The 1950s was an era for “cinema gimmickry,” assaulting audiences with interactive fads like 3D glasses or that thing House on Haunted Hill did with the skeleton puppet on the zip-line. But much like Smell-o-Vision, the “Ghost Viewer” (a byproduct of “Illusion-o”) was sort of a straggler from that time period, having been attached to a film released in 1960. Although I felt the gimmick hindered the film more than helped it (but more on that later), 13 Ghosts still has enough positive qualities to make it one of the better haunted house flicks of the era.
When the Zorba family inherits their late uncle’s sprawling estate, they soon find out that their departed relative had a rather odd hobby: he collected ghosts. Accumulating a total of twelve (factoring himself into the sum), with a thirteenth predicted to join the ranks momentarily, his collection brings the Zorbas to their wit’s end in only a few days. Their lawyer, Ben Rush (Martin Milner) may have a solution to get them out of the place, but will they escape before the prophecy of murder is fulfilled and the thirteenth ghost is revealed?
13 Ghosts opens with a light-hearted introduction from director/producer William Castle, showing audiences when and how to use the “Ghost Viewer” provided for them. When the screen turns blue, look through the lens and you’ll see the ghosts that would otherwise be invisible. Certainly a “neat” concept, though it comes attached with one fatal flaw: No surprises. When the screen turns blue, you know for a fact that ghosts will be showing up, eliminating the tension. There are a few surprise scares when the screen is its normal black and white (the Ouija board sequence, in particular), but they’re few and far between. 13 Ghosts relies on its gimmick as a crutch, and though it can make for some cool visuals (the translucent, blood-red specters), it still proceeds to rob the film of the element of surprise; a horror flick’s greatest asset.
But the true strength of 13 Ghosts lies not within its gimmick, but in its snappy script by Robb White. The film has a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone and, while not a knee-slapper, can be pretty clever and funny when it wants to be. The youngest of the Zorbas, Buck (Charles Herbert) looks upon his ghostly roommates in a manner somewhere between amusement and apathy, paying little mind to the creeps while his family is busy freaking the hell out. The best example of this follows a drawn-out sequence where Buck is in the basement, watching a headless lion-tamer trying to get his noggin out of the belly of his ferocious ghostly feline. Buck then proceeds to go upstairs and nonchalantly tell his mother, “So I saw a lion”. Mommy basically responds with, “That’s nice dear. Eat your breakfast.”
The film is full of moments like that which are probably my favorite parts. A few of the jokes get a bit absurd, particularly when some of the ghosts are played for comedic effect (a dead Italian chef with a glowing moustache or two dead teenagers making out all the time and speaking with “Chipmunk” style voices). The good humor outweighs the overbearing, though, so don’t be put off.
The other highpoint of 13 Ghosts comes in its twist ending (which, if you don’t want spoiled for you, you should quit reading my review right now). You spend the whole film really attaching to the Ben Rush character, as he’s genuinely charming and sincere in his desire to help the Zorbas. In the end, you learn his true motivations which cast a starkly different context on all his actions from the first half of the film (particularly, his wining and dining of Medea Zorba; played by Jo Morrow). At first, you almost don’t want to believe it and even consider giving him the benefit of the doubt, but once he attempts to murder Buck, well, never mind.
The titular baker’s dozen phantoms are all given their own unique visual designs which give them a lot of personality, even if you only see each briefly throughout the film (and a few I don’t think you even see outside of the title sequence). While, yes, some are played for comedy, that doesn’t speak to all of them. The scene where Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) is accosted by a trio in his uncle’s study shows off some rather morbid effects, as a hag, a skeleton and a disembodied head proceed to burst into flames and dance around in agony.
13 Ghosts suffers from a few plot conveniences (everyone, even those outside the family, seems to accept the existence of ghosts rather matter-of-factly) and the gimmick sticks a knife in any chances it might have of shocking the audience. However, the strong visual effects, the self-aware sense of humor and the well-executed twist ending go a long way toward making up for those setbacks. It’s hard to call this a “classic” of its genre, but it’s certainly an enjoyable product of its time.