Originally published October 20th, 2012
One of the lesser William Castle films, 13 Ghosts doesn’t have the clout or acclaim as something like House on Haunted Hill (1959). Regardless, there’s something fun about 13 Ghosts (and before you ask, no I haven’t seen the remake but I’d be interested) despite how corny and stupid it can be. I don’t mean stupid in a derogatory sense, but boy, are the Zorba’s a family of idiots who do everything wrong in Horror 101, enhancing the fun but making for some head-slapping at times.
The downtrodden Zorba family are told an obscure uncle has left his nephew Cyrus (Donald Woods) his old house. The problem is the house is filled with several ghosts that Uncle Zorba has captured. The house also boasts rumors of a treasure that someone is willing to kill to get, and the Zorba’s thought they’d only have ghosts to worry about.
I always point to 13 Ghosts as the perfect example of the ghost story. I guess you could say it’s a haunted house film, but there’s just something about the way William Castle presents this ghost story that makes it similar to sitting around a campfire and recounting a scary tale. The buried treasure, witches, the various ghost’s stories, all of these add up to the perfect 13-year-old’s campfire tale. And yet I find our boy scout, Buck (Charles Herbert) to be annoying. The opening credits set the mood with various moans and spatters on the screen. You have to applaud Castle for the use of sound in this film. Right from the opening credits he relies on moans, rattling chains, and other ghostly noises to elicit fear, and it works! The opening credits also introduce the twelve ghosts that we come to know. In a way, the thirteen ghosts are the true cast as opposed to the humans.
From these opening credits the suspense runs high, and there’s a few times I jumped while sitting on my couch. I consider this film on par with House on Haunted Hill in terms of unique storytelling, fun scares, and good acting. When Cyrus Zorba answers the door and the telegram delivery guy (not sure the technical term) comes at him from the side (not sure why) and looks like the scariest man ever, that really got me! It’s little scares like this which leave you on the edge of your seat, and, while corny, they’re effective on a level that horror movies today aren’t. In spite of that, the characters do anything and everything one could do wrong in a horror movie. I cite this is as a ghost story, I also hold this up as the best way to get killed.
Where my review on The Shining (1980) mentioned never staying on the site of an Indian burial ground, 13 Ghosts teaches you “never inherit anything from an obscure relative.” After all is said and done, Cyrus starts wondering about his uncle dying several years ago in India when that’s not the case. If you can’t recall what the relative looks like and/or when they died, then you don’t want their crap! It never leads to anything good! To add insult to injury, Cyrus doesn’t bat an eye to knowing his uncle studied the occult (THAT he remembers). Once the family moves, little Buck discovers an Ouija board and the group thinks it’d be delightful to play with it. Rule number 2: NEVER PLAY WITH THE OUIJA BOARD! I’ve used one a few times and I never felt it was a good idea. For all I know, I could have bizarre spirits watching me type this right now….that’s creepy. Instead of asking fun questions like “Is So-and-So in love” or “What stocks should I invest in” they ask about the ghosts and if said ghosts plan on murdering them. I don’t understand why the Zorba’s get freaked out when the ghosts say yes. Did you think they wanted to cuddle? The funniest part of this scene is when the planchette levitates and points to sister Medea’s (Jo Marrow) bosom before settling in her lap. It seems even the Ouija board can tell she’s a distracting character. Once it’s proven their lives are in danger
they’re out like a shot they decide it’d be awesome to stay! Well, actually, Cyrus decides they should stay because it’s cheap. Money or death? Yeah, seems like a pretty tough decision. And don’t forget all the blindly entering secret rooms and other places in the dark, happens a lot.
It wouldn’t be a William Castle film without a gimmick, and for 13 Ghosts Castle devised Illusion-O, essentially fancy 3-D glasses that would make the ghosts stand out. It’s not that great a gimmick because you can easily see the ghosts on regular television sans glasses. When the ghosts themselves are wandering around, reenacting their deaths, the effect is subtle and adds an air of tension because of how casually presented they are. For them, this is their everyday life and no humans are going to push them out. Castle also applies sound effects here, so you’re never too tired of seeing the ghosts themselves. The effect is far from perfect when it’s not focused on the ghosts. When Cyrus uses the special ghost glasses his uncle’s given him (meant to be the same as the ones given to the audience) and sees various things like flames and swords it looks like the effect has been overlaid and dissolved into the frame poorly. The problem is we know what flames and saws look like when they inhabit the same space as others, so it’s painfully apparent Cyrus is flailing around at nothing. For the ghosts it works because they aren’t meant to inhabit the same human plane.
The acting from Woods and Rosemary DeCamp as Cyrus and Hilda Zorba is good. They’re the straight men to the bizarre goings-on and they’re the familiar core we’re meant to identify with. Jo Marrow is beautiful, but she’s far too sexual to be playing the sweet sister. Have I mentioned her bosoms? I hate to harp on the breasts of an actress, but they’re used to distract, particularly aided by Marrow’s tendency to lead with them. I also hate the coy way she flirts with Ben (Martin Milner), all nail-biting. In several instances she acts like Buck’s mother instead of his sister which added to the uncomfortable family dynamic. And Buck Zorba. Little Charles Herbert got top billing for this film, which was his last before he turned to television, and he’s a competent child actor. He’s wide-eyed and precocious, to be sure. My problem lies in his constant ability to be a total brat and not realize it, particularly when it comes to the character of the housekeeper Elaine (Margaret Hamilton). We all know Hamilton is famous for playing the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz (1939) and she’s not playing a character different from that, sans green paint. Here, she plays a medium and a housekeeper whom Buck continually walks around calling her a witch right to her face! Sure, she’s played one Buck, but it’s rude to call someone a witch when they’re standing right in front of you! And the family can’t seem to figure out why Elaine hates them! Maybe it’s because all of you called her a witch at least once in her presence. Nope can’t be it. As our villain, Martin Milner is Ben and, honestly, he reminds me a lot of Russ Tamblyn. He looks like Tamblyn and acts like him, only slightly more manipulative and cheesy. I give Ben props for coming up with the best and stupidest way to kill someone: canopy bed! I’m still unsure if that would be an effective way to kill someone because what if the canopy is just fabric? Or, considering how slow the thing lowers, it’d be fairly easy to simply…get off the bed?
13 Ghosts is campy and dripping with corn (if corn can drip), but it’s fun. The simple ghost story with practical effects like sound is a dying art and the film doesn’t overstay its welcome at a brisk 88 minutes (as Castle films tended to be). It’s no House on Haunted Hill but it’s a fun movie that really any age can enjoy.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.