13 Ghosts (1960)

Cover of "13 Ghosts"
13 Ghosts is the first of two films I’m running for William Castle Weekend.  I did intentionally plan this unlike my dueling Val Lewton films I reviewed earlier in the month.  13 Ghosts is one of the lesser Castle films and doesn’t have the clout or acclaim as something like House on Haunted Hill which is tomorrow’s film.  Regardless, I find 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.  It does enhance the fun but makes for some head-slapping at times.

The downtrodden Zorba family are told that 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 also 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 telling a story.  The buried treasure, witches, the various ghosts stories, all of these add up to the perfect 13-year-old’s campfire tale; and yet I find our little boy Buck (Charles Herbert) to be annoying.  Anyway, the opening credits set the mood for the film 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’s relying on moans, rattling chains, and other ghostly noises to elicit fear and it works!  The opening credits also introduce the twelve ghosts that we know for the bulk of the film.  In a way the 13 ghosts themselves are the true cast as opposed to the humans.

From these opening credits the suspense runs high and there’s a few times I did jump on my couch.  I do consider this film to be on par with House on Haunted Hill in terms of unique story, fun scares, and relatively good acting.  The one scare that really got me is 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!  It’s little scares like this that leave you on the edge of your seat and while corny, their 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.  While I cite this is as a ghost story, I also hold this up as the best way to get killed in a horror film.

Where my review on The Shining mentioned never staying on the site of an Indian burial ground, 13 Ghosts teaches you to never inherit anything from an obscure relative.  After all is said and done Cyrus starts to wonder 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 a 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 like 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.  You know I don’t understand why the Zorba’s get all freaked out when the ghosts say yes, did you think they wanted to cuddle?  The funniest part of this scene is when the planchette (the thingy that moves on the Ouija board) levitates and points to sister Medea’s (Jo Marrow) bosom before settling in her lap.  It seems that even the Ouija board can tell that she’s a distracting character.  Of course 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.  Oh and don’t forget all the blindly entering secret rooms and other places in the dark; happens a lot.

Of course 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.  Fortunately 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 casual they are.  For them, this is their everyday life and no amount of humans are going to push them out.  Castle also applies sound effects here so your 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 that Cyrus is flailing around at nothing.  For the ghosts it works because they aren’t meant to inhabit the same plane as humans.

The acting from Woods and Rosemary DeCamp as Cyrus and Hilda Zorba is good.  Their the straight men to the bizarre goings-on in the film and they’re simply 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.  For starters have I mentioned her bosoms?  I hate to harp on the breasts of an actress but they’re distracting in this film particularly considering Marrow has a 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 dynamic of the family.  Oh 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 and she’s not playing a character that different.  Here she plays a medium and a housekeeper.  Buck continually walks around saying she’s a witch right to her face!  Sure she’s played one Buck but it’s rude to call someone a witch when their standing right in front of you!  And yet the family can’t seem to figure out why Elaine hates them!  Hmm, maybe it’s because all of you have called her a witch at least once in her presence, nope that can’t be it.  Martin Milner as Ben is our villain 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 do give Ben props for coming up with bot 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.

Type of Horror: Ghost, Spooky, Haunted House

Fright Meter: 4

Grade: B

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One thought on “13 Ghosts (1960)

  1. Pingback: The Month in Film: October 2012 | Journeys in Classic Film

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