Review by Steve D. Stones
Director William Castle is known for his clever gimmicks used to promote and sell his fright films. In 13 Ghosts (1960), he uses a process known as “Illusion – O,” which is a viewer used by not only the actors in the film, but also audience members, to see appearances of ghosts in the film.
Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) works at a Paleontology Museum as a curator. His wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp) calls him at work to tell him that all their furniture in their house is being repossessed for nonpayments. Cyrus returns home that evening to a nearly empty house.
That evening, the Zorba family has a birthday party on the dining room floor for their 10 year old son Buck (Charles Herbert). Buck blows out the birthday candles on the cake and wishes for a house and furniture that cannot be taken away from his family. A telegram soon arrives at the Zorba house from an attorney named Benjamin Rush. The family is to meet with the attorney the next morning.
While meeting with attorney Rush, Cyrus and Hilda Zorba discover that they have inherited the mansion of their recently deceased uncle – Dr. Plato Zorba. Rush also gives Cyrus a strange package. Inside the package is a set of large glasses. The glasses are used to see ghosts. Rush warns the Zorba couple that the mansion is haunted with ghosts that their uncle had collected over the years. This does not discourage the family from moving into the mansion.
While moving into the mansion, the Zorba family also discover that the house comes with an old, grouchy, recluse house keeper named Elaine (Margaret Hamilton). Buck often refers to her as “the witch.” This seems appropriate, since actress Margaret Hamilton is most famously known for her role as the Wicked Witch of The West in -The Wizard of Oz (1939).
One evening, Buck finds a Ouija board in the house. The family gathers around the Ouija board as Buck asks the board how many ghosts are in the house. The number thirteen is revealed on the board. Buck also asks the board if the ghosts will harm anyone in the family. The board responds Yes and a framed painting in glass falls off the wall above the fireplace, spreading broken glass everywhere.
What follows for the rest of the film is a series of ghost encounters in the mansion by members of the Zorba family. Cyrus encounters floating heads, skeletons and a burning witch in the cellar of the house when he puts on the strange glasses. Hilda encounters the ghost of Emilio the Italian chef in the kitchen who killed his wife and her lover with a meat cleaver. Buck encounters the ghost of a lion and his keeper – Sham Rack the headless lion tamer. Daughter Medea (Jo Morrow) encounters a corpse figure covered in spider webs in her bedroom while sleeping.
Audiences who attended 13 Ghosts in theaters were given glasses with red and blue cellophane filters. 3-D glasses typically used the process of one eye seeing a red filter and the other eye seeing a blue filter. With the “Illusion-O” process used for 13 Ghosts, viewers would look through a single color with both eyes. Choosing to look through the red filter intensified the ghost images on the screen, while the blue filter “diluted” or removed the ghost appearances on screen. This was another clever tactic used by William Castle to get movie patrons into the theater.
Child actor Charles Herbert who played Buck also went on to star in a number of other great cult classics of this era, such as The Fly (1958) with Vincent Price and The Colossus of New York (1958). Buck ends 13 Ghosts perfectly by asking the housekeeper Elaine: “You really are a witch, aren't you?” Elaine replies: “Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies.” The Wicked Witch of The West is indeed alive and well! Happy viewing and Happy Halloween!