Saturday, April 28, 2012

13 Ghosts (1960 / 2001)

There’s not much to say by way of introduction to this pair of films. Both are light and cheesy horror films that are long on spectacle and short on story.  The original was produced and directed by the master of B-movie gimmicks, William Castle, while the remake was produced by Dark Castle Entertainment, a production house set up specifically to pay homage to William Castle and to remake his pictures. The original has been a late-night staple for decades now, while the remake is probably regarded more poorly than it deserves. Though vastly different in execution, both are a lot of fun.

I say the films are short on story, but what little exists is somewhat clever. An eccentric old ghost hunter dies and leaves his mansion to his nephew. Having fallen on some hard times, the nephew is all too happy to move his family into the new home. There’s just one problem: the late ghost hunter filled his mansion with twelve captured spirits who can only be seen through special glasses of his own invention. And the ghosts don’t enjoy company much. You may have noticed that I said twelve ghosts while the title of the film is 13 Ghosts. Well, let’s just say that the old uncle isn’t as dead as his nephew was led to believe and that he has some plans for his next-of-kin. Not very nice plans, either.

Of course, the original wouldn’t be a Castle film if it didn’t include some gimmick, in this case “Illusion-O!” I was fortunate enough to come across a DVD that preserves the Illusion-O experience. William Castle explains in an introduction to the film. “When you came in, you were given a special ghost viewer…If you believe in ghosts, you look through the red part of the viewer. If you do not believe in ghosts, you look through the blue part.”

The way the gimmick works is this: the audience holds up their viewers, comprised of red and blue cellophane filters, whenever the characters on screen put on the special glasses. The ghost effects were filmed separately from the rest of the action and were superimposed over the frame in a blue tint. If the audience member looks through the red filter, the ghost images are enhanced while looking through the blue filter “removes” them. As you might expect, no glasses are truly required to see the ghosts, but I did have fun raising and lowering my viewer between handfuls of popcorn.

Aside from the gimmick, the film is pretty staid. The musty old mansion looks like the same one from a hundred other fright flicks. The dialogue and action are about what you’d expect from a B-movie of this era. However, fans of The Wizard of Oz (and who isn’t?) will immediately recognize Margaret Hamilton as the housekeeper and members of the “Nick at Nite” crowd might spot Martin Milner, star of Route 66 and Adam 12.

Of course, by 2001 gimmicks didn’t fly so well anymore, so 13 Ghosts had to modernize. In the new millennium, CGI effects and gore are all the rage, and the remake offers some dazzlers. Imagine if Rube Goldberg dropped a crapload of acid and then proceeded to build a house made of glass with total disregard for things like building codes, basic safety, or not-cutting-people-in-half. Then imagine that, as he withdrew from the drug, he proceeded to populate the edifice with the cripplingly horrifying manifestations of his flashback hallucinations. Finally, imagine Tony Shalhoub as someone other than Adrian Monk. Now stop imagining and watch the movie.

There really isn’t much to be said besides that. Oh sure, some folks might be interested to know that Shannon Elizabeth is in it, but her presence is completely offset by Matthew Lillard reprising the role of Matthew Lillard. Also, here’s your chance to use Rah Digga in a sentence.

So, depending on whether you are in the mood for some old-fashioned camp or some modern-day dazzle, pick either of these films for an enjoyable, if not very memorable night in.


  1. tryanmax, I didn't know that about illusion-O. Neat idea though!

    I enjoy the remake very much, though I don't think it's a good movie. It's just cheesy fun and it kind of breaks down once the ghosts get free. I agree that the idea is clever but light and I wonder if more couldn't be done with this idea to make a truly inspired horror film?

  2. I think the premise is what keeps both versions of the film popular. Even though the execution is mediocre, it's still a very clever concept. The idea of a "ghost collector" is instantly intriguing, like a ghostbuster who got too caught up in his work. I have been toying with the idea of a disturbed collector as the basis of a horror/thriller story, but haven't really gotten past thinking of different sorts of things that would be hideous to collect.

  3. tryanmax, I agree. I think both the idea of a ghost collector and also being trapped in a haunted house provide a very intriguing premise which keeps you coming back hoping there's something really cool here. But, as you note, the execution is kind of mediocre. In fact, what's interesting is that the further the remake goes along time-wise, the more it fades as the potential vanishes and is replaced with something less interesting than the potential. They would almost have been better served waiting until the last few minutes to finally release the ghosts.