Thursday, October 27, 2011

Night of Terror #27: '13 Ghosts'

Hello, all. Time for another guest blog entry from America's Number 1 William Castle fan, Phoebe Heyman. Here she is to tell us about one of Castle's most famous movies, 13 Ghosts. Remember - Look through the red lens if you believe in Phoebe, and the blue lens if you don't:

Hello horror fans! I approached the original 13 Ghosts with some interest, as I was a big fan of the remake, Thir13en Ghosts, in my youth. My friend James brought it to a gathering at my house, having picked it up in a Blockbuster fire sale or something, and probably intended us all to watch it ironically. Fortunately, I enjoyed the movie and he decided to leave it at my house, where I went on to rewatch it several times for a hit of gothic imagery that harmonized with obsessively re-reading the liner notes to "Antichrist Superstar." Also: In preparing this article, I realized that I have long been mis-remembering the opening scene of Thir13en Ghosts as belonging to Se7en, a truly embarrassing conflation. Do both scenes take place in the rain, or is it just the numbers-for-letters thing?

The original 13 Ghosts is less scary, less gory and a lot more fun than the remake. It's quite gentle for a horror movie, which is reasonably unsurprising for a William Castle movie. The movie opens on a museum tour discussing the La Brea tar pits (to be later given cinematic fame in My Girl 2), setting the story in LA. The main character, Cyrus Zorba, who's been leading the tour, learns he has inherited a nearby mansion from a distant uncle, Dr. Plato Zorba. We find out that Dr. Zorba was an occultist who collected ghosts, which now live in the mansion. Cyrus Zorba and his family, hard up for rent, decide to move into the mansion, and quickly encounter the ghosts. But is the executor of the estate, Ben Rush, trying to help them deal with the ghosts, or simply to get his hands on the apocryphal fortune believed to be hidden in the house?

Every William Castle movie has a gimmick and this movie's is "Illusion-O." Viewers were given a special "ghost viewer" that featured a red and blue pane of cellophane. All the scenes featuring ghosts are tinted blue; a timid viewer could look through the blue pane of the ghost viewer and not see the ghosts. But an intrepid viewer could look through the red pane and see the ghosts (which are colored red in the film) even more clearly. In our household, we were lamenting the fact that we couldn't experience the effect when Joe remembered he had a pair of 3D glasses that came with a Harold Lloyd box set. (In the movie, the "ghost viewer" concept shows up in the plot as a pair of special goggles built by Dr. Zorba and included in the estate.) The ghosts are visible to the naked eye without the goggles, but it's fun to see them disappear or stand out even more clearly when looking through the blue or red lens.

The movie's plot is straightforward and doesn't include too many big scares, relying instead on the special effects, which depict a pretty benign host of ghosts, for excitement. The plot centers on the film's child star, Charles Herbert (as Cyrus's son Buck), who controversially received top billing over the adult actors - which seems deserved after watching the movie! Other characters include older sister Medea and a literal witch of a housekeeper, Elaine. Played by famous witch portrayer Margaret Hamilton, she ends the film with a great "stinger" conclusion. Another William Castle pick that's fun for the whole family this Halloween!


  1. I love both versions. The Castle edition is better, but the Tony Shalhoub one is one of my favorite recent bad movies. I was managing a theater in the Treme in New Orleans when the remake came out. You can't fully appreciate that film until you've heard a half-full theater blurt a collective "DAAAAMN!" while watching Matthew Lillard get snapped in half.

  2. I was going to mention that scene in this review but forgot! That's a great moment.