Scooby-Doo! And the Curse of the 13th Ghost (2018)
If you, or, more likely, your child has gone through a major Scooby-Doo phase, then you are aware that in the half-decade since the cynical schlockmeisters over at Hanna-Barbera introduced the seemingly stoned, speech impediment-addled Great Dane and his human sidekicks as cheaply animated garbage for small children the franchise has undergone all manner of reinventions.
These range from gritty and adult, like the well-received, Twin Peaks-style television series Mystery Incorporated, which featured episodes devoted to riffing on Harlan Ellison and the Velvet Underground and the post-apocalyptic comic book Scooby Apocalypse to cynical, pandering garbage like, well, most other iterations of this classic slab of America.
1985’s The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo falls somewhere in the middle, quality-wise. On paper, it has much to recommend it, or at least set it apart. For starters, the show was a vehicle for the great Vincent Price, who lent his voice and his persona to the role of Vincent Van Ghoul just a few years after he won a whole new generation of kiddie fans for his role in Michael Jackson “Thriller.”
Van Ghoul is a powerful warlock so adept at the black arts that decades before Christians lost their shit over the demonic messages of Harry Potter, fundamentalists of the day were warning that good old Vincent Van Ghoul was a Satanic pied piper leading their innocent, susceptible children (oh won’t someone think of the children!) down the primrose path to hell.
Vincent Price. Scooby Doo. Enough black magic to scare the shit out of Christians. Real magic and real monsters instead of schemers and opportunists in masks and costumes. An elaborate mythology involving a Chest of Demons and thirteen ghosts. What’s not to love?
A great deal, actually! Like a number of Scooby-Doo productions of the era, 13 Ghosts straight-up disrespects Fred and his loyal Neckerchief Nation by sidelining him from the action alongside Velma Dinkley, the original Juno/Daria type. In their place 13 Ghosts slotted in the rightly reviled Scrappy Doo and a character somehow even more annoying than Scooby’s hate magnet of a nephew: Flim Flam.
Flim Flam is an orphan con artist of vague Asian descent who was merely annoying at the time of his introduction and now is more than a little problematic. Furthermore, for some fucking reason, the people behind 13 Ghosts decided to put Shaggy in a red tee-shirt. A red tee-shirt! That made no fucking sense at all.
Due almost exclusively to public outrage over Shaggy’s stupid red shirt, The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo was cancelled before the end of its first season. The show was supposed to chronicle Scooby, the Mystery Gang All-Stars and Vincent Van Ghoul capturing all thirteen ghosts of the title but the show ended before that crucial final ghost could be found.
A confused and frustrated nation cried out for closure. That or nobody cared. Regardless, the Scooby-Doo franchise went in a markedly different direction in the years and decades ahead and the Chest of Demons and the naggingly un-captured 13th ghost were rightly forgotten by all but the most obsessive super-fans.
Until recently, that is. The over-achieving Scooby-Doo direct-to-video machine, which has cranked out wildly entertaining recent collaborations with Batman (Scooby-Doo: The Brave and Bold), KISS (Scooby-Doo and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery) and the WWE (Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery) decided that it would double back and give the six weirdoes who still care the closure they desperately seek in the form of a direct-to-home-video/streaming movie entitled Scooby-Doo! and the Curse of the 13th Ghost.
The unwieldy bit of pop mythologizing faces some sizable obstacles. The original show worked best as a showcase for the campy charm of Vincent Price, who is unfortunately too dead to reprise the role here. He’s been replaced by the great Maurice LaMarche, whose performance splits the difference between parody and impersonation. He’s an incorrigible ham with a Crypt-Keeper like flair for ghoulish wordplay like, “My Air Boo n’ Boo host just scream-mailed me back on my DiePhone. The package from Shaggy was never delivered by the Ghostal service.”
Even here, the movie calls itself out.
Vincent’s terrible wordplay inspires terse looks of irritation from Mystery Gang members acting as audience surrogates and letting him know there’s such a thing as too corny even for Scooby-Doo! and the Curse of the 13th Ghost.
Scooby-Doo’s groaning collection of cliches have proven an irresistible target for parody for smart assess across the pop culture spectrum, most notably in Wayne’s World. They’re equally irresistible to the wisenheimers tasked with keeping Scooby-Doo a going concern a full half-century after its introduction as a lazy sub-mediocrity half-assedly shitted out by some of the hackiest animators in American animation history.
Curse unsurprisingly hits these notes extra hard. After a genuinely exciting prologue re-introducing us to Vincent Van Ghoul, the Chest of Demons and the concept of the 13 ghosts we get the usual unmasking.
Only instead of revealing that it was, say, Old Man Dinkins from the pencil factory all along, who was pretending to be the Bourbon Street Ghost to try to scare away unruly Mardi Gras revelers, this unmasking proves unsuccessful because the “guilty” party isn’t wearing a mask at all, and also isn’t guilty.
In an even more gleefully heretical bit of business, the gang is wrong, and not just wrong, but criminally negligent in a way that could land them in a whole lot of legal trouble, a not so impressed adult lawman warns them.
This glowering figure of corrupt authority breaks up the Mystery Gang, who are hovering on the precipice of 18, with the exception of Scooby of course. In desperation, they sell the Mystery van but just when they think they’ve wrapped up every last case they’re confronted with their greatest failure: never capturing the 13th ghost.
