Do you believe in ghosts? Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) didn't - that is until one fateful night. He was a lecturer at a museum and had been giving a talk about the La Brea Tar Pits and the creatures that had been preserved there when he was interrupted by his assistant who told him there was a telephone call for him. It was Cyrus' wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp) on the line, and she had bad news: the furniture in their home had been taken away to pay off their debts, on today of all days, the birthday of their son Buck (Charles Herbert). A much scaled down party goes ahead, with the family, including daughter Medea (Jo Morrow), sitting on the floorboards to enjoy their cake. When Buck blows out the candles