See for yourself — if you dare!
For some 17 years beginning in 1941, William Castle was a director of second features, ranging from several entries in the Whistler and Crime Doctor series during the 1940s to a number of westerns in the early-to-mid-1950s. One of the latter was Fort Ti, a film that used the 3D process that was briefly popular in that period. Perhaps that opportunity to show knives and tomahawks seemingly thrown right at the audience should have been a tip-off that here was someone interested in a gimmick. For, beginning in 1958, Castle produced and directed a series of horror films that each had their own little gimmicky claim to fame. Thus, filmgoers who attended Macabre (1958) were offered a free insurance policy payable in the case of death by fright. The Tingler advertised “Percepto” which was an effect created by electrically wiring the theatre seats. Homicidal (1961) offered a “fright break” — the film actually stopped for 45 seconds for patrons to gather their wits. In the midst of all this, Castle also came up with the film 13 Ghosts (1960). Its gimmick was “Illusion-O,” which meant that each filmgoer got a special Ghost Viewer consisting of red and blue plastic strips within a cardboard frame. Looking through the red strip allowed one to see the ghosts on the screen while looking through the blue eliminated the sight of ghosts for the timid.
With its new DVD release of 13 Ghosts and the inclusion of a Ghost Viewer in each case, Columbia now allows us to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear to experience Illusion-O for ourselves.
Cyrus Zorba with his wife Hilda and children Medea and Buck just manage to get by on his salary as a paleontologist at the Los Angeles County Museum. Then, they find that Cyrus’s uncle, a reclusive eccentric, has died and left them a large old mansion. The uncle’s will has been handled by lawyer Benjamin Rush who informs the Zorbas that their uncle collected ghosts and that the mansion is therefore haunted. Further, they must live in the mansion or else it gets donated to the state. One additional item is mentioned in the will — a pair of special glasses that make the mansion’s ghosts visible.
Several strange occurrences during their first few days at the mansion make the Zorbas uneasy and they consider leaving. A notebook also left by their uncle reveals the presence of 13 ghosts with details on all but the thirteenth. Meanwhile, it soon transpires that their uncle had liquidated many of his assets before he died and none of the money is accounted for so it may well be hidden in the house. Buck makes an important discovery and an unexpected friend, both of which contribute to revealing the thirteenth ghost.
Sure it’s all rather silly — the plot’s as transparent as a pane of glass, the characters are your stock set of clichés, the ghosts are pathetically unscary, and Illusion-O wears thin very quickly, but the ridiculous yet earnest 13 Ghosts keeps you watching. It must be the 10-year-old in all of us (for that’s about the level to which the film is pitched) and the love of gimmicks that do it. After all, who can resist a freebie called a Ghost Viewer that allows you to experience Illusion-O? And then there’s the question of who the thirteenth ghost might be.
One can imagine that even in 1960, this can’t have been too scary, though. It’s all a little too reminiscent of a “Leave It to Beaver” episode. Mom and dad go through their stereotyped roles with two siblings, the older always bossing the younger around and the younger turning out to be the keystone for the episode’s adventure. Young Buck Zorba even looks a bit like Beaver Cleaver. Throw in another familiar TV face in Martin Milner (of “Route 66”) playing lawyer Benjamin Rush and the comfort quotient would have been too high to allow an old house and a bunch of ghosts to raise the hackles very much. It’s hard to imagine that Illusion-O’s blue strip got used to any great degree other than to confirm that it did in fact make the ghosts disappear.
Given the limited scope of the material, the actors are all fine here. Strangely enough, Donald Woods, who plays Cyrus Zorba (and has as much screen time as anyone), gets fifth billing. Woods was a well-known performer of the 1930s and 1940s whose stock had fallen by 1960, but even so. Rosemary De Camp, often a portrayer of motherly types, was a familiar face from her work in “The Bob Cummings Show.” The real treat is Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz fame who plays the housekeeper named Elaine who just may be a witch. Charles Herbert, who was at the time 12 years old, capped an unexceptional seven-year acting career with his role as Buck and thereafter pretty much disappeared from the business except for a couple of television appearances.
Perhaps buoyed by its success with The Tingler, Columbia has now given us a DVD of 13 Ghosts and done a pretty fine job of it. The transfer is presented in anamorphic widescreen preserving the original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 and utilizing 28 scene selections. Actually the transfer is presented twice. On one side of the disc, there’s a normal black and white presentation. On the other, we get the Illusion-O version with the colour tinting and facility to be able to use the Ghost Viewer, not to mention William Castle’s original introduction to it all. Your very own Ghost Viewer is tucked inside the keep case. There are a few scratches and speckles on the transfer, but for the most part, 13 Ghosts looks great. Blacks are deep and glossy and whites are clean. Contrast and shadow detail are superior for a 41-year-old film. High marks to Columbia for this effort. The audio is the original mono track that has been cleaned up for this release. It’s pleasing in tone and quite free of age-related hiss and distortion. The music score is particularly well delivered by the DVD.
In terms of supplements, we get an eight-minute featurette “The Making of Illusion-O” which I found a little disappointing. It doesn’t give much concrete information, but just has a few individuals saying how fondly they remember both the film and the gimmick when they were kids and now, gosh, isn’t it great to experience it again. The participants include film historian Donald Glut, Columbia Pictures Repertory’s Michael Schlesinger and filmmaker Fred Olen Ray (remember his memorable film Air Rage reviewed not long ago at the Verdict?). There are also theatrical trailers for 13 Ghosts and two other Columbia chillers — Ghostbusters and The Tingler. The latter is in the roughest shape of the three. Some fairly comprehensive production notes are included on the disc’s accompanying pamphlet.
It has to be emphasized that if you’re not into gimmicks (or if you only appreciate gimmicks that are really good), then you’re going to find that 13 Ghosts has little to offer on its own. It’s certainly not scary at all and it also lacks the atmosphere that so many of the early Universal horror films provide as compensation. The film is a bit of a time machine for filmgoers of a certain age, but the patience of most others will be sorely tried.
If cheesy gimmicks and horror films are two of your favourite things, you’re likely to find enough in 13 Ghosts to get you through its 84 minutes. Columbia has done a fine job on the film’s transfer, and the supplements, though somewhat slight, are about what the film deserves. The disc’s worth a rental if you’re in the mood for some harmless fun.