13 Ghosts: A Celebration of 1960 Horror Retrospective
In the hot summer of 1960, one of the few places that had air conditioning in the small town where I lived was the local movie theater. That summer we went to the movies a lot. I can’t remember if it was during THE BELLBOY or THE ALAMO, but there was a preview for William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS and I was hooked. I had to see it.
By 1960 producer-director William Castle was at the height of his career. He had already unleashed such “shockers” as MACABRE, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and THE TINGLER. Castle was a showman first and movie-maker second. I like to think of him as the smiling carny who stood outside the tent and promised things he couldn’t possibly deliver. However, when you are seven years old, you believe him when he promises that the amazing new process of Illusion O will allow you to see 13 ghosts on screen. More importantly, if your nerve deserted you, the process would allow you to make the ghosts disappear.
After endless weeks of anticipation, the opening day for 13 GHOSTS finally arrived. Every kid in town had lined up for the Saturday matinee, hoping for one of the coveted seats in the balcony of the Geneva Theatre (please note, I am Canadian and we spell it theatre, instead of theater). Everyone got their own ghost viewer when they entered the theatre, handed out by bored ushers who instructed us that we would need them to see the ghosts.
All the kids who crowded into the theater were wired up on a giant sugar rush powered by soda and chocolate. The air was filled with flying popcorn boxes and anticipation as the lights dropped. The curtain rose and William Castle himself gave us a pseudo-scientific lecture on how to use our ghost viewers. To see the ghosts we needed to look through the red lens, if we were chicken we could make them disappear by looking through the blue lens (as if).
13 GHOSTS is really old fashioned, with bad dialogue, lame acting and cheesy special effects. However, it captivated a group of small town seven-year-olds and even shut up the rowdies in the balcony.
13 GHOSTS follows the adventures of the Zorba family, who always seem to be on the verge of bankruptcy even though Mr. Zorba appears to have a good (albeit somewhat undefined) job at the local museum. The family, who seem like great candidates for a subprime loan, have just had all their furniture repossessed by the finance company, when a telegram arrives (producing one of the few genuine shocks in the film) to inform them that a distant uncle has passed away and left them his house and, as we later find out, his collection of ghosts from around the world.
The late professor Zorba, we learn, had invented a ghost viewer – which was much more elaborate than the cheap cardboard versions we got – that allowed him to see and capture the ghosts and then contain them in his house. All this is explained by a young lawyer who might as well have a flashing sign over his head to indicate his role in all of this. The lawyer was played by Martin Milner, who would go on to television stardom that fall in ROUTE 66.
The Zorba family happily packs up and moves right in. Apart from their dubious financial skills, the Zorbas are also numb-skulls: the father, mother, and daughter are basically throw away characters, while the son Buck stands in for the target demographic, impressionable young boys.
The only lively piece of acting in 13 GHOSTS arrives courtesy of Margaret Hamilton as the mysterious housekeeper. Her performance is enhanced because she doesn’t have much of the clunky dialogue that the script overflows with. Most of her role involves not too subtle references to her classic part as the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Once the ghosts show up the film comes to life. Part supernatural thriller and part old dark house mystery, 13 GHOSTS reaches a more or less satisfying conclusion with the mystery solved, the Zorbas rich and the house ghost free… or is it?
My friends, who hadn’t seen nearly as many horror movies as I had, spent the movie sliding down deep into their seats while I spent the entire film mesmerized. When it was over we all agreed that it was “awesome” or whatever the 1960’s equivalent to “awesome” was, and we all vowed to go again and again.
We never did.
13 GHOSTS created an indelible memory that I carried down the years, refusing to see the film again because I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my recollections of it from the summer of 1960. Several months ago, we watched the DVD of Joe Dante’s MATINEE, and my teenaged daughter asked who William Castle was. We watched the documentary on the William Castle box set that Sony released last year, and she really wanted to see some of the films including 13 GHOSTS.
Finally relenting, I picked up a copy of the DVD that included the ghost viewer version with the color inserts that revealed the ghosts through the tinted lenses (the Sony box set, unfortunately, includes only the all black-and-white version). What would a slightly cynical, hip teenager think of this black and white museum piece? And what would I think after a half a century?
Sure, the story is corny, the acting stilted and the special effects cheesy, but my daughter got caught up in the mystery and the mechanics of her ghost viewer. And, I must confess, for 85 precious minutes, I was sitting amid the flying popcorn boxes, clutching my orange soda and ghost viewer thrilling at flying meat cleavers, headless lion tamers and hidden treasure in a haunted house.
William Castle went on to create ’60s cult classics such as MR. SARDONICUS, HOMICIDAL, and STRAIGHTJACKET. Today he is celebrated for the outrageous gimmicks he employed to draw audiences, and if he were making films today it would be interesting to see what kind of gimmicks he would use.
Fifty years ago his ghost viewer opened a whole new doorway into the supernatural for a generation of bored school children. And as part of that audience I hail him and 13 GHOSTS for making the summer of 1960 a chilling one for my friends and me.
13 GHOSTS (1960). Produced and directed by William Castle. Written by Robb White. Cast: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Martin Milner, Rosemary DeCamp, Donald Woods, Margaret Hamilton, John Van Dreelen.