizen KaneVertigo and Seven Samurai, I have Raiders of the Lost ArkEmpire Strikes Back and Back to the Future. These are my generation’s classics and even though they are much more modern, their greatness can’t be denied. Well, unless you’re completely devoid of taste.

This film was a perfect storm, even if it had some major production issues early on. But those issues led to this and it’s hard to imagine that a film with a slightly different cast would have been as good as this ended up being.

If you haven’t seen this film already, I don’t understand what you’ve been doing with all of your time on this planet. If you have seen it and don’t like it, we probably won’t be friends.

This is, hands down, one of the absolute best films of the 1980s, regardless of genre or style. There are other movies that one can refer to as “perfect” but how many are actually this fun?

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the other two Back to the Future movies, as well as ’80s Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante Films.

Film Review: Trespass (1992)

Also known as: The Looters (working title), Die Rap-Gang (Germany)
Release Date: December 25th, 1992
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis
Music by: Ry Cooder
Cast: Bill Paxton, Ice-T, William Sadler, Ice Cube, Art Evans, De’voreaux White, Bruce A. Young, Glenn Plummer, Stoney Jackson, T.E. Russell, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister, John Toles-Bey, Byron Minns

Universal Pictures, 101 Minutes

Review:

“That’s the beauty of gold. It never tarnishes. Lasts forever, too. You can twist it, pound it, even piss on it but it’s always the same gold. It was here long before we were and it’ll be here a long time after we’re gone. I bet you a lot of men have died for the gold that’s just in this one piece.” – Bradlee

Man, I used to have a really high opinion of this film circa 1993 when I copied the VHS tape after I rented it. I mean, you’ve got two of the best gangster rappers of the era along with Bill Paxton and William Sadler, who forever won my admiration after playing Death in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, a year or so earlier.

Plus, this was directed by Walter Hill, the guy that did The Driver, The Warriors, The Long RidersStreets of Fire48 Hrs., Another 48 Hrs. and Red Heat. Additionally, the film was produced and written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the creative force behind the Back to the Future trilogy.

But strangely, this just isn’t that great. Sure, it’s definitely okay for killing some time on a rainy day when you want an action film to help you with your low T. I don’t have low T though, my plums are solid and full of octane.

I do like this as more of a novelty thing though. You get to see both rappers named Ice come together at a time when they were both effectively breaking into movies. Ice-T killed it in New Jack City and Ice Cube gave a tremendous performance in Boyz N The Hood. You also get a solid cast of other up and coming black actors from the time: Tiny Lister, Glenn Plummer, Stoney Jackson and De’voreaux White. Also, I have always liked Art Evans, he was great in Fright Night, and this may be my favorite role he’s done.

But still, this just falls really flat.

The plot is about these Arkansas firefighters that acquire a map to a stolen religious treasure. The treasure is hidden in an abandoned factory in East St. Louis. They travel there to look for the long lost gold but quickly find themselves in over their heads as they witness a gang murder. The two firefighters then find themselves holed up in a locked room with a hostage, the head gangster’s little brother, and a homeless man. The rest of the film is mostly a standoff that plays out in a lot of different ways but ultimately, the building is set on fire and we get some solid gun play.

Trespass is certainly watchable and makes for a better than decent early ’90s action flick but there isn’t much to make you care about it. It’s not a classic, by any means. But my problem with it, is that it should have been a classic. Look at the talent in front of and behind the camera.

I do still like this film but for Walter Hill, it’s one of his weakest.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Other early ’90s hip-hop heavy action films: Judgment NightGunmenSurviving the Game and Deep Cover.