There’s something (well, everything) about the 90’s that is too cartoony for me to take seriously. Yes, I know I love me some over-the-top goodness and everything ridiculous or b-movie, but the 90’s stretches me a bit too thin – big productions or not.
That’s why I’m not watching the 2001 Thirteen Ghosts (okay, so it’s not the 90’s, but it is pretty much the ugly cousin continuation). Not that the original 13 Ghosts I watched for this week is truly chilling or terrifying. It’s actually pretty dopey, but it’s cute. Plus it really hits the spot for a truly straight-forward haunted house flick.
The 1960 film pretty much the epitome of a gimmick. The original run in theatres gave movie-goers the “Illusion-O,” which allowed them to make a choice on how spooky they wanted their film. These viewers came with blue and red filters, not too unlike 3-D glasses. Blue allowed you to remove the ghosts while the red intensified them in certain scenes. Unfortunately, this makes for a rather squinty-viewing of the film, but there are apparently better versions than the one I was stuck with.
13 Ghosts is centred around the Zorba family. Father Cyrus Zorba is a man of science, but a rather unsuccessful one financially. The family constantly has to deal with their furniture being taken away as Cyrus is king of not paying the bills.
On Cyrus’ son Buck’s birthday, the young boy wishes for a home for his family with furniture. His wish comes true as immediately their doorbell rings and a messenger arrives with a telegram to meet with the young lawyer Benjamin Rush.
Ben tells Cyrus that he has inherited his uncle Dr Zorba’s house – with all the furniture inside! But that the doctor had spent much of his money on his occult experiments, leaving very little money behind. Though they also get an excellent box with a pair of ghost-viewing classes of their own inside.
Completely chuffed, the Zorba family immediately move in to the sprawling home to begin their new life. Unfortunately for them, the home contains a slew of ghosts that Dr Zorba had collected and studied in his life.
Their first night in the home, Buck and his older sister Medea play with a Ouija board. The family learn that there is twelve ghosts living in the home, and they want to claim one more life to make the number an nice 13.
Unphased, the family go to bed and continue on as normal, despite the fact that they all saw a planchette floating around the room. But these appear to be people of thick skin.
The houskeeper Elaine tells Cyrus and his wife Hilda that she used to work with the doctor on his experiments, but he didn’t trust her towards the end of his time. Buck continuously calls her a witch, which is rather ambiguous throughout the film.
Despite the rather ominous surroundings, Cyrus decides to look through the house for a book. It’s then that the man sees his first set of ghosts. He dons the spook-specs, but somehow still doesn’t believe that he is surrounded by ghosts (or he handles it extremely well – it’s fairly unclear). When he spots a whispering book, he touches it and is immediately branded with the number ’13’. This is one of the first times you get to see the ghosts in the movie, and perhaps they show up better in some non-Illusion-O versions, but I could see fuck all in the one I watched, which made the experience more like Where is Waldo than anything terrifying.
In Dr Zorba’s books, the family learn that all the ghosts are Earth-bound because of unsolved problems before their deaths. The doctor had been trying to invent a way to photograph the supernatural world, using these 11 ghosts as his subjects. He is indeed the 12th ghost, and the page for the 13th ghost remains blank.
At work, Cyrus is called home by a panicked Hilda. When he arrives, she shows him the ghosts making a mess of their kitchen. Buck casually warns them away, as he’s become rather familiar with the ghosts thanks to Elaine. Either way, still no one seems freaked out that ghosts are real and they’re ruining their kitchen. But maybe I’m just a little too over-excited.
But the “witch” Elaine decides to show Cyrus Dr Zorba’s room after he insists on seeing where his uncle died. Here Cyrus finds out about the weird bed-trap that the doctor had – thanks to a floating candle. When a certain button is pressed, the canopy on the bed lowers, and seemingly could squash anyone in the bed to death. This seems like the most drawn-out way to murder someone (and really, fairly unpractical unless the person you want to kill just happens to be sleeping in your bed).
That night, Medea comes home late from a date with Ben. She heads to bed and seems to only be just asleep when she hears her windows banging in the wind. When she returns to her bed, she sees a rather solid-looking “ghost” covered in cobwebs. The poor girl screams and finally decides that the house is a little to freaky for her.
In the morning, Medea can’t get out of bed from the scare she has. Trouble-maker Buck pretty much has the run of the house, which allows him to slide down the banister of the stairs all he wants. Though he discover that when the rails are pressed in a certain spot, it opens the trap door to Dr Zorba’s hidden cash. The excited child shows Ben, who immediately begins to act suspiciously, telling Buck that they should keep the secret to themselves.
Ben tries to talk the family into moving out of the house. The family had resisted because of the clause in Dr Zorba’s will, which said if they moved they’d owe money. Cyrus’s boss steps in at the nick of time with information about the hidden money that makes Cyrus decide to stay.
The adults and the housekeeper decide to hold a seance in which Cyrus is temporarily possessed by his uncle, who tells them that the 13th ghost will be collect that night. Elaine then warns them, “Tonight death walks again in this evil house.”
It’s then revealed that Ben (not shockingly) is the true villain in the film, as he (dressed in his dusty legs) attempts to murder Buck in the bed-trap to make the child the final ghost. Buck quickly wakes up and escapes, while Ben is pushed down into the trap by Dr Zorba’s vengeful spirit.
The family decide to stay in the home with all the money Buck has found, thinking that the ghosts are willing to behave or go away. But like all good children, Buck knows that’s not true. And so does Elaine. The ghosts? They’ll be back.
I didn’t enjoy 13 Ghosts as much as Robb White and William Castle’s other film, The House on Haunted Hill (which still remains a bit frightening and delightful today), but I do think there’s merit in this little film. It’s really one of the more honest to goodness haunted house films that you could ask for, and all the gimmicks make this a rather fun movie to watch.