A Sound C Extras C
starring Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Martin Milner, Rosemary De Camp
screenplay by Robb White
directed by William Castle
by Walter Chaw 13 Ghosts, showman director William Castle's gimmicky follow-up to his most infamous film The Tingler, is slow-paced hokum that gives lie to the belief that the horror movies of yesteryear are very much better than those of today. Between awful acting, a terrible screenplay by celebrated kiddie author and long-time Castle collaborator Robb White, and direction from Castle that alternates between plodding and ridiculous, 13 Ghosts is a good deal of fun in spite of itself. It is a prime candidate for a "Mystery Science Theater" treatment and best enjoyed with the quick-witted or the inebriated.
The ridiculously named Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) is some sort of Natural Museum tour guide whose chronic inability to pay the bills on time has resulted in multiple repossessions and, as the film opens, a foreclosure on his grossly over-extended mortgages. Not causing a great deal of consternation amongst his gaffed family (wife Hilda (Rosemary De Camp), daughter Medea (Jo Morrow), and son Buck (Charles Herbert)), their dedicated lack of concern at impending homelessness is quickly justified by the fortuitous inheritance of a rich uncle's fully furnished mansion. But what interest could sleazy lawyer Ben Rush (Martin Milner) have in the decaying estate, and what's all this about thirteen ghosts "collected" by the late eccentric recluse? Soon a Ouija board is discovered for the film's only, mildly creepy sequence, the Zorba family devotes itself to contributing as many unbelievable performances as possible, a few wailing ghosts appear, a bottle of milk floats across a kitchen and spills itself, and Margaret Hamilton pokes fun at her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
William Castle rigged several of the seats in theatres showing The Tingler with electric buzzers so that when the monster would "tingle" someone on-screen, certain lucky audience members would get a little shock. The trick in 13 Ghosts is the deployment "Illusion-O" panels consisting of one red filter and one blue filter, passed out to audience members so that they can view the ghosts if they wish, or make them vanish when they get frightened; a brilliant bit of marketing that does nothing to make the film the least bit competent by any stretch of the word.
Besides an incomprehensible plot and scenes that follow one another without a passing acquaintance to continuity, 13 Ghosts also fails to provide thirteen ghosts. I counted six or seven--a spinning wheel of fire, a burning skeleton, a lion, and someone getting decapitated could be four more. The primary fun of the film comes not in any kind of tension or fear (or thirteen ghosts), but in the asinine line readings and, in one priceless moment, an awkward double take that would've shamed Jack Parr. It's a classic of schlock cinema that unfortunately overstays its welcome even at a slight 85-minute running time, tacking on one interminable "fright" scene after another and resorting to a rather mundane plot development to tidily hand the wayward plot its pat exit line. It's worth a look for a lark and for camp aficionados, but serious supernatural thriller archivists would do best to look up the films of Val Lewton and the Hammer Studios.
Columbia's DVD release of 13 Ghosts is short on the frills, though it captures William Castle's sensibility by including a recreation of the original Illusion-O color panels (replacements can be had for $2.95). Presented on one side of the disc in a straight black and white anamorphic widescreen that doesn't allow for the usage of the Illusion-O "technology," a quick flip to side-B reveals the film in all of its "ectoplasmic" glory. Perhaps not surprisingly, the colour panels don't work very well (meaning that they work as well as they ever did), and the film can be enjoyed or not to precisely the same degree with or without the filters. All the same, it's of historical interest to play along and imagine a time when filmgoers were innocent enough (if ever they were) to be freaked out by ghosts boldly announced by a "USE VIEWER" prompt. The picture is otherwise crisp and impossibly sharp from a negative that doesn't appear to have aged a day in forty years. The digitally mastered DD mono sound has nice atmosphere and clear dialogue.
Both sides feature a short documentary called "The Magic of Illusion-O" (7 mins.) that gives a loving fanboy tribute to Castle and his gimmick flicks while waxing rhapsodic about the effectiveness of 13 Ghosts in its time. The disc is rounded out by a two-page insert outlining in brief the history of Castle films and a re-order form for extra Illusion-O panels, plus nifty first-person trailers of 13 Ghosts and The Tingler (as well as a somewhat embarrassing commercial for Ghostbusters and its lamentable sequel). Originally published: September 15, 2001.