WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME MINOR SPOILERS!
While I haven’t yet seen the bulk of William Castle’s directorial efforts, the handful that I’ve watched have stuck with me through the years. From the skeletal shenanigans of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (filmed in EMERGO!), to Vincent Price’s panicked ravings of “Scream! Scream for your lives!” at the climax of THE TINGLER (filmed in PERCEPTO!), I swiftly became a fan of the gimmickry that was typical of Castle’s cinematic exploits. So it’s no surprise that I had a blast while revisiting his 1960 effort, 13 GHOSTS! (Filmed in ILLUSION-O!)
As the film begins we meet the Zorbas, a down-on-their-luck family whose furniture is being repossessed because the absent-minded patriarch of the family, Cyrus (Donald Woods), forgot to pay the bills. But fate steps in later that evening as Cyrus, his wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp), daughter Medea (Jo Morrow), and plucky young son Buck (Charles Herbert) are sitting together on the floor in their empty home, celebrating Buck’s birthday.
Moments after Buck makes his birthday wish (for a house full of furniture, natch) and blows out his candles, there’s a knock at the door with some mixed news: Cyrus’ eccentric uncle Dr. Plato Zorba has passed away and left his nephew a fully furnished mansion to live in! The only downside? The house comes with a peculiar caretaker named Elaine Zacharides. (Margaret Hamilton – yes that Margaret Hamilton!) Oh, and it’s haunted by eleven spirits that Dr. Zorba had collected from all over the world!
Understandably skeptical of their new home’s status as a haunted house, the Zorbas move in immediately and discover that they do indeed have some spectral tenants. But there’s also a mystery afoot! You see, Plato Zorba was quite wealthy and before his untimely demise he had expertly hid his remaining fortune somewhere in the house! Though the Zorbas are unaware of this (at first), somebody else knows that there’s money hidden in them thar walls and they will resort to anything, even murder, to get their greedy paws on Plato’s dough! (Pla-dough?)
As the film progresses we get a little casual Quija board usage, the discovery of a secret lab, and the introduction of Zorba’s greatest scientific achievement: The “ghost viewers!” By wearing this pair of large boxy goggles, the characters in the film can actually see the spirits, which include an angry chef that killed his wife and her lover, a lion and his headless tamer, and (gasp!) Plato Zorba himself, who somehow inadvertently became Ghost #12!
This is because Plato’s death was the result of foul play, and the culprit behind his murder is now trying to oust the Zorbas from the house in order to more easily seek out the hidden moolah without attracting any attention. Since there aren’t too many other characters in the film it’s rather easy to figure out who the villain is, but I won’t ruin the “shocking twist” for you Vault Dwellers. However I will say that the film finally lives up to its title once the would-be thief finally gets their comeuppance during the climax!
13 GHOSTS was the fourth film that William Castle self-financed after parting ways with Columbia Pictures, and featured the “Illusion-O” process, which was one Castle’s better theatrical gimmicks. While the film was shot entirely in black & white, the footage during the Illusion-O sequences was tinted blue, and the ghosts were tinted red. Utilizing the cardboard and cellophane “ghost viewers” that were handed out at the door, audience members could peek through the blue cellophane to see the ghosts, or through the red if they became “too frightened.”
While I agree that the Illusion-O concept seems rather silly, having experienced it for myself, both at home (on DVD) and on the big screen (in 35mm!), I’ll admit that it proved to be a fun way to make the film more interactive. (Plus the ghost viewers make for a pretty nifty souvenir!) But does the film hold up on its own when Castle’s Illusion-O is stripped away? Believe it not, it does! Penned by Robb White (a Castle regular), the screenplay for 13 GHOSTS is competent but hackneyed: In a lot of ways it feels like HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL lite. Both films involve a haunted house, a whodunit subplot, and characters vying for a small fortune.
Despite using a similar formula for the plot structure of this movie, White makes enough changes to keep things interesting. Plus it certainly helps that 13 GHOSTS has a fairly decent cast. Donald Woods (THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, DIMENSION 5) is good as the forgetful father who finds himself pulled into a mystery by a relative from beyond the grave, and both Jo Morrow (big sis Medea, the film’s eye candy) and Rosemary DeCamp (Momma Zorba) do the best they can with their small roles.
Martin Milner is also very good as Benjamen Rush, the friendly lawyer with a dark secret, but all of them are eclipsed by Charles Herbert (THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, THE FLY) who portrays Buck Zorba. He proves to be both a likeable and precocious young protagonist, and has to be one of the better child actors I’ve seen in just about any film. Also present here is Margaret Hamilton, who ends up being more of a distraction than anything else. Her extended cameo is a constant reminder of “Hey look! Remember her?! It’s the Wicked Witch of the West from THE WIZARD OF OZ! She has a broom! Do you get it?! DO YOU GET IT?!!?!”
Oddly enough it’s the titular spirits of 13 GHOSTS that prove to be the film’s biggest shortcoming. These superimposed specters were brought to life using people in costumes, a real lion (the notoriously gentle and loveable Zamba), and various props hanging on wires. (And judging by how thrifty William Castle could be, I wonder if the “flaming skeleton ghost” was actually the same prop used in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL?) Sadly most of the dozen specters featured in the film fail to propel the story forward, or elicit any genuine chills or thrills. In fact, I’m pretty certain no one would notice if the majority of the ghost/Illusion-O footage was edited out.
Still, 13 GHOSTS was a financial success when it was released to theaters in 1960, earned itself a remake in 2001, and has cemented itself as a minor classic in William Castle’s diverse filmography. With it’s unique gimmick, cast of likeable characters, hint of intrigue, and smart (albeit formulaic) script, the film certainly does not fail to entertain. 13 GHOSTS is rarely scary, but often amusing, and I feel pretty comfortable giving it a rating of:
Note: As of my posting this review, 13 GHOSTS is available on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment (in a double feature with another Castle classic, 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS). However, all of the colored Illusion-O sequences are missing from this release – the entire film is in black & white. This is also the case for more recent DVD releases of the film. So if you want to enjoy the film in the way it was originally intended, you’ll have to purchase the Sony/Columbia Pictures DVD release from 2001. However, even if you score one of these, there isn’t a guarantee that it’ll come with reproductions of the heralded “ghost viewers,” so you make have to order one off of eBay, or (if you’re handy) just make your own!