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13 Ghosts

13 Ghosts(1960)

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13 Ghosts (1960)

To say that William Castle's 13 Ghosts fails to add up to the sum of its parts (or ghosts) isn't to deny its occasional charms. The film begins well, with a genuinely unsettling title sequence (all the more powerful for the accompanying chorus of ghostly groans and monstrous moans), which gives way in the first scene to a sly Robb White speech. Delivered by impoverished paleontologist Donald Woods to a high school class gathered in the fossil room of the Los Angeles County Museum, the monologue suggests that life in the cutthroat age of dinosaurs wasn't much different from the (then) contemporary Hollywood scene. Later, a sad family gathering around a birthday cake (in an empty house from which all the furniture has been repossessed) yields a Monkey's Paw style wish for a new home... followed by a knock at the door. Castle stages a good false scare in the form of cadaverous messenger David Hoffman (the talking head from Universal's Inner Sanctum series), who bears a telegram informing Woods that such a house is now his, courtesy of his late millionaire uncle Plato Zorba, ghost collector.

13 Ghosts falls apart in its second act when Castle is forced to show his hand and make his baker's dozen of horripilating haints appear. In the film's theatrical release, a special color process that Castle dubbed "Illusion-O" was used that (when combined with special giveaway glasses called "ghost viewers") allowed audiences to see the ghosts or not, if they felt faint-hearted. Most versions of the film now are solely in black-and-white, with the ghosts plain as day and minus Castle's opening and concluding on-camera remarks. Any way you view them, Castle's thirteen ghosts disappoint, being nothing more than simple double exposures when they're not represented by props "floating" on piano wire. Midway through, Castle stages a dud set piece involving a ghost lion but even worse is he keeps cutting away from a decent sance scene for business with a juvenile actor. Uncharacteristic of a Robb White script, the specters are revealed to be genuine but a grab-the-will B-plot is tacked on in the form of the only suspect available; if you can't guess the identity of the scoundrel early on, you're just not paying attention.

Happily, Castle's assembled cast keeps the proceedings lively and quick. Donald Woods and Rosemary De Camp make for appealing Hugh and June Cleaver surrogates (and we get to see what Woods does for a living) but Jo Morrow and Charles Herbert are an inspired brother and sister act. Morrow had already played a bottle blonde leading lady to dreamy Kerwin Mathews in The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Herbert went from bit work in The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) to prominent roles in The Fly (1958) and The Colossus of New York (1958). In a career-spanning interview with film writer Tom Weaver, Morrow claimed that she and Herbert hit it off during the filming of 13 Ghosts and even socialized off-camera. (Lucky kid!) Castle should have spun the pair off into their own TV series. Also keeping spirits light is Margaret Hamilton, some twenty years past her career high as The Wizard of Oz's (1939) Wicked Witch of the West, having great fun as a hag-eyed housekeeper who gives good sance.

Producer: William Castle
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Robb White
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Film Editing: Edwin Bryant
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: Von Dexter
Cast: Charles Herbert (Buck Zorba), Jo Morrow (Medea Zorba), Rosemary De Camp (Hilda Zorba), Martin Milner (Ben Rush), Donald Woods (Cyrus Zorba), Margaret Hamilton (Elaine Zacharides).
BW-82m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

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13 Ghosts (1960)

The initial inspiration for 13 Ghosts came while William Castle and his wife were driving through France. Seeing a dilapidated house for sale, Castle dreamed up the gimmick to give away a haunted house as a promotion for his next film.

William Castle's brainstorm for the "Illusion-O" gimmick of special "ghost-viewers" came during a visit to his ophthalmologist.

Child actor Charles Herbert was lured to appear in 13 Ghosts with the promise of top billing.

When Lee Strasberg student Jo Morrow pestered William Castle for her motivation in one scene, Castle snapped "Your motivation is that I'm the director and I'm the producer and if you don't go over there I'm gonna fire your ass."

During shooting, Morrow clashed further with Castle and the costuming department over her distaste for wearing brassieres.

Veteran Hollywood heavy Roy Jenson plays one of the 13 ghosts.

While filming the ghost lion scene, the female sprayed the entire crew, forcing the cameraman to use a sheet of plywood as a shield.

Compiled by Richard Harland Smith

Archival interview with Martin Milner
Interview with Jo Morrow by Tom Weaver, Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks: Conversations with 24 Actors, Writers, Producers and Directors from the Golden Age
Interview with Robb White by Tom Weaver, Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes

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13 Ghosts (1960)

William Castle was born William Schloss in New York City on April 24, 1914.

One of Castle's first show business jobs was as an assistant stage manager for a road show production of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi.

Castle took over the lease of Orson Welles' Stony Creek Theater in Connecticut when the Mercury Theatre wunderkind went to Hollywood to begin shooting Citizen Kane (1941).

Castle's feature film directing debut was the "Boston Blackie" mystery The Chance of a Lifetime (1943).

Scenarist Robb White was a minister's son, born in the Philippines on June 20, 1909.

White once described William Castle as "absolutely the coldest, most ruthless con man I've ever known."

While writing The Tingler (1959), White voluntarily underwent a doctor-administered dose of LSD.

Robb White's daughter Bailey is a successful author and commentator for National Public Radio.

Composer Von Dexter later left show business to sell real estate.

Actor Donald Woods had worked with William Castle previously in Voice of the Whistler (1945). He can also be seen in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and in the 1961 Thriller episode "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper."

Child star Charles Herbert had played David Hedison's son in The Fly (1958).

Actress Jo Morrow's great grandfather was Commodore Robert Peary, one of the first explorers to reach the North Pole.

Margaret Hamilton's turn as the medium Elaine Zacharides is a sly allusion to her most famous role as The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Martin Milner was later the star of two successful TV series, Route 66 and Adam-12.Compiled by Richard Harland Smith


Step Right Up, I'm Gonna Scare the Pants off America: Memoirs of a B Movie Mogul by William Castle
William Castle interview by Linda May Strawn, Kings of the Bs: Working within the Hollywood System
Interview with Robb White by Tom Weaver, Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes
Interview with Jo Morrow by Tom Weaver, Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks: Conversations with 24 Actors, Writers, Producers and Directors from the Golden Age

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13 Ghosts (1960)

"... mild little spook melodrama... It's a simple, old fashioned haunted house yarn, written by Robb White... If only (Castle) would forget all the monkey business and settle for a trim, uncluttered thriller."
Howard Thompson, New York Times

"... a spook saga that is fun and exciting... screenplay is no great shakes as a story but it's as neatly constructed as a skeleton..."
Hollywood Reporter

"Juvenile, gimmicky, and pretty entertaining..."
Ed Naha, Horrors: From Screen to Scream

"The ghosts were printed in one colour and audiences were given a viewer with two filters: if they looked through the red filter, they could see the ghosts and if they looked through the blue filter, the ghosts disappeared. Presumably the latter method was for the skeptics or the faint of heart: they needn't have worried on either count."
Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook

"Campy, unimportant horror film... The Robb White story is on a very juvenile level... Ghosts come and go in tedious fashion."
John Stanley, Creature Features Movie Guide

"Fun scares..."
Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

"Thirteen proved to be an unlucky number for gimmicky filmmaker William Castle, who had produced the far more lively fright flick The Tingler [1959] the year before... juvenile story..."
Gene Wright, Horrorshows

"... really rather silly and not particularly scary."
James J. Mulay (ed.), The Horror Film

"... a dismal little film... No amount of ghosts could enliven this deadly dull story."
Dennis Fischer, Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990

"Baby Boomers will appreciate this film for its own sake where younger audiences might find it a bit creaky... The cast is uniformly entertaining with veterans like Donald Woods and Rosemary De Camp and especially the Wicked Witch of the West herself, the great Margaret Hamilton in a suitably tongue-in-cheek performance... 13 Ghosts is appropriate fare for Halloween for the young at heart and a must for every Castle aficionado."

Christopher Dietrich, DVD Drive-In
"... a dull and crudely made haunted house tale..."
Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World Movie Reviews

"The performances are no more than competent, with Woods perhaps the most notable for his on-the-money Richard Carlson impression. The ghosts themselves are jokey and disappointing to behold-that is, when one can see them! But their emphatic groans, shudders and screams will fill your video room with all the nostalgic atmosphere of a carnival Spook House ride... 13 Ghosts will entertain you and hold your interest, but it is not as infectiously replayable as Castle's other classic gimmick vehicles."
Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog

"13 Ghosts is one of Castle's more routine films and... progresses in a dull and stolid way. The hauntings consist of routine and rather cheap double exposure effects or candles, biscuit tins and the like floating around on wires. One scene that momentarily generates some atmosphere is the sance. And Margaret Hamilton... has quite effectively cold and austere presence as the maid. Many of White's scripts raised haunted house themes but in the end transpired to only be mundane crime thrillers. Such is also the case here and it is something where White, in turning the latter third over to young Charles Herbert and his 'secret' and the attempts to find the money hidden in the house, kills the atmosphere."
Richard Scheib, The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review

"(Robb) White's sly, scabrous take on the human condition enlivened Macabre [1958], House on Haunted Hill [1959], and The Tingler with hard-boiled, poison-pen dialogue. In 13 Ghosts, the utter blandness of the characters, combined with the sterile back-lot facades, are no more cutting-edged than a Halloween episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet... Despite these failings, the movie's innocent ambition and plain desire to please is disarming... For many, the dim memory of a misspent Saturday will point to the movie's most enduring charm."
Charlie Largent, Video Watchdog

Compiled by Richard Harland Smith

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13 Ghosts (1960)

Cyrus (Donald Woods): "The La Brea Tar Pits became traps for all kinds of animals. They would either wander out on the tar or be driven into it by their enemies. The tar would trap them and slowly kill them. Now, someone's going to ask, 'how did birds get into the pits.' The vultures and condors fed on whatever had the misfortune to be trapped and sometimes the birds themselves got caught in the tar and got pulled down into their death. If any of you would like to see where these birds and animals came from, the Pits are in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles. Go over there sometime and try to imagine what it was like 40,000 years ago when monsters like these wandered around where now expensive cars roam."

Medea (Jo Morrow): "Oh, there's nothing wrong with ghost stories, Daddy."
Cyrus: "Unless that's all you read. He's got every spooky book ever printed."

Medea: "You believe in ghosts, Buck?"
Buck (Charles Herbert): "Sure."

Cyrus: "Why run away before you find out what's chasing you?"
Buck: "Well... I read about a man who waited to find out. But he never did, 'cause it ate him."

Ben (Martin Milner): "Dr. Zorba must have been quite wealthy at one time. Apparently he spent it all on his experiments."
Cyrus: "I seem to remember he was fooling around with the occult. Spirits from the other world."
Ben: "Ghosts. Dr. Zorba collected ghosts from all over the world. You inherit them, too."
Cyrus: (laughing) "Oh, come on..."
Ben: "They go with the house."

Medea: (looking at portrait) "Was that my father's uncle?"
Ben: "Mmmm hmm."
Medea: "He was a fine-looking man."
Ben: "I never saw him like that. By the time I met him they had almost completely destroyed him."
Medea: "They?"

Ben: "His ghosts."Medea: (laughs) "Benjamin Rush, attorney-at-law, living in the 20th Century."
Ben: "Plato Zorba, scientist... same century. Collected ghosts."
Medea: (laughs) "But you're not serious."
Ben: "I didn't believe in them any more than you do. Until I'd known him a while. You can take my word for it, there are ghosts in this house."
Medea: "We're standing here talking as if you thought we were living in the Middle Ages."
Ben: "But if you'd seen him as I did. Back broken. Face torn to shreds. Lips ripped away."
Medea: "You really think we inherited a haunted house?"
Ben: "I wish your family hadn't moved in."

Ben: "What have you decided to do about the witch?"
Medea: "We mustn't call her that."
Ben: "It's a perfect name. You know, I have a feeling she doesn't like me much."
Medea: "I have a feeling she doesn't like anybody much."

Medea: (reading Ouija board) "'Ouija, the mystifying oracle. Most modern method of fortune telling.' Anybody want to try it?"

Cyrus: "Now here's how it works. Everybody puts one finger on this, just lightly. Then somebody asks a question. We all concentrate on it and the Ouija will answer it."
Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp): "Oh, come on, Cy."
Cyrus: "It will. It's magic. Come on, everybody, put a finger on it. Okay, just lightly. Okay, now somebody ask a question. Oh, by the way, if you ask a silly question, it won't answer."

Hilda: "Oh, Cy, I'm frightened."
Cyrus: "Of what? A silly game?"
Hilda: "Ghosts."
Cyrus: "Oh now listen, honey. Maybe Zorba was a very strange man who could see ghosts and do supernatural things. But we aren't him. We're just ordinary people who don't have any supernatural powers and don't want any."

Medea: "Daddy, do you really think there are ghosts in this house?"Cyrus: "Of course now. Now it's time for all pretty girls to go to sleep."

Van Allen (John Van Dreelen): "If any of this is true- I don't say all, just any of it- then your uncle had penetrated farther into the supernatural than any man in history."

Hilda: "A few more inches and that cleaver would have cut off your head!"

Buck: "I am Shadrach!"

Buck: "I met a lion."
Hilda: "That's good."
Buck: "And a man without a head."

Hilda: "If it weren't for this sance nonsense, we could leave right now."
Buck: "I can go to the sance, can't I, Mom?"
Hilda: "Absolutely not."
Buck: "Aw... I ain't never been to one. It'll be fun. Boy, maybe somebody'll get murdered!"

Elaine (Margaret Hamilton): "Tonight death walks again in this evil house."

Buck: "Elaine?"
Elaine: "Yes, Buck?"
Buck: "You really are a witch, aren't you?"
Elaine: "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies."
Buck: "And the ghosts... they haven't really gone, have they?"Elaine: "They'll be back... they'll be back."

Compiled by Richard Harland Smith

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teaser 13 Ghosts (1960)

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 [1944], 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.
10. Lion.
11. Lion tamer without head.
12. Dr. Zorba.
13. ?

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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