13 Ghosts is one of William Castle’s better-known schlocky horror movies, and your enjoyment of the movie will depend entirely on how willing you are to accept its schlockiness as part of its charm.
Castle’s movies were not in the same class as the Hammer gothic horror movies or Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies of the same vintage. Castle was not a great film-maker; he was essentially a carnival huckster. I don’t mean that disrespectfully - I have a soft spot for carnival hucksters. But if you’re expecting something of the quality of the movies Terence Fisher was making for Hammer at that time or Corman’s poe films then you’re going to be disappointed. On the other hand if you’re going to try to take a William Castle movie seriously then you’re missing the point. These were supposed to be silly fun lightweight movies.
Of course it wouldn’t be a William Castle movie without a gimmick and for this one he came up with one of his best gimmicks - the ghost viewer. This was to be supplied to every member of the audience. If you believed in ghosts you looked through one slot; if you didn’t believe in ghosts you looked through the other slot. Apparently if you looked through the disbeliever’s slot the ghosts on the screen would disappear! It’s a cool idea, and really not much dottier than some of the things that “serious” ghost hunters came up with in the early part of the 20th century.
And ghost hunting is what this movie is all about. Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) is a mild-mannered palaeontologist with one big weakness - he’s hopeless with money. He’s a devoted family man but he can’t manage money and the furniture has just been repossessed. So it seems like a lucky break when his rich uncle Plato Zorba dies and leaves him a big old house. Unfortunately there’s no money, just the house, but the house does come with some extra features - thirteen ghosts!
Plato Zorba was a ghost hunter and he captured the ghosts. If you can see a ghost you gain power over it and Plato Zorba invented a ghost viewer (just like the ones the audience receives free of charge!) that allowed him to do just that. He installed his ghost collection in his house.
Naturally, being a haunted house movie, his will stipulated that Cyrus and his family must live in the house or else it will go to the state.
There’s a further complication. Uncle Plato’s will makes no mention of any money and his bank accounts contained no money at all when he died but he was a very rich man. It turns out that he converted all his monetary assets into cash shortly before his death. Since he never ever left the house in the last decade of his life it is reasonable to assume that it is hidden somewhere in the house. A search was made after his death, to no avail, but the money has to be somewhere.
Naturally there’s a mysterious elderly female housekeeper reputed to be a witch, who was actually Plato Zorba’s assistant and medium. And there just happens to be a Ouija board lying about, so naturally the children, Buck and Medea (yes her name really is Medea), want to try it out. And contact is made with the ghosts! Pretty soon the ghosts become a constant presence and the family is about to move out when they are persuaded to try a séance.
No audience member over the age of ten will have much trouble figuring out how the plot is going to play out.
The acting is not that great (although some of the actors were quite competent in other roles), but the last thing you’d want in a William Castle movie would be good acting. That would spoil everything!
The basic idea is not a bad one but it’s never really developed. The basic idea behind the special effects is not entirely bad either - tinting the screen blue (the movie is in black-and-white) whenever the ghosts appear and superimposing red images of the ghosts. Unfortunately the ghosts themselves are very very silly. But then the movie is intended to be goofy and fun. I don’t know if this movie has been subjected to the MST3K treatment but if it was it was a mistake. You can’t ridicule a movie like this - it’s such an obvious parody and so clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek to begin with.
One gets the impression with Castle’s movies that he didn’t come up with a gimmick to promote the movies, he came up with a gimmick first and then built a movie around it.
It’s not a great horror movie, or even a good one, but if you approach it in the right spirit it’s a good deal of fun.