13 Ghosts (1960)

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.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

*now streaming on Shudder

Director William Castle stands shoulder to dubious shoulder with Roger Corman as one of the premiere makers of American B-horror. While Corman lavished his audience with Technicolor-soaked melodrama punctuated by the occasional bout of Grand Guignol violence, Castle went the gimmick route, creating B-pictures that sought to expand the movie-going experience by involving the audience directly. The most justifiably famous of these was The Tingler, in which Castle famously wired up the theater seats with buzzers to scare the audience. Castle’s 1961 schlock-horror masterpiece Mr. Sardonicus is arguably the better film, happily reveling in its ghoulish carnival of the grotesque, with the director himself as Ringmaster.

Mr. Sardonicus is based on Ray Russell’s story of the same name (and Russell himself wrote the screenplay). It tells the deliciously malevolent story of Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), a doctor summoned to the nation of Gorslava by his former lover Maude (Audrey Dalton) to help her mysterious husband, the Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe). Sardonicus is the “victim” of a terrible affliction: while robbing his father’s grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket, he’s so horrified by the appearance of the corpse that his face becomes frozen in a hideous grin. He enlists the help of Sir Robert, an expert in the healing of paralyzed limbs, to restore his face. But Sardonicus is also a sadist, torturing his servants, abusing his wife, and doing unspeakable things to young women in his off-hours, and Sir Robert has some serious reservations about assisting him.

Mr. Sardonicus is just an excellent B-grade picture, totally indulgent of the nastiness it’s presenting on-screen without excuse, or even particularly strident morality. The good guys are not too good – Lewis’s performance as Cargrave is somewhere between concerned and totally done with everything – and Sardonicus’s tragic backstory at least gives some meat to his character. Oskar Homolka is particularly notable as Krull, Sardonicus’s faithful servant who carries out some of his less palatable orders with a twisted glee.

Castle’s films are always heavy-handed, more like carnival rides than actual films, but Mr. Sardonicus moves beyond some of his more gimmicky work. The grotesqueries and “shock” moments are fully integrated into the main story, rather than acting as extraneous gimmicks. The most disgusting and enjoyable of these are the prosthetics used for Sardonicus’s smile, which are actually quite good for this period of film history. Russell’s story – already a masterwork of grotesque horror – translates brilliantly to the screen, and even manages to fill in some glaring plot-holes that might otherwise have remained open.

Superintending everything is Castle, who appears on-screen at the beginning and nearing the end of the film to remind the audience that we’re all here to watch terrible things happen to terrible people. His gimmick this time is giving the audience the option of voting on the ending – one in which Sardonicus is punished, and one in which he’s given mercy – by providing cards with a thumbs up or thumbs down on them. The transformation of the cinema to the site of participatory, gladiator-style theater has to be seen to be believed.

Mr. Sardonicus has a mean streak a mile wide, and asks you to participate in every wondrous moment of it. The more I watch of Castle’s films, the more I realize that he was one of cinema’s finest Ringmasters, fulfilling the audience’s penchant for murder and mayhem by getting them involved in the proceedings. There’s a weird pleasure to be derived from his films, something on the order of being escorted through a house of horrors by a guide who enjoys the wax figures and flying skeletons even more than his audience.

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Bloody October: House On Haunted Hill


“A woman was just hung in the stairwell; there was a severed head in a girl’s suitcase, we all have loaded guns and Vincent Price is our host.  Well, good night!”

William Castle’s 1959 schlock-fest House on Haunted Hill is iconic and ridiculous.  If Vincent Price offered you $10,000 to spend a night in a haunted mansion, would you go? No, of course you wouldn’t.  Because he’s VINCENT PRICE.  But apparently the five idiots who accompany him didn’t know that.  Thank God, for otherwise this movie would not exist and we would all be the worse for it.

I have no idea what to do with this movie.  It should be terrible – because it is.  The acting is largely atrocious, the plot nonsensical, the script alternately slow and sudden.  And yet…and yet.  I loved it.  Every second of it.  Why? WHY? Well, one why is Vincent Price, who no matter how many bad films he made always injects an edge of class and camp into his performances that made him the go-to guy for schlocky horror.  The other why is the crazy factor of the whole enterprise.  We have seven people locked in a haunted – high modern mansion, and what does their host do? He gives them loaded guns.  There are severed heads that appear randomly in closets which everyone seems to take in stride.  There’s a fucking vat of acid in the basement and this does not cause any great consternation.  These people are insane.

House on Haunted Hill is the best of bad 50s horror – total fun with a few proper scares.