From The Vaults: '13 Ghosts' (1960)
Oh William Castle, I love you so. I cannot resist your theatrical gimmicks, even when they hopelessly slow the pacing of your movie. I adore your lengthy and unnecessarily elaborate introductions. I cherish your perfect jump scares. I want to snuggle your great big chin. How I wish to go back in time and see one of your movies on opening night with a big crowd. But I will take what I can get.
“13 Ghosts” (in Illusion-O!) is one of the gimmicky films for which Castle is famous, coming right on the heels of “The House on Haunted Hill” -- with Emergo, a skeleton that swung out over the audience during the acid-bath climax -- and “The Tingler” -- with Percepto, a vibrating device rigged into theater seats. The next year, Castle released “Homicidal,” which had a 45-second “fright break” before the climax, in case anyone was too scared to continue watching. I just love how he doesn't mind if you're distracted from the movie – to him moviegoing is an interactive experience. However you feel about him as a filmmaker, you have to admire his showmanship.
Illusion-O! (it takes an exclamation point, like Yahoo!) consisted of a paper viewer with strips of red and blue cellophane. If you believe in ghosts, Castle explains in his charmingly earnest introduction, look through the red strip; if you don't, look through the blue. The ghost scenes are all layered with blue and the ghosts appear in red, so I guess if you looked through the blue you'd see nothing, which of course nobody wants to do. It's a completely goofy gimmick – you don't even need a viewer to see the ghosts (whew) – but it would've been so much fun in a theater full of people. I felt sort of lame watching the movie at home.
The plot concerns the wonderfully named Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods), who inherits a house full of ghosts, a special pair of glasses that allows him to see them, and a creepy old housekeeper played by – Margaret Hamilton! At first Cyrus scoffs at the idea of ghosts, but the glasses convince him they're real: he sees flickering red figures that scream and wail and burst into flame. Are they a danger to his sensible wife (Rosemary DeCamp), comely daughter ("Gidget" alum Jo Morrow) and wee son (Charles Herbert)? Can friendly lawyer Ben (Martin Milner) help him solve the mystery?
As an aside, ghost stories really always do just turn into mystery stories, don't they? The problem is that ghosts can't really *do* anything to you... they can't suck your blood or chase you through the streets. And yet they are uniquely terrifying. Why is that? Hmm.
Anyway, the ghost effects here are surprisingly beautiful. I love the saturated blue screen that comes up for all the ghost moments, and the flickering red figures are fantastic-looking. As individuals, the ghosts are over-the-top campy -- there's a ghost chef with an outrageously fake mustache, wielding a meat cleaver, and a headless ghost lion-tamer, trying futilely to wedge his absent head into a ghost lion's mouth. (Castle must've spent some money on the lion, as it gets way too much screen time. What is scary about a ghost lion?)
And the look of the house is pretty nice. It's a classic haunted house, with antique-style furniture and a giant oil portrait of a creepy ancestor. And did I mention Margaret Hamilton, dressed in black, holding a broom (ha!), frowning from the top of the stairs?
The problem is, of course, that the cool blue-red ghost effect absolutely removes any element of surprise whatsoever from the ghosts' appearance. You're not even surprised when the screen goes blue, because Castle sticks a big "USE VIEWER" banner under the preceding shot, so you can get yours into position. This movie has exactly one really good scare -- and it's someone only pretending to be a ghost, and you know they're pretending because the screen isn't blue. But it is a super-effective scare; it reminded me of the best moments in "The House on Haunted Hill," a movie that just about knocked my socks off.
There's also a Ouija board scene that is just about perfect. The best thing about a Ouija board is the parlor-game-gone-horribly-wrong aspect, and the scene plays it perfectly: Cyrus and his family find a Ouija board in the haunted house, think it looks like fun, and gradually get more and more creeped out by the answers to their questions: "Are there any ghosts in this house?" (YES.) "How many are there?" (Oh, guess.) And, most chillingly, "Are they going to hurt us?" ... Brr!
After a while, though, things got a little boring. I got up and cleaned a little and checked my email and said "Isn't this movie over yet?" But seeing it in a crowded theater, with the full Illusion-O! effect, would almost certainly have been awesome. And the last moment of the movie completely won my heart: Margaret Hamilton walks into the living room, picks up a broom, looks directly at the camera and waggles her eyebrows. It's perfect! Oh William... rise from the grave and be mine.
The DVD comes with a short featurette, talking to Castle fans and movie historians, all of whom still have their "Illusion-O!" viewers. A certain blogger named Larry H. -- no, that's too obvious; we'll call him L. Harnisch -- says he hung on to his for many years too. I want one! Oh well. Watch Castle introduce the film and explain the gimmick:
Next week: A movie from neither 1920 nor 1960! What could it be?
-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon