13 Ghosts (1960) [31 Days of American Horror Review]
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Director: William Castle
Starring: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Rosemary DeCamp, Margaret Hamilton, Donald Woods
By 1960, William Castle had established himself as the undisputed king of gimmicky horror.
Only the previous year, he had given the world Percepto and Emergo, where he brought physical, real world scares into the cinema experience for his films The Tingler and House On Haunted Hill. Okay, one was a buzzer installed under a seat and the other was a plastic skeleton that floated overhead on a wire, but by all accounts, they were effective enough.
Over 60 years later, we can only imagine just how much these gags truly worked, but by the time Castle got to 13 Ghosts, he was putting his gimmick right up there on the screen.
Guided by an intro from the director/producer himself, audiences were given a device he called “Illusion-O”, a cardboard viewer featuring two colours of see-through lenses. When prompted by the screen turning blue and the words “USE VIEWER” popping up, the supposedly brave viewers could see the ghosts, while the more-timid types could pick the other option and see nothing.
It’s a fun idea, but in reality, it’s main effect is to remove the main point of any ghost film – the scares. Even in a low-budget chiller like this, giving the audience a fright shouldn’t be out of the question, but if you telegraph almost every appearance of the supernatural with a blue screen and a scrabble for a cardboard doohickey, there’s no chance of anyone jumping out of their seat anytime soon, is there?
Saying that, 13 Ghosts is still a lot of fun, if a lesser film in the William Castle canon…
When the permanently-broke Cyrus Zorba inherits a sprawling mansion from his recently-deceased uncle, the occultist Dr. Plato Zorba, he thinks his financial worries are over.
Moving his family in, he discovers that his relative was in the business of collecting ghosts and his new home has 12 of them, ranging from an axe-wielding executioner, a headless lion-tamer and a hanging lady, as well as Zorba himself. The presences are all waiting for the arrival of a 13th ghost, who will allow them to move on from the mansion.
Zorba has left a special pair of glasses that allow the family to see the ghosts, but as disturbing as they might be to some of them, the real danger is much more physical…
Say what you like about William Castle, but the man knew how entertain. 13 Ghosts isn’t a great movie. In fact, it’s only just pushing in to the realms of being a good movie, but it’s rarely anything other than enjoyable all the same.
At times coming over more like a ‘50s family TV show, 13 Ghosts is as light a haunted house experience as you’re likely to see. As the hapless head of the household Cyrus, Donald Woods has more then a little of Jack Lemmon’s loveable schlub about him, albeit a watered-down TV version. As written, Cyrus is a loser but Woods makes him likeable, even when he’s not really taking responsibility for his family’s financial humiliations.
Jo Morrow’s turn as his daughter Medea is just as appealing, which bolsters one of the film’s genuinely spooky scenes, where a session with a ouija board ends with a floating planchette pouting straight at her after a question about whether the ghosts intend to kill anyone. Nothing really comes of it, but it’s a nice moment.
Her blossoming relationship with the family lawyer Benjamen Rush is charming too, with a nice amount of chemistry between Morrow and Milner, allowing Castle to delay our realisation of his real intentions a little longer than we may have without them in the roles.
Obviously by the time he’s trying to murder young Buck (Herbert aka known as the kid from The Fly), he’s exposed as a black villain in search of the hidden Zorba treasure (yes, it’s that kind of film), but it’s not one of those revelations that’s telegraphed early doors, which for a film at this level, is fairly impressive.
What isn’t all that impressive are the titular ghosts, sadly. If you’ve been brave enough to look through the red lens, you’ll have seen a succession of phantoms that range from the innocuous to the obnoxious, but without the ability to deliver a good old-fashioned jump scare, Castle’s creations are all too-often just…there, no matter how hard he tries to make them disturbing.
No, the only real frightening element of 13 Ghosts is the presence of the legendary Margaret Hamilton as Elaine, the housekeeper who comes with the house. Known to millions as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, she’s not a million miles away from playing the same character here. Young Buck is convinced she’s a witch and points it out more than once. She even walks about carrying a broomstick at one point.
Like the ghosts in the house, Buck warms the her as she does with him, leaving us with a closing scene that really is out of a vintage sitcom, but is also perfect for what has come before.
Again, 13 Ghosts isn’t great. And saying it’s one of William Castle’s lesser films really says something, but that’s exactly what it is. Light entertainment with 13 ghosts. There’s worse ways to spend an evening.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy
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