MOVIE REVIEW: 13 Ghosts (US, 1960)

The Zorba family is in a rather bad state. That day, the repo men came and collected all their furniture. There’s no indication as to the source of their financial troubles, but it doesn’t really matter. That night, while eating dinner on the floor (the repo men didn’t take their dishes or kitchenware), a telegram arrives. The father, Cyrus (Donald Woods), is being instructed to show up at the offices of attorney Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner, in his pre “Adam-12” days).

It doesn’t look good at all.

However, once Cyrus gets there, he’s informed that his eccentric uncle Plato Zorba has died recently, and has left Cyrus and his family his house and all its contents. This is a pleasant surprise to Cyrus; he’d though Plato had died years ago. The family quickly relocates to the old mansion (conveniently furnished, and with a live-in housekeeper (played with suitable creepiness by Margaret Hamilton).

There, they find out that Uncle Plato’s eccentricities concerned the supernatural, and he had developed a method that he claimed would make ghosts visible. That would explain the weird glasses that were the only non-house item left by the will. Uncle Plato also happened to “collect” ghosts – and they shared the house with him….

Haunted or no, the Zorbas really don’t have much choice at the moment….

William Castle does it again. The Master of the Movie Gimmick; here it’s something he called “Illusion-O”. While most of the film was in black and white, the scenes with the ghosts were tinted blue. The ghosts were filmed separately with a red tint, and the two were combined in the final edit. Each moviegoer got a special “viewer”, consisting of two panels of red and blue cellophane. If you didn’t want to see the ghosts, you watched the scene through the blue cellophane.

I supposed it worked; I couldn’t find any reports of it failing. But I did get a few comments from people who kept their viewers these many decades, and recalled the film with nostalgic happiness.

By the way, if you don’t have a viewer, don’t worry. The ghosts are pretty obvious without it.

Anyway, back to the movie.

It’s a pretty well-written and acted flick, suitable for all ages. There’s no gore or jump scares, just a lot of poltergeist activity – dishes getting smashed, candles floating, etc. Much of the eerie atmosphere comes from the skilled use of light and shadow in the sets that makes what is an ordinary Victorian-era mansion look quite spooky. The acting, especially that of the young Charles Herbert (who plays “Buck” Zorba), is more than acceptable.

All told, It’s a decent little movie. The things that lead to the happy ending are not telegraphed but established naturally in the story. The bad guy is of course dealt with, and the Zorbas presumably reach an understanding with the ghosts.

William Castle gets called a showman for his use of gimmicks like “Illusion-O”. Like any good showman, he knew that you sold the sizzle, not the steak. But he also knew that if you weren’t going to be serving steak, you had better at least be offering up a really good burger if you wanted to keep your customers happy.

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