Disappointing. The premise is interesting, even unique–capturing and collecting ghosts sounds suitably macabre. The mansion bequeathed to the Zorba family by the late Dr. Zorba is undeniably ghostly. And the redoubtable Margaret Hamilton as the housekeeper Elaine is looking very Wicked Witch of the West-ish. An Ab-Ex background for the credits puts the movie very effectively in early-60s avant-garde mode.
The problem is that 13 Ghosts falls short in just about every other way.
With the exception of Hamilton and perhaps Martin Milner’s attorney character, Ben, the acting and casting doesn’t help. Most notable is that Rosemary DeCamp as the mother, Hilda; she looks about a generation older than her husband Cyrus (Donald Woods). In fact, Jo Morrow, supposedly their teenage daughter Medea, looks more fitting as the mom, and acts as such with her younger brother Buck (Charles Herbert). Buck is way too nonchalant about the ghostly stuff; of all the characters he should be the most afraid, and the most susceptible to believing in the supernatural. Instead, he treats the ghosts as entertainment. On the other hand, his dad goes about with a perpetual scowl on his face, whether he’s talking to his boss or dealing with ghosts. Hilda zig-zags between hysteria and dismissiveness–after the ghosts have pretty much taken over, and she’s the most scared of any of them, she nonetheless treats the idea of the seance as something silly. Even Hamilton isn’t really used to her full potential. Despite her creepy demeanor, she acts pretty much on the level. She has no agenda, no secrets that she doesn’t willingly impart. The creepiest character in the movie is the telegram messenger–but he just pops in and out once.
As for the ghosts themselves, they don’t amount to much. Some of them border on being frightening, but, thanks to the overly-whispy presentation, they’re way too indistinct to really make much of an impression. I realize that spirits are supposed to have transparency, but I’ve seen more ghostly spirits in ’30s movies. I like the lurid pink and blue colors, especially against the otherwise black and white footage. I also usually like gimmicks, but the glasses deal is way too heavy-handed. It enough of a clue that the weird colors take over when a ghost appears; we don’t need a textual reminder as well. In the theatrical release, the audience had their magic glasses at the ready…The effect of this awkward build-up is that there’s no sense of mystery or tension. In an almost documentary style, we’re told when we’re going to see something interesting. Doesn’t work.
The subplot of the hidden money is pretty good; it sort of stirs things up. Ben, not the ghosts, is the real evil presence. But it’s hard to believe that Buck wouldn’t have told anyone in the family about the money; he hardly knows Ben, who is after all an outsider. In any case, Ben’s ‘drive-Medea-nuts’ scheme makes sense, as does his subsequent attempt to use the vise-like bed to crush Buck. Interestingly, it’s the ghosts that save Buck and it’s Ben who gets pressed into a wafer. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Ben to just convince Buck to give him the money? After all, Buck is gullible, and Ben is the family attorney.
The ending works well enough superficially. One odd thing about the ‘prisoner’ status of the ghosts is that, once the bad guy is disposed of, why should they hang around? Unlike most haunted houses, the ghosts aren’t attached to the house. Elaine figures the ghosts will be back anyway. Unfortunately, it’s all light-hearted stuff by this point. That points out the worst issue with 13 Ghosts: the tone dips into camp far too many times to maintain its horror facade. Another distraction are the several scenes at the museum. In a haunted house movie, everything should happen in or around the house. That’s the best way to build and sustain atmosphere. I think that’s why the stereotypical dark-and-stormy-night plots evolved, in which a group of people are stranded at a haunted house for whatever reason (as in Castle’s own House on Haunted Hill). Of course that’s a device, but if it’s rendered plausibly, it maintains suspension of disbelief and doesn’t dilute the supernatural flavor.
I’ve been waiting, well, since 1960 to see this; I’m not sure I would have thought much more of it at age seven than now. If you’re on the fence about seeing 13 Ghosts, it’s not a waste of time; just not one of the better William Castle efforts. 5/10.