(1960) Directed by William Castle; Written by: Robb White; Starring: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow and Martin Milner
Available format: DVD
Rating: *** ½
“When the actor took off his goggles, the audience would remove theirs – and voilà – the ghosts would disappear.” – William Castle (from his autobiography Step Right Up: I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America)
Many thanks to Monstergirl from The Last Drive In and the eponymous Goregirl of Goregirl’s Dungeon for hosting the William Castle Blogathon. I’m honored to be a part of this five-day celebration of Castle’s work, and encourage everyone reading my post to check out the other entries from Castle-philes. With so many titles from his resume to choose from, I was in a bit of a quandary about deciding which one to review. In the end, I decided to cover one of my favorite Castle films, the delightfully creepy and creaky 13 Ghosts.
Castle (whose real name was William Schloss, Jr.) started out in New York theater production, and made the move to Hollywood in the late 1930s. After working his way up the ranks on both sides of the camera, he became a prolific ‘B’ director for Columbia and (briefly) Universal. Castle really hit his stride in the late 50s, when he became an independent producer, and took movie promotion to unprecedented levels of audacity. His special brand of chutzpah inspired many other filmmakers, including John Waters,* who featured the scratch ‘n sniff gimmick “Odoroma” with Polyester, and Joe Dante, whose Matinee was a loving homage to cold war paranoia and showbiz hucksterism (featuring a William Castle-esque character, Lawrence Woolsey, played by John Goodman).
* In his book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, Waters referred to Castle as “the greatest showman of our time.”
Starting with 1958’s Macabre*, Castle concocted new and increasingly outlandish ploys to promote his movies. Following the subsequent success of the Vincent Price-starring House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (featuring “Emergo” and “Percepto,” respectively), Castle pondered the next gimmick to accompany his next film. Inspired by a visit to an ophthalmologist, where he needed to look through different lenses, he came up with a doozy for 13 Ghosts, “Illusion-O.” Making his now trademark on-screen appearance, he introduced the “Ghost Viewer,” a card with two viewing windows: a red “Ghost Viewer” and blue “Ghost Remover,” to alternately see the ghosts or make them disappear.
* Theater patrons were insured by Lloyd’s of London for $1,000 if they died of fright during the film.
Donald Woods plays Cyrus Zorba, a paleontologist raising his family on a meager salary. Not long after his wife calls to inform him their furniture is being repossessed, he’s contacted by an attorney (Martin Milner), and learns he’s inherited an old house that once belonged to his rich, reclusive uncle. But there’s a catch. In addition to the house, he’s also inherited 12 ghosts that his uncle collected from around the world (the 13th remains a mystery until the very end). One of his uncle’s final inventions, a bulky pair of goggles, enables him to view the various ghosts. Whenever Cyrus or his son Buck (Charles Herbert) dons the goggles, an on-screen caption alerts us to look through our own ghost viewer, so we can see what they’re seeing.
The cast gamely plays along, despite 13 Ghosts’ absurd premise, sucking us into the mystery of Uncle Zorba’s house. Milner turns in a fine performance as young attorney Benjamen Rush, who courts Cyrus’ daughter Medea (Jo Morrow) and wins the confidence of Buck. The real standout, however, is Margaret Hamilton, in a terrific supporting role as Uncle Zorba’s strange housekeeper Elaine. In a winking reference to Hamilton’s earlier, famous film role, Buck continually refers to her as a “witch.” Castle and screenwriter Robb White never tip the audience about her true identity, and Hamilton plays her character right down the middle, so we’re never entirely sure.
Castle’s 13 Ghosts is basically the antithesis to Robert Wise’s The Haunting, which followed three years later. While showing the ghosts was Castle’s raison d'être, the latter film meticulously endeavored not to display any spirits, trusting our imaginations could create something much more horrific than anything that could possibly appear on screen. Castle, however, knew his target audience, comprised mostly of teens and pre-teens, were looking for something far less sophisticated. He promised ghosts, and they got ‘em. Through crude (some might say cheesy) means, the ghosts come to life, so to speak, although they appear as if they originated from the costume section of a dime store. The clunky effects fail to diminish the movie’s charm, no doubt due to Castle’s infectious charisma and penchant for sideshow flimflam.
Does 13 Ghosts hold up today, even without the ghost viewer? Well… it probably requires a greater degree of suspension of disbelief than modern audiences are willing to accept. It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like as a kid in 1960, sitting in the theater, waiting to see what horrible apparition appeared next. Even if the movie didn’t quite live up to the hype, a William Castle film meant you were at least guaranteed a crazy ride. There’s a naïve charm about 13 Ghosts that’s conspicuously absent in most flicks today (witness the misguided 2001 remake, which was aimed at an older, gore-hungry audience). As Castle’s daughter Terry observed in Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, he related to the kids in the audience, and was laughing with us. 13 Ghosts was self-consciously hokey, not high art. We know we’ve been had, but we can’t help but thank Mr. Castle for showing us such a good time.