Stars: ** 1/2
Rating: R for violence, gore, nudity, language
Run Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
William Castle used “state-of-the-art” Illusion-O (anaglyph spectacles) to lure his viewers in during screenings of his original 1960 ghost story of the same name. But Mr. Castle didn’t have 21st century technology at his fingertips, which is the foundation of this stylish, mean-spirited, and surprisingly scary horror film.
Get past the gratuitously violent opening, which features theatrically trained (read: overacting) F. Murray Abraham as ghost hunter Cyrus Kriticos. Ignore the conventionally silly climax, engineered to appeal to the under-25 set. At the core of this cookie-cutter thriller is a nightmare-inducing fright fest about lost souls of all shapes and sizes, whose restless energy is channeled into vicious attacks on the living.
Tony Shalhoub is Arthur Kriticos, a mild-mannered math teacher whose wife has died in a tragic home fire and left him to cope with two children (Shannon Elizabeth and Alec Roberts) and a mess of outstanding bills. Things go from bad to worse until, voila!, a shifty lawyer appears on Arthur’s doorstep with the last will and testament of his long-lost Uncle Cyrus. Unbeknownst to Arthur, Cyrus has passed away and bequeathed to his nephew his fabulous, glass-walled mansion and all of its contents.
Whoops. Cyrus was a collector of hideously unhappy spirits who inhabit the basement – trapped behind glass panels etched with Latin spells to ward off their evil. Double whoops – the mansion is not a home, but rather a well engineered machine whose dazzling open spaces and sharp architectural lines are designed to solve an ancient riddle that may ultimately destroy everyone inside. With the dubious help of a displaced-spiritual-energies hunter (Matthew Lillard), Arthur and his motley crew of heavily outnumbered weaklings struggle to escape twelve ticked-off specters.
The supernatural realm has never looked so highly stylized. I’m talking awards for Art Production. The sliding, shifting, crystal-clear walls of the menacing “mansion” are scene-stealers – pulsing with elegant paranormal evil. The horribly disfigured spirits, seen only with the aid of in-house groovy glass specs, are realistically terrifying. Script is a hodgepodge of the funny and the ridiculous, including my all-time favorite line, “This place is too big, so let’s split up!”
Best of show goes to Lillard, whose manic energy is perfectly suited to the offbeat, slightly insane clairvoyant desperate to claw his way to the top of the spirit-snatching biz. I played loud, happy music on the drive home – convinced that a bloody corpse was going to rise from the backseat and skewer me with a gore-tipped knife. Isn’t that what horror movies are all about?