13 Ghosts (1960)
It’s easy to get so caught up in the gimmickry of William Castle that one almost forgets that he made seriously enjoyable films. 13 Ghosts is one of his finest, and one that most clearly exploits the marrying of gimmickry and supernatural that Castle enjoyed so much.
The story opens with paleontologist Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) being willed a house by his uncle Plato, a scientist and master of the occult. The house is a godsend for the impoverished Cyrus and his family, including youngest boy Buck (Charles Herbert), daughter Medea (Jo Morrow), and wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp). They move in immediately, despite warnings from Zorba’s lawyer Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner) that the house is inhabited by 12 very nasty ghosts, captured by Zorba using a special set of goggles. Strange things begin happening straight away as the ghosts reveal themselves and plague the newly arrived family.
As with many of Castle’s films, 13 Ghosts mixes a carnival-esque atmosphere of jump-scares and gimmicks into its haunting tale. Despite the warnings about the house, and the subsequent hauntings, the Zorbas actually begin to get comfortable in their new abode. Buck, already obsessed with ghosts, enjoys experiencing the supernatural firsthand, and begins learning about the ghosts’ pasts from the housekeeper Elaine (Margaret Hamilton), Zorba’s housekeeper and occult assistant. The ghosts float in and out of view, appearing as faded apparitions that engage with the human world in weird and occasionally destructive ways. Castle’s gimmick, in this one, is Illusion-O, a sort of semi-3D type of viewing goggles that allowed viewers to “see” the ghosts more starkly through red-filtered goggles. The ghosts are still there even without the goggles, but Castle pushed the concept of Illusion-O for the people willing to brave the terror.
Even without the gimmick, 13 Ghosts holds up quite well as a half-comedic, quirky little horror film that embraces its personal campiness. The idea of being able to capture ghosts by seeing them is a fascinating one (and predates Ghostbusters by more than twenty years), but the film doesn’t dwell for too long on the unpleasantness of the ghosts’ pasts, nor on their reasons for continuing to be tied to earth. They’re apparitions, leave-overs from unfinished lives, not in need of being fully fleshed. But their backgrounds are still appropriately gruesome, from an Italian chef doomed to murder his wife and her lover over and over again, to a headless lion tamer (plus lion) constantly searching for his head.
It’s the human beings that live with them who are really interesting, and it’s here that the film lives up to Castle’s strange standards. The Zorba family are oddballs, handling their haunted home with tongues firmly in cheek–in fact, they more than once recall the family Oscar Wilde created in his comic ghost story The Canterville Ghost. Woods and DeCamp make for a great onscreen husband and wife, a sort of slightly kinky Ward and June Cleaver, but a lot of the focus goes to Charles Herbert as Buck, played with a combination of innocence and a small edge of childish ghoulishness. Margaret Hamilton’s small but effective role gives a little shot of metanarrative, as Buck occasionally asks her if she’s really a witch, a neat complement to Buck’s obsession with ghost stories that opens the film. There are further references to the gimmickry of the supernatural, including a devilishly enjoyable use of an Ouija board, which was once again gaining popularity as a game in the early 60s.
The practical effects used both in the appearances of the ghosts themselves, and on the moving candles, shattering milk jugs, and flying cleavers, hold up brilliantly even now. It’s hard to tell how effective (or not) Castle’s Illusion-O concept would have been, but the film happily works without the gimmick. There’s much that Castle is dealing with here, about turning spirits and the spirit world into things for entertainment or experimentation (or just the source of old-fashioned human greed) without fully understanding or respecting them. Under the carnival facade is a more serious treatment of the spirit world than appears on the surface–you just might need Illusion-O to find it.
13 Ghosts is available to stream on Shudder.