1/13/10

13 Ghosts (1960): Mr. Castle Gets the Blues

Come one, come all. It’s that special time of the week when we spend our Wednesday with William. In order for each of you to enjoy this review in all its glory, every reader has been issued a set of set of special invisible Script-O Goggles. As you read on you will find this review is full of special thrills and chills brought to vivid life by way of those magical, invisible, internet goggles. You will marvel at how vivid the color of the text is, how fine the font (Ariel like you’ve never experienced it before!), and you will want to bask in the glow of how clever and insightful I am. Those of you who’ve already donned your Script-O’s might even be feeling something like that already. No? Well, I assure you that as we explore the William Castle classic 13 Ghosts, you shall!

The Zorba family is down on their luck. Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) can’t even make ends meet to keep his family’s furniture. So when he gets a mysterious telegram and finds out that he’s inherited a fully outfitted mansion from a forgotten uncle, it’s the break that they’ve been needing. Unfortunately, along with being fully furnished, the house also comes fully stocked with a selection of 12 captured spirits. The Zorba family must survive the apparitions of a killer cook, headless lion tamer, and flaming skeletons without becoming the 13th ghost. If they make it, they might be lucky enough to find a hidden treasure, all of the departed Uncle’s cash, hidden somewhere in the house.

Usually I wait until a little later on to talk about the gimmick, but Illusion-O was so much of a part of this film. As the patrons entered the theater, they were given the Illusion-O viewer which you can see pictured on the left. At the beginning of the film, Mr. Castle explains that if you look through the blue part, for the faint of heart, the ghosts will disappear, and if you choose the red part, for the brave, they will all but leap out of the screen. The film is littered with moments where the film turns a light blue color, the words ‘Use Viewer” come on the screen, and an array of “ghosts” can be seen. While I understand the viewer did indeed work, the spirits can be seen by the naked eye. I would love to see the film with the viewer, but I didn’t even have a pair of 3-D glasses around to check it out with.

As much as the gimmick intrigued me, it does feel a bit intrusive to the film in a general sense. The narrative is frequently interrupted for a lengthy ghost sequence that even with the viewer doesn't appear to be action packed. Now that’s not to say I did not enjoy several of them. The ghost lion with the headless ghost lion tamer was very amusing, and who among us does not like a flaming skeleton? This time Castle came up with a promotion that actually did work, but not so much with the film itself. Don‘t get me wrong. As a theater experience, I can‘t see how it wouldn‘t be a blast, but most of us will never get to see this film beyond our home. Looking at 13 Ghosts as a film, it doesn’t hold up as well as House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler.

One of the other reasons for this is the Zorba family. Donald Woods was fifth billed as the father Cyrus Zorba, but the long time character actor was the high point in the film’s cast. Grabbing top billing was child star Charles Herbert as the idiotic child Buck Zorba. Herbert, and Buck, about drove me crazy because this kid was a flat out moron. There’s just no two ways around it. Just watch the scene he shares with Route 66 star Martin Milner as Ben Rush, the devious lawyer. This kid can be talked into anything by any adult. I guess I should be thankful that the lawyer just wanted to steal money from the family because there’s no telling what Buck might have agreed to.

Then you’ve got Zorba’s daughter, Madea. Now there’s nothing wrong with Jo Morrow or her acting, and I even found her quite fetching. The problem is her name, Madea. William Castle and screenwriter Robb White could not have foreseen Tyler Perry, and so they could not have anticipated the audience thinking about “family reunions” or how she can “do bad all by herself”. I, on the other hand, quite maturely could not resist cracking a few such jokes. On the other end of the references spectrum was Margaret Hamilton. Playing the creepy housekeeper who gets thrown in with the creepy house, the actress, better known as The Wicked Witch of the West, winks at her own image in a time long before The Wizard of Oz gained cult status.

The parts of the film that were uninhibited by the blue filter looked quite good thanks to cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc. He would go on to shoot such diverse films such as Confessions of an Opium Eater, Blazing Saddles, and Flight of the Phoenix. 13 Ghosts got a score from frequent Castle collaborator Von Dexter who both has a badass name and really carries the film though the disjointed gimmick driven moments. As a package, 13 Ghosts is an entertaining film, but it does lose a little something for the home viewer. It also doesn’t have the narrative strength of some of Castle's other films.

Now before I close out, I have to talk about the 2001 remake, Thirteen Ghosts. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who will disagree with me, but this is one case where I enjoy the remake more than the original. It dispatched with the Illusion-O gimmick, though kept the viewers intact though a plot point, and amped up the ghosts into a group of genuinely creepy creatures. While the remake doesn’t have the Castle’s flair, it does provide a solid argument in favor of the remake. One of the things any remake needs to do is remind you of the original. Each time I take in Tony Shalhoub and Rah Digga battling The Angry Princess and The Jackal, it makes we want to take a second look at Castle’s classic so I can bask in the comforting blue glow of Illusion-O.

Bugg Rating

5 comments:

  1. The remake has moments, although I -far- preferred the HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL re-do, and thus felt TH13TEEN GHOSTS (sp?) was a bit disappointing.

    That said, I found the 'headless lion-tamer' part of the original to be pretty damn memorable! It almost seems to me as if it was supposed to whimsical, but it was sorta odd and genuinely creepy to me for some reason. *shrugs* I dunno, haven't looked at this one for a long time, myself. Neat review, though.

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  2. Thanks for the comment J. I really like the lion tamer bit myself, actually all the ghosts even though they were immobile for the most part.

    As far as the remake, there's going to be lots more to be said about that, but I have to hold off until October and The Halloween Top 13:The Remake

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  3. I have to say that I side with the remake on this one,as well. It kicked ass, were as the this one lat me a bit bland. Nice review, as always.

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  4. I really wish I could have seen this back in the day when it was 3D in theaters.

    While the ghosts in the remake are much scarier, this is by far the superior work.

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  5. Although the remake was a good movie, the original 1960 version will always be my favorite. I saw it as a child in the theatres.

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