This brings up a series of awkward questions the movie does not do a terribly artful job of answering. For example, where were Velma and Fred while Scooby, Shaggy and Daphne were mixing it up with Scrappy and Flim Flam to help out their main warlock Vincent Van Ghoul?
Why didn’t Daphne, Scooby or Shaggy mention their adventures with Vincent Van Ghoul to Velma or Fred? And where’s Scrappy, whom Hanna Barbera have spent the last three and a half decades trying to make fans forget ever existed, having erased him from the historical record like the victim of a Stalinist purge? Or Flim Flam for that matter? And how do you square The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo treating monsters and demons as real (the better to serve their Satanic master!) while nearly all other incarnations posit “monsters” largely as a matter of crotchety old men wearing masks and using remote control trickery?
Curse tries to shoe-horn the basics of The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo into modern mythology by positing it as an adventure that Scooby, Shaggy and Daphne went on while Velma and Fred were away at camp (in Canada no doubt), one that scarred Scooby-Doo so deeply that they never talk about it.
This provides an origin story for Scooby’s fabled fearfulness: motherfucker tangled with real demons and ghouls from beyond the spirit world and lived. That shit would fuck you up too. Give you more than just a speech impediment, eating disorder and outsized fear of the supernatural. Scooby has Post-Traumatic Spookiness Disorder that gets re-activated when the entire contemporary Mystery Gang (Fred, Velma, Shaggy, Scooby, Daphne) is called upon to help Vincent Van Ghoul capture the 13th ghost, the demon Asmodeus.
Daphne has been re-conceived aa a swaggering badass and the new leader of the Mystery gang, leaving Fred to have an existential crisis and wonder what he really contributes to the Gang as a CIS white male even more useless than the rest of the breed.
To put things in MRA terms, Fred, once a proud, ascot-sporting icon of Nordic/Aryan ingenuity and leadership (the traps he conceived!), is now a beta cuck literally reduced to sashaying about with pom poms, acting as a cheerleader to his more dignified Mystery Gang members. And Daphne is now a total Mary Sue, both sexier and more empowered than previous versions.
Scooby meanwhile, doesn’t even get to give one of his patented speeches about how it’s not racist to be proud to be white. If you think the SJWs had their way with the Star Wars movies, just wait until you see what they’ve done to the Mystery Gang. They’ve even welcomed Flim Flam, a non-white criminal whose name betrays his Trump-like-sense of personal ethics, back into the equation in a moderately less racist form.
Velma, meanwhile, has a crisis of faith as she tries to reconcile her cold, rational belief that monsters and ghosts and the spirit world are not real, and the apparent magic and ghosts and demons she is encountering.
As for Shaggy and Scooby, they don’t do character arcs. They just eat and exist, although, in this incarnation at least, Shaggy is a skilled eighteen year old pilot who, it should be noted, wears colors other than red.
Curse alternates between being a sly, meta, ironic version of cheesy, second rate Scooby schlock and just plain being cheesy schlock with dreadful pop song montages with lyrics like “Watch out for superstition/look out for Scoobystion!”
Even more disappointingly, Curse brings back a certain pint-sized 13 Ghosts alum in a different-looking form in a pretty clumsy, not terribly inspired way, then annoyingly delays the actual reveal that Flim Flam is back, baby, and not quite as terrible as before for something like an hour. When Flim Flam’s identity is revealed, it inspires a groan of “No duh” instead of the intended surprise. As for Scrappy, Curse lazily tries to pretend he never existed. He’s reduced to a single throwaway joke but at least we’re spared eighty three minutes of that furry little asshole.
The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo served an important purpose: winning li’l souls for Satans. Curse throws a wet, rational blanket on all that by stepping boringly away from the supernatural sorcery of the original series into something more tediously disguise-and-special effects/hallucination-based.
People need their illusions. They need something to believe in. More often than not, that’s some form of Satanism. The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo subtly advocated for the Prince of Darkness in its original incarnation. Curse, meanwhile, only believes in cold, hard science and identity politics.
As someone who has spent way too much time exploring the oft-terrible world of Scooby-Doo with my formerly Scooby-obsessed four year old, I was weirdly excited that they were going to finally finish what they started so very long ago with Curse. It appealed to some OCD, completist part of my brain and while Curse certainly has its moments, mostly meta in nature, I was weirdly disappointed by something I honestly shouldn’t have had any kind of expectations for in the first place.
The Scooby-Doo! and the Curse of the 13th Ghost wraps up the story of The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo by changing it to the point that it is almost unrecognizable. I’m not necessarily saying they needed to bring Scrappy, but at this point the franchise’s unwillingness to even acknowledge his existence is beginning to resemble a form of cowardice. We think nothing of making movies about Hitler and Ted Bundy. Yet Scrappy Doo remains forbidden.
Curse is much better written and animated than the series that inspired it. Yet it lacks some of its 1980s counterpart’s naive, cornball, retro horror show charm. In that respect, the smart, meta professionalism of the current movie cycle is both a blessing and a curse. This is better, really, than it should be, yet also somehow not quite good enough to truly honor the strangeness of its mere existence as a weird feature-length footnote to a seemingly forgotten, long-ago TV show. That a feature film adaptation of 1985’s The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo exists got made and released nearly three and a half decades after the show came, went and was completely forgotten is a bigger, better, weirder and more perversely meta joke than anything the film’s otherwise exceedingly clever, sometimes too clever, screenwriter came up with in the film itself.
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