13 Ghosts (1960)

OCTOBER 26, 2009


I think, if I was a kid in the 50s and 60s, that I would be spending all my allowance money going to William Castle movies again and again. Assuming 30 years in the past me had the same tastes, I would be overjoyed with the gimmicks, the intros, the whole shebang. Nowadays, I of course watch films like 13 Ghosts whenever I get the chance (will someone PLEASE show The Tingler with the buzzers again around here?), but while the charm is still there, the novelty has worn off a bit, since I am so used to the modern gimmicks (IMAX, found footage movies, etc) that Castle would surely have approved of had he lived to see them.

The gimmick of Ghosts is the “Ghost Viewer”, a device that Castle explained how to use in the film’s opening sequence. If you want to see the ghosts, you look through the red lenses, and if you don’t want to see them, you look through the blue. Of course, you can do nothing and see the ghosts too, and also make out the rest of the image (the red “view” tends to turn everything that’s not a ghost into one solid mush), but you gotta love the concept, and damned if I didn’t switch from red to blue every single time using the viewer was prompted. I was also surprised to see how many of them truly worked; depending on how sharp the contrast was with the background, the ghosts would indeed be invisible when looking through the blue lens. But then you’re just staring at a blank wall or the little kid looking off into nothingness (sort of like watching the behind the scenes of any green-screen heavy modern film), so I would just recommend sucking it up and seeing the ghosts.

Gimmick aside, it’s a pretty fun movie for the most part. The end kind of sucks, but I like the main family a lot (the kid is terrific), and each ghost is different enough to be memorable, from the lion trainer to the executioner to the chef that seems to have inspired a particular Swedish Muppet, they are all fun to watch during their brief appearances on-screen (you won’t need the glasses for more than maybe 10-15 total minutes of the film) and, despite being 50 years old, largely convincing in their ghostly appearance (the fakest effect in the film is a fly that “buzzes” around the mother, with almost nothing done to hide its string).

And how hot is Jo Morrow as the daughter? It’s not often I find myself attracted to women in older films (the hair usually kills it for me) but damn. And she’s a good actress too - it’s a shame her role in the remake went to someone who could only fit one half of that description. I also enjoyed Donald Woods as the father, who cheerfully explains to his son how to use a Ouija board and is hardly concerned for his family’s well-being once he discovers the ghosts in his home.

Back to the remake though, I can almost see why they would make the plot so convoluted, since the story here is so thin. It’s a fun movie and all, but it’s also built around the gimmick, and lacks the devilish fun of House On Haunted Hill. Of course, no one in the cast can match the awesomeness of Vincent Price, but still, I wouldn’t have minded another wrench in the works to keep the middle act afloat, as there’s a large chunk there where nothing seems to be happening beyond people walking around the house and not being scared by ghosts.

The film was preceded by the terrific Castle doc Spine Tingler, which I saw last year the AFI Film Festival (and could have sworn I reviewed at the time, but alas). Work kept me from seeing the whole thing again (I came in during pre-production on Rosemary’s Baby), but I saw enough to remember what a great doc it was, and how well it was put together by Jeffrey Schwarz and his crew. It’s funny, jam-packed with great Castle anecdotes (On Polanski’s obsession with getting a particular shot right: “42 takes? I’ve done entire movies in 42 takes!”), and ends in the best possible manner - with a long line of folks waiting to get in to a New Bev-like theater that was showing The Tingler. There’s something quite fitting about that, and I once again thanked the movie gods that LA has such a great revival scene. Those of you who want to check out the doc (and other Castle films) - a new boxed set, featuring just about every Castle directed film as well as Spine Tingler, hits stores today!

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1 comment:

  1. I think going to a William Castle film back in the day would have been very fun. A film hardly interacts with its audience these days especially the way Castle's films did. I have never seen this the original, but now that I know there is a collection of his films, I'm definitely looking out for it.


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