When you think of William Castle, you can’t help but think of the word awesome as well. Along with contemporaries like Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling… perhaps even Walt Disney… Castle was a consummate showman.
The comparison to Hitchcock is probably most apt, and the two had a bit of a symbiotic relationship. Both dealt in film suspense, but by the end of the 50’s Hitchcock’s films were getting more elaborate and extravagant, while Castle operated in a low-budget space of B-actors and quick production turn-over. Hitch envied the freedom and unfettered film-making that Castle enjoyed, and emulated his production process when making Psycho in 1960, probably the most infamous of Hitchcock’s films.
Castle himself was king of the movie gimmick. This is probably most typified in 1959’s The Tingler, where some theatres actually had buzzers installed under the seats that would zap the audience at certain points in the movie, prompting them to literally scream for their lives. Under the auspices of Castle gimmicks, audiences were also offered Lloyd’s of London insurance policies (in case they died of fright while watching Macabre (1958)), or given a chance to leave the auditorium during Homicidal (1961) and made to wait in a “Coward’s Corner” out in the lobby if they couldn’t handle the intense finale.
13 Ghosts is no exception to this chicanery, offering people the “Illusion-O” process. This involved handing out special cardboard viewing glasses to the audience before the movie started. As outlined by Castle himself in a Serlingesque appearance at the beginning of the film, people would be instructed when to look through the glasses, but only after making a choice: look through the red filtered glasses if you believe in ghosts (which would subsequently make the apparitions appear brighter), or look through the blue glasses if you’re a skeptic and have the ghosts appear dimmer.
The titular ghosts of the movie come part and parcel with a spooky manor bequeathed to Cyrus Zorba by his eccentric uncle. Dr. Zorba collected the apparitions over the years during his studies of the occult, but they can only be seen by special goggles invented by him. Cyrus and family move into their new home, and ghostly hi-jinks of course ensue.
13 Ghosts scares up a bare minimum of one point (+1) for the plot. There is some set-up at the beginning as to why the Zorba family is practically forced to take up residence AND stay in the creepy house face of increasingly terrifying events, but their staying becomes more and more ludicrous as things unfold. The Look of the film is pretty utilitarian, with your average Twilight Zone TV episode looking more stylish and atmospheric. I’ll give it a one (+1) because it didn’t look bad, per se. I’ll dig up two points (+2) for Overall Casting. Most everyone involved holds their own, with a highlight being Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton as the enigmatic housekeeper Elaine. We have a full-(dis)embodied commitment to the genre of supernatural thrillers on display here, so Commitment to Genre gets the maximum of two (+2) points.
One point (+1) is given for the awesomely devilish opening credits.
Another (+1) for the telegram guy.
The sequence with the headless lion tamer lasts an eternity, so one point (-1) chopped off for that.
Along with Hamilton, one will spot the eternally fresh-faced Martin Milner as the lawyer appointed to take care of the Zorba estate. Star of the classic TV road series Route 66, Milner might be recognized by genre aficionados as appearing in another great CBS series: he is the fellow traveller that Millicent Barnes confides in at a bus station as she comes face to face with a mischievous doppelganger in the original Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image”. Milner doesn’t wash as well here in 13 Ghosts, failing utterly to convince the audience that there is any good reason the lawyer should trust the young Buck Zorba with such an immense secret. (-2)
There are some unsettling moments to be had, for example where a cobwebby pair of legs appear in an otherwise bucolic scene. (+1)
So a +6 materializes for 13 Ghosts. It’s camp, and it’s ridiculous, but as with any William Castle production, you can’t fault its earnestness and enthusiasm.
Before I vanish into thin air right before your eyes, I leave you with the delightful trailer for William Castle’s 13 Ghosts: