Horror movies don't need Halloween as an excuse to creep out of the woodwork, but it isn't surprising to find theaters showing more than the usual share of chillers this time of year. "From Hell" jumped the gun by a couple of weeks, and its star power - Johnny Depp and Heather Graham - will help it fend off competition from "Thirteen Ghosts," the worst of the batch, and "Ginger Snaps," a sneaky little goblin that has more jolts to offer than the other two combined.
Thirteen Ghosts had a gimmick back in 1960, when the original version came out. It was produced by William Castle, an old-time Hollywood showman who knew a silly movie could make money if it delivered something different. He handed out "ghost glasses" at the door. Just put them on at certain points during the story, and you'd see the characters in all their gory splendor!
But that was then, this is now. Screens are wider, colors are brighter, blood and guts are more graphic - so who needs plastic doodads? The producers of this year's remake decided 13 ghosts should be worth the price of admission all by themselves, thank you. So they ditched the "ghost glasses" idea and poured on the high-tech special effects.
Tony Shalhoub stars as a single dad who inherits an eccentric house from an equally eccentric uncle. Checking the mansion out with his good-natured kids and their tough-talking nanny, he runs into the spooks who populate the place - each in its own chamber, trapped there by magic spells. Pandemonium soon breaks out, bombarding our heroes with so much mayhem that their lives, their souls, even their R rating may not survive this nightmarish night.
The movie's one good performance is given by the house, full of ominous inscriptions, inscrutable chambers, and fiendish machines. The human characters are played with various degrees of manic overacting by competent people like Shalhoub and F. Murray Abraham, and the ghost actors don't get to do much except look scary and throw tantrums.
You would, too, if you were stuck in this cinematic house of horrors for more than the 90 minutes it takes to collapse under its own weight.
From its title, you'd think Ginger Snaps is a nice little movie about cookies. Be warned that it's exactly the opposite - a seething cup of witch's brew, complete with hair-raising violence and a dark view of teenage sexuality.
The main characters are Ginger and Brigitte, two Canadian sisters who pride themselves on being different from other teens. While their schoolmates flock to the dating-and-party scene, they sit around the house thinking up gory ways to die.
Lots of adolescents go through phases like this, but these girls seem serious about their morbid musings. Their ears prick up when a mysterious creature starts menacing their town, mauling dogs and stirring widespread fear. Ginger gets so close to the monster that it bites her, and soon she's showing monstrous traits herself, from elongated fangs to a twitchy little tail.
In short, she's turning into a werewolf with razor-sharp teeth and a nasty disposition. This explains the picture's title: Ginger snaps. But like many movie lycanthropes, beginning with "The Wolf Man" in the '30s, she wants to escape her newfound monsterhood. Which of her personalities will win - the old Ginger, who was pretty weird to begin with, or the new one, who prowls for prey at every full moon?
John Fawcett has directed "Ginger Snaps" with terrific flair, punctuating ominous moods with bursts of pitch-dark humor. Karen Walton's screenplay also shines, blending teen-pic satire (a la "Heathers" and the "Scream" series) with scenes of fright that show deep affection for age-old horror conventions.
Katharine Isabelle is excellent as Ginger, and Emily Perkins is even better as Brigitte, the nerdy misfit who emerges as the story's real heroine. Mimi Rogers leads the supporting cast as their well-meaning mom.
"Ginger Snaps" goes astray in its last half-hour, trading sardonic chills for bone-crunching thrills and action-movie clichés. The film also has surprisingly explicit treatment of teenage sexuality. "Ginger Snaps" isn't for everyone, but horror fans with strong stomachs will find it a memorable monsterfest that rarely loses its bite.
Both have R ratings. 'Thirteen Ghosts' contains explicit violence, nudity, and vulgar language. 'Ginger Snaps' has explicit violence, sexual material, vulgar language, and drug use.