What a great title. Before I soundly rip into 13 Ghosts for 1200 words, let me get out of the way that it’s just a great title. You immediately know what you’re in for, images of spooky things and old houses probably come flooding into your mind before you even think to ask more questions. Castle’s titles were usually inspired and arresting, but this one is one of his best for sure.
13 Ghosts stars Donald Woods as Cyrus Zorba (again, more great titles), a professor whose eccentric uncle, Dr. Plato Zorba, dies, leaving him a grand estate. Once Cyrus and his family move in they are confronted by the titular ghosts and the mysteries surrounding Dr. Zorba’s death begin to unravel.
Now, hearing that you might think that this movie is like Macabre or House on Haunted Hill, the sort of horror movie that’s half genuine frights and half deliberate camp. 13 Ghosts is none of that. 13 Ghosts is 84 minutes of admittedly charming special effects and not much else. In the last issue of “The Castle Report,” I stated my main goal with writing this series: The films of William Castle deserve to be respected artistically and taken seriously, not treated purely as novelties to be made fun of. 13 Ghosts is, I believe, the biggest antithesis to this goal, the worst example of why that goal is even worth bothering with.
First, the main event, the ghosts. In The Tingler, the titular monster was indeed an important part of the movie, a central aspect of most scenes, and the frequent topic of conversation. It was also, however, not on screen for much of the film. Most of the runtime was spent with Vincent Price and the other characters trying to figure out what to do about the titular monster, not following it around visually. 13 Ghosts is all about showing us the ghosts. Much of the film’s runtime is spent just watching them do their individual bits. Not threaten the characters, not provide suspense or danger, just… kind of be there. The chef ghost floats around and throws cleavers at things, the couple ghosts dance, the lion ghost (why yes, one of the ghosts is a lion) snarls and looks vaguely disinterested in everything. And the characters just kind of stop and watch.
The gimmick that was attached to the film at its release likely would have made this all a bit more enjoyable, but I can’t imagine it would help too much. Theatergoers were given “Illusion-O” glasses, which looked like traditional red and blue 3D glasses, but with a solid bar of one color on top and another solid bar of color on the bottom. In scenes where the ghosts are present, audiences were encouraged to look through the red color to make the ghosts appear brighter, while if they were “too scared” they were encouraged to look through the blue color and not see the filtered ghosts. Home video releases since have attempted to replicate what looking through the red color would look like, since they aren’t about to make all those pairs of glasses, and really, who doesn’t want to see the ghosts in 13 Ghosts?
The biggest problem with all of this is that the gimmick is on screen for a long, long time, in ways that Castle’s gimmicks in his earlier films were not. Macabre’s life insurance policy didn’t actually change the film, House on Haunted Hill’s flying skeleton influences things a little, but it doesn’t really hang around too long, and The Tingler only has the titular monster break out into the theater once during its runtime. In 13 Ghosts we’re constantly stopping just so characters can stare at the ghosts.
Let’s talk about those characters. 13 Ghosts introduces one of Castle’s great weaknesses as a filmmaker: god-awfully annoying child characters. Buck, the son of the family in 13 Ghosts, is just the most annoying little brat you’ve ever seen. He’s mean to his sister and the maid of the house (who is the best part of the cast, played by The Wicked Witch of the West herself Margaret Hamilton), constantly shouts seemingly random nonsense in an “aw-golly” kind of voice, and above all is dumb even beyond the standards we expect of an 11-year-old (some of whom I’ve known to be very smart, this one just isn’t). I might sound harsh, but keep in mind I don’t blame any of this on Charles Herbert’s performance, he just has absolutely nothing good to work with. Buck runs around the film staring at ghosts and being a little jerk and the whole time we just have to watch. It’s really quite maddening, especially when you imagine what the film could have been like with an older character written more like an adult in the lead role (maybe the sister of the family Medea, who is just kind of… there for most of the scenes she’s in). When the film begins it seems like the father of the family Cyrus will be who we follow, but pretty quickly Buck takes over the show.
Other than Buck nobody else gets to do much. There’s a handsome young lawyer, the maid, the mother of the family Hilda, and I guess if you want to stretch it Cyrus’ boss at work who’s in a few scenes, but none of them have much to do compared to the time we spend watching Buck walk around the house and stare at ghosts. There’s the usual very slight crime plot that’s present in all of the Robb White written Castle films, but it’s so bare-bones that it almost doesn’t need to be mentioned.
So, why am I being so harsh? So far in this series, I’ve been pretty giving to all of Castle’s films, trying to champion them as artistic works that are worthy of respect as opposed to simply gimmick delivery vehicles. Well, that’s where my harshness comes from. I just can’t do that with 13 Ghosts. The only way to really, truly enjoy it is to view it as what it is: a gimmick film. You’re supposed to point and laugh and go “ooooo” at the ghosts and that’s about it. The mystery isn’t important, the characters aren’t important, all that the film really wants is to find an excuse to get you to the next ghost and there are 13 of them, so we spend quite a lot of time doing that watching. It’s not necessarily a bad gimmick film. The ghosts look fun and cool and of course, the spooky house and the music and the costumes are all on point just like in Castle’s previous films, but in the end, the gimmick is all there really is.
If someone loves this film I wouldn’t hold that against them at all and in no way would I be confused by someone having that view. I can very easily picture a family, especially one with young children, having a great time watching this movie. It lacks the darker moments of Castle’s previous three films and along with the gimmick, it would likely work very well as slight, fun Halloween entertainment. The kind of thing you might put on in the background of a party. That’s a perfectly admirable thing to make or to enjoy, but as someone trying to see Castle’s work in a serious, artistic way, it is undeniably frustrating.