William Castle, the name alone is recognized by horror fans and filmmakers, he was the ultimate in theater gimmicks and marketing guru, in fact if alive today the social media platforms likely couldn’t handle his craftiness; there’s even movies that pay homage to his wackiness such as Popcorn (1991) and Matinee (1993). However, by 1960, Castle had a string of low-budget hits, Macabre (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1958), The Tingler (1959) and considered himself the horror Hitchcock, (a short-lived claim) if one knows their horror history. Castle shared one thing in common with another person throughout these films, his screenwriter Robb White, in fact they go on to work on just one last picture after this flick entitled Homicidal (1961). As he achieved amazing success with House on Haunted Hill, two years earlier, using the famed ‘old dark house’ subgenre found under the heading Ghost Stories which is now commonly referred to as Paranormal, he returns to once more with this feature. It also harkens to a commonly used mode in the films as aimless tracking shot or ‘floating shot’ i.e. a ghost POV, namely used during the silent eras, the same concept is common in the Paranormal Activity franchise. He earned distribution, from Columbia Pictures but not as a single feature, rather on a double billing with either 12 to the Moon (1960) and Battle in Outer Space (1958) both sci-fi films or The Electronic Monster (1958) a horror/mystery flick, all varying depending on areas across America; it wouldn’t be until 2016 the film earned a Blu-ray release from Mill creek Entertainment. In addition, the movie was remade as Thir13en Ghosts (2001) and received a collector’s edition from Scream Factory in 2020, some consider this version the superior version. Many critics and others consider the movie a glaring flop, especially due to the hokiness of the gimmick used in the film called the “Illusion-O” (more on this later); however, each year that passes the film gains a special level of charm, constantly airing during the Halloween season, and earned him his biggest financial success as director.
I want to mention first that the version I watched started with splashes of blue and red tint, with spooky sounds, then the count-up of red-figure ghosts; always a bit comical the tenth ghost is a lion finishing with a red question mark. I have seen the black and white version, I lean to the enjoyment of the latter, but it is a matter of personal preference. In addition, and not to spoil for those who haven’t seen the film, but I have read a few comments, and reviews and it appears the name of the ghosts in the order they’re presented either get misidentified or simply copying the error in redundancy by all who post it. Therefore here is the correct order: 1. Screaming woman; 2. A ghoul; 3. The floating head; 4. Flaming skeleton; 5. Emilio, the Italian chef, with cleaver in his hand; 6. His unfaithful wife; 7. Her lover; 8. Hanging woman; 9. Executioner and decapitated head; 10. Lion; 11. Lion tamer without head; 12. Dr. Zorba; 13. Question Mark Symbol. There is no ghost clutching their hands together which is often listed among the thirteen ghosts.
One must also mention, the gimmick device “Illusion-O” deployed in the film, is first presented and explained thoroughly too long by Castle, himself at the beginning of the feature, this of course automatically ruins the build up to the film, the scene should proceed the opening credits, for example, in the beginning of Frankenstein  Edward Van Sloan informs the audience to warning of ghastly elements they’re about to witness.
However I digress, the ghost viewers contained a red filter and a blue filter, but unlike 3D viewers/glasses, both eyes would look through the same color filter. The red filter would cause the ghostly images to intensify while the blue filter caused the images to fade. In the end it didn’t made too much of a difference once released onto DVD it allowed the viewer two different color versions to watch. Simply, William, used numerous styles to promote his movies from fright insurance to a Punishment Poll, and so many more, ah the innocent times of theater humor.
Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) is a very low-paid paleontologist and a guide at the LA County Museum, which results in him being a broke provider to his family, and in fact their furniture repossessed and barely affording rent. This all happening on his son Buck’s (Charles Herbert (The Fly ), tenth birthday, who has an obsession with ghost stories and his birthday wish for a home where they can live filled with furniture that no one could take. The rest of Cyrus family, is wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp) who reminds one of the average television family values mother and innocent daughter Medea (Jo Morrow), that evening dear old dad receives correspondence to attend a meeting at estate lawyer (Martin Milner) Ben Rush’s office. Cyrus learns his distant Uncle Plato Zorba (Roy Jenson), who was an occultist and ghost hunter, captured eleven of them and when he died his family inherited a gothic house and the ghosts too, one clearly sees the devilish manipulation of Ben’s character traits. Soon after they’re in the house and played with a Ouija board only to discover a book in Lati that tells of the ghosts, which is translated by Cyrus’ boss Professor Allen (John Van Dreelan, fans of old b-movies might notice him from The Leech Woman ). One will notice the story focuses more on Buck, but maintains a quicken pace, and opens to a deeper plot after a séance is conducted by Elaine Zacharides (Margaret Hamilton), who Buck often calls The Witch, an inside joke, obviously relating back to her character in Wizard of Oz, however at the time of this movie it had yet to become the enormous success of nowadays.
One of the major downfalls of the movie is from Castle’s gimmick he surrounds himself on it too much trying to use it often, although without it the movie would likely have achieved a better standing. The plot is barely well-structured, a tad too few connecting parts, it never has a scary overall feeling, and perhaps deep down it wasn’t the intended goal, not a frightfest rather a light-heart attempt for a Saturday afternoon funfest for the scary cat in the bunch. In horror films, it is generally a very bad performance not to generate any screams or fear factors, especially with tissue thin characters, and the actors portraying never truly conveying a fright. Many pour different amounts of criticism on the director, and some justified however, when it comes to the final death smothered by an obviously rigged canopy bed it is considered too unbelievable, nonetheless the same method is used in Madhouse (1974) and therein it’s wonderful, perhaps because Vincent Price portrays a character called Dr. Death. Then others take offense to the capturing of ghosts, namely how does one keep them and why are thy bound to the house, fine points but worth the condemnation, especially when praising Ghostbusters (1984), how does the containment zone exactly work, and there’s no ghosts in any other city, how convenient. Yes, it is a sarcastic statement, not every movie in the horror genre needs an overanalyzed viewing, sometimes it’s just fun to return to a simplistic period to watch for sheer delights. Oh, lastly Herbert, did in fact get top billing for the film but is also marked the last for that and his final feature film appearance as he becomes a bit player in television roles later in life, and sadly passed away on October 31, 2015 one month after fellow co-star Martin Milner died.
The overall appeal of the film, will find mixed audience results, basically due to a generational gap, the older viewers recall these flicks for the pleasant manner something to view regardless of who’s in the room, without any embarrassment, and those in the younger bracket like to find it all awkward and a tad silly. Castle’s antics likely receive laughter from many today, but for those in the 1950s and 1960s it made for great success, and the wealth allowed him to make Rosemary’s Baby (1968) which brought plenty of screams and shrieks. The final main close-out scene is likely the best one, it has Elaine holding a broom giving a sly smile to the camera before turning to away, all of it a bit campy yet that clever all-knowing look as if she has a secret.
- IT’S FUN TO BE SCARED BY 13 GHOSTS (original print ad – all caps)
- A Spooky “Shaggy Dog!”
- You’ll believe in ghosts too when you see them thru the GHOST VIEWER. Turns ’em on, turns ’em off when they turn on you.
- See the Ghosts in Ectoplasmic COLOR
- 13 Times the Thrills! 13 Times the Chills! 13 Times the Fun!
- A ghost for each member of your family! Pick your favorite spook!
IMDb Rating: 6.1/10
Baron’s Rating: 6.0/10