13 Ghosts (1960)
Monday December, 9 2013 at 06:15 PM
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Columbia Pictures producer William Castle and screenwriter Robb White collaborated on a series of horror pictures in the late 1950s that were equal parts showmanship (the gimmicks that huckster Castle concocted are now the stuff of legend) and genuinely subversive creepiness (White's concepts were often outrageous and his dialogue sharp and edgy, even if Castle's mundane direction often diluted it). Following Macabre (1958) and House on Haunted Hill (1959), the pair reached a peak with The Tingler (1959), starring Vincent Price. This film featured a wild concept (parasitic creatures that exist in human spinal columns and feed on fright) and Castle's most famous gimmick to date (Percepto! - random theatre seats rigged with electric vibration devices).
As a follow-up, Castle decided to forgo the blatantly adult situations and unpleasant characters on display in The Tingler and produce a film for juvenile audiences with an All-American family at its center. Depending on your age when you first see it, 13 Ghosts (1960) works as either spooky fun (like a potentially dangerous ride in a low-rent carnival Spook House) or an exercise in campy nostalgia. Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods), a Paleontologist at Los Angles County Museum, has trouble keeping his family financially afloat due to his low salary and the absent-mindedness typical of movie scientists. The family, including his wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp), adult daughter Medea (Jo Morrow) and young son Buck (Charles Herbert) gather for Buck's birthday party on the same day that the furniture is repossessed from their house. Blowing out his birthday candles, Buck wishes for a new house with furniture, and almost instantly Cyrus is called into the office of his lawyer Ben Rush (Martin Milner) and told that his uncle, Dr. Plato Zorba, has died and left him a furnished house. The catch is that Plato investigated ghosts and the ghosts come with the house! Uncle Plato has also left behind a box containing weird goggles of his own invention - a "ghost viewer" with which to see the apparitions. The Zorba family moves into the rambling, creepy mansion, which is kept by the witch-like housekeeper Elaine Zacharides (Margaret Hamilton). A Ouija board divulges to the family that ghosts do indeed occupy the house, and they become visible to anyone who dons the viewer.
The original theater experience of 13 Ghosts was quite different from video viewings today. The gimmick that Castle came up with for moviegoers was a practical user-held version of the Ghost Viewer that characters in the movie employed. Castle found the inspiration for his gimmick in a trip to the eye doctor. He writes in his book Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul, "wearing the heavy frames and looking through the assorted lenses, I felt I was in a strange, distorted world. With each new lens the doctor inserted, my vision became more blurred. Finally the right lens was inserted and everything suddenly cleared. I needed glasses, but I had the right gimmick for 13 Ghosts...ILLUSION-O." Castle said that "many months and thousands of dollars were spent trying to make ghosts appear and disappear. Forty tests were made, each one failing. I started to regret the waste of time and had about decided to shelve the entire idea when we finally succeeded - a simple pair of green and blue plastic lenses of just the right density made the ghosts appear miraculously." In addition to the fact that Castle got the lens colors wrong (they were red and blue), the producer seems to be embellishing his technological research here. The lenses used in the Ghost Viewer were the same as those used for Anaglyph 3-D movies, a technology that had already been around for decades. While the 3-D features of the 1950s used the superior Polaroid lenses, many short subjects and a few features had employed the Anaglyph method, so the knowledge of what color and density was needed to filter images on movie film was not a challenge for the makers of 13 Ghosts. (It should be stressed that 13 Ghosts was never in 3-D - the lenses were stacked and were not meant to filter each eye, but rather both eyes; the viewer allowed one to peer through either the red filter or the blue filter, but not both at once).
Jo Morrow told interviewer Tom Weaver (in Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks: Conversations with 24 Actors, Writers, Producers and Directors from the Golden Age) that she was cast in the film primarily because she was the only Columbia contract player with enough experience to complete the film before an impending actor's strike. "Inexperienced people slow them down, so a ten-day picture would end up being 15 days. And if they had to hold everybody together during the strike, they would be over budget...I said, 'You can't do this to me! I just got through with Our Man in Havana! I starred with Alec Guinness! Please don't do this to me!'" Morrow had trained in the Lee Strasburg "method" acting style, and had a famous run-in with director Castle, who "...decided one of the scenes would work better if I was over by the fireplace, so he wanted me to walk across the room to the fireplace. I said 'What's my motivation?' Well, he looked at me and had this look on his face - he started shaking, his hands started shaking, his mouth, his eyes, everything started scrunching up. And he said 'I'll kick you in the ass! That's your motivation!'"
Screenwriter Robb White was interviewed by Tom Weaver (in Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes), and had few kind words concerning William Castle ("the coldest, most ruthless con man I've ever known"), in spite of writing five scripts for the producer. White had even fewer kind words to say about 13 Ghosts: "I didn't give a sh*t about that thing; I'd say it was my least favorite of the five films I made with Bill. 13 Ghosts was his idea and I couldn't see any point in it at all. I don't think it made any sense..." White claimed that his only real recollection of the shooting was of one of the "ghosts" - the lion of an unlucky circus trainer. "I had expected the King of Beasts, but what we got was an ancient, slightly mangy female. So we're shooting one of the lion scenes, when this old lion starts to pee! Lions don't pee in the same direction we do, they pee out the back, and it has a great deal more velocity and volume. As the stream kept coming, the lion made a slow, and I believe deliberate, turn through 360 degrees. She wet down everybody but the cameraman, who yanked a sheet of plywood out of the floor and used it as a shield."
Critic Howard Thompson of The New York Times described the Ghost Viewer at the top of his review, and considered it a distraction. "This mild little spook melodrama...would be a lot better off without this gimmick. It's too bad Mr. Castle, in serving up his ghosts, didn't simply have some cartoonists draw 'em on in full view. We have in mind, specifically, that dandy ghost entry during World War II called The Uninvited , when those vaporish coils were molesting Ray Milland and Gail Russell." Some critics over the years have also found fault with the title of the film, feeling that the arbitrary number of ghosts reflected the arbitrary nature of the movie as a whole. Fortunately for us all, Castle printed a handy list of all 13 ghosts in his autobiography:
1. The clutching hands.
2. The floating head.
3. Flaming skeleton.
4. Screaming woman.
5. Emilio with cleaver in his hand.
6. His unfaithful wife.
7. Her lover.
8. Executioner and decapitated head.
9. Hanging woman.
11. Lion tamer without head.
12. Dr. Zorba.
Aside from missing the original in-theater novelty of the Ghost Viewer sequences, a viewing of the "straight" black-and-white version of 13 Ghosts was also missing the personal introduction and wrap-up sequence featuring William Castle himself. The introduction is a rather straightforward explanation of the glasses, while the coda offers this parting word from the Master of the Gimmick: "Just a moment before you leave. If any of you are not yet convinced that there really are ghosts, take the Supernatural Viewer home with you. And tonight, when you're alone and your room is in darkness, look through the red part of the Viewer - If you dare!"
Producer: William Castle
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Robb White
Music: Von Dexter
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Editing: Edwin Bryant
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Set Decoration: Louis Diage
Cast: Charles Herbert (Buck Zorba), Jo Morrow (Medea Zorba), Rosemary DeCamp (Hilda Zorba), Martin Milner (Ben Rush), Donald Woods (Cyrus Zorba), Margaret Hamilton (Elaine Zacharides), John Van Dreelen (Van Allen), William Castle (himself - theatrical version only).
by John M. Miller
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