13 Ghosts (1961)
“13 Times the Thrills! 13 Times the Chills! 13 Times the Fun!”
Director: William Castle
Cast: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Martin Milner
Synopsis: A family inherits what proves to be a haunted house, but a special pair of goggles allows them to see their ghostly tormentors.
Watching a William Castle flick today is a little like watching a toddler who has learnt to do handstands and who loudly insists on performing his latest trick for you over and over again. While you might have been a little pleased the first time he did it, by the fifth or sixth time you’re just waiting for the trick to be finished so that you can get back to whatever you were doing. Castle was not so much Hollywood’s showman of the 50s and 60s as its sideshow barker, standing beside a rundown tent and hollering into a megaphone, promising delights the like of which you’ve never seen before. Only Salome is fat and fifty, and the rat-boy’s just a scrawny teenager with buck teeth. So Castle wasn’t even really a barker — he was a huckster who kept scamming the same crowd over and over until they grew up. He knew that once the mugs were in the tent and their money was in his hands, it didn’t matter what sort of crap he fed them.
Castle seemed to use up most of his imagination dreaming up the outlandish gimmicks for which he is now remembered to promote his movies, therefore leaving little energy or enthusiasm for their actual plots. For the 1958 flick, Macabre, he took out an insurance policy on the members of the movie’s audience in case any of them should die during the screening; for The House on Haunted Hill (also 1958) he had skeletons flying through the cinema on wires at relevant moments. For this sorry flick he came up with the idea of ‘Illusion-O’, a 3D spectacle-type device that enabled viewers to see ghosts on the screen that would otherwise be barely visible. It takes little intelligence to figure out that the quality of the gimmicks says much about the quality of the film they promote.
Donald Woods, in a role for which he is about ten years too old, plays Cyrus Zorba, a penniless lecturer at the Los Angeles County Museum who receives a phone call from his long-suffering, but superhumanly understanding wife (Rosemary DeCamp) to tell him that the repo men are once again repossessing their furniture. Now, most wives would be screaming down the phone and heading for the door with kids in tow, but Cyrus’s wife Hilda merely views it all with wry resignation. Later that same day, Cyrus and Hilda and their daughter Medea (!) (Jo Morrow) hold a birthday celebration for little Buck (Charles Herbert) at which the all-American kid (freckles, irritating, etc.) wishes they had a house with furniture (instead of wishing he didn’t have such a loser for a father, which is what most right-minded kids would have wished for). No sooner has a mysterious breeze blown through the open windows and blown out the candles on his birthday cake than there is a ring at the door and a suitably creepy gentleman delivers a telegram. The telegram’s message invites Cyrus to a meeting at a lawyer’s office the following morning, where the young and handsome lawyer (Martin Milner — Sweet Smell of Success) informs them that Cyrus’s ghost-hunter/inventor mad-uncle has died and bequeathed a house to his only nephew. Not only that, it’s furnished. Of course, the house is haunted by twelve ghosts (to whom we have been introduced over much wailing during the credits) bent on poltergeist type pranks, so Uncle has thoughtfully provided a pair of specs with which to view them. Oh, and there’s also a witch-like maid in residence (none other than Margaret Hamilton, The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West — an inspired piece of casting) who knows more than she is letting on.
13 Ghosts is the movie upon which every Scooby-Doo episode must have been based; all it’s lacking is a cowardly talking dog with a bottomless stomach, and someone to say ‘and I’ve have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for them pesky kids’. The hero of the film is a ten-year-old boy who is as annoying as any ten-year-old boy could ever hope to be — and who is also terribly dim. As is the smart lawyer. And the parents. Oh, yeah, and the daughter. In fact, everyone in this movie is incredibly dim. At least the boy is dim and annoying, so he’s got a little extra something. But perhaps I’m being a little harsh. We are after all watching a William Castle movie here, so we know not to expect anything other than the gimmicks: one thing about Castle — he was consistent.
The much-touted ghosts are little more than super-imposed figures, barely visible much of the time (thanks to Mr. Castle’s gimmick, presumably), and pretty much the only other special effects are shots of household objects floating around in mid-air. It’s the kind of thing moviemakers were doing in the early thirties — and before. Still, the movie is aimed at kids and, while it’s questionable whether today’s generation of Buck Zorbas would think much of this creaking pic, the kids of 1960 probably thought it was a hoot. Check out a few websites and you’ll find that many of those kids, well into their fifties now, are still waxing lyrical about what a fun movie this is.
Now that really is the mark of a great huckster.
(Reviewed 25th June 2005)