Monday, December 13, 2010

13 GHOSTS (1960, William Castle)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 85 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Charles Herbert (THE FLY, HOUSEBOAT), Jo Morrow (OUR MAN IN HAVANA, THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER), Martin Milner (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, ADAM-12), Rosemary DeCamp (BLOOD ON THE SUN), Donald Woods (TRUE GRIT, THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR), Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ).
Tag-line: " 13 Times the Thrills! 13 Times the Chills! 13 Times the Fun!"
Best one-liner: "He doesn't mess up the kitchen often, but when he does, WOW!"

One of William Castle's most beloved films, 13 GHOSTS gave the world Illusion-O. Illusion-O so irrevocably altered the landscape of cinema, that no one has dared to work within its eerie confines since. Illusion-O, plainly speaking, is a form of film-making, that, when observed in concert with a ghost-viewing apparatus (like the one seen below), allows us to... well, view ghosts.

It's extraordinarily complex, but I'll attempt to explain. By peering through the red cellophane on the upper end of the mechanism, the ghosts will appear, quite vibrantly. Using the blue end of the device, however, allows us to remove ghosts.

This begs the question of 'who would choose to attend a film entitled 13 GHOSTS and then decide they'd prefer not to see any ghosts?', but this is a William Castle picture, so we oughtn't to split hairs. If you elect not to use the contraption at all, you'll see ghosts all right, but faintly. Don't worry, though, all of this is adequately explained at the picture's start by William Castle himself. "Do you believe in ghosts?," he asks.

"Personally, I do," he confesses. After explaining the minutiae of ghost-viewer usage, he urges us to explain the whole thing to any late-comers who missed his special introduction. This is perhaps the only time in film history that a director has urged an audience to interrupt his film after it's begun, and it's even for the convenience of the tardy! It's sort of like Hitchcock's "No one...BUT NO ONE will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of PSYCHO."

Except if it was more like "No one...BUT NO ONE will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of PSYCHO, unless there are audience members ready and willing to provide a rundown of everything that's happened thus far, including the quoting of pertinent dialogue."

Anyway, I don't wish to entirely spoil the majesty that is 13 GHOSTS with a synopsis (that's probably the job of the person sitting next to you when you roll in late), so let's explore ten of my favorite things about 13 GHOSTS.

#1. Why is the family's last name Zorba? Why do some of them have 'Greek' names like Medea Zorba and Plato Zorba? Is this some kind of hi-larious gag devised to make us think, subconsciously, about ZORBA THE GREEK? Why do the other family names like Cyrus and Buck and Ben and Hilda not adhere to this principle?

#2. The paintings of the Ghosts from the opening sequence.

I'm hard-pressed to imagine anyone not falling in love with them.

#3. The way that characters refer to 'speaking about ghosts' as "spook talk." Which is exactly what Vincent Price called it in Castle's HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL!

#4. The killer pinwheel of fire ghost.

Why?, you might ask. "WHY NOT?!", Bill Castle might reply. Seriously, though, what the hell is going on there?

#5. Emilio, the murderous Italian chef who occasionally meat-cleavers the hell out of the kitchen.

And I know they had to make sure it was visible in Illusion-O, but look how overboard they went with the mustache:

It's not even hair- I think it's an enormous piece of paper cut into the shape of a mustache. God bless Bill Castle.

#6. This creepy housekeeper. She just looks kinda familiar.

Something about her and that old broom.

Like she should be riding it or something. Hmmm....

#7. The fact that the dad is not overly concerned that his 8-year old kid has a "big secret" with a random lawyer fellow. The dad merrily announces, "Buck's got a secret...I bet you could cut his arm off and he wouldn't tell!"

Buck considers the lawyer's proposition.

The skeezy lawyer in question.

#8. The way that the family pendulates between extreme horror and utter boredom. At one moment, they're dodging floating meat cleavers and screaming.

In the next, they might be calmly reading a book on the divan, wondering why the other family members are making such a fuss about these 'ghosts.' My guess?- it was probably shot so quickly (and out of order), that the actors didn't know at which points in the script they'd already had 'ghostly encounters' and ought to be acting accordingly.

#9. Not only does William Castle have a skeleton receptionist, the doorknob to his office is...a cobweb-encrusted skull!

#10. The ending. Like LET'S KILL UNCLE, Castle opts to end on a faux-cheery note of unbridled optimism which reaches such heights of absurdity that it can only be labelled as subversive.

Then William Castle appears once more, and challenges us- should we still refuse to believe in ghosts– to take our ghost-viewers home, get up in the middle of the night, and look through the red end of the device...if we dare!

-Sean Gill

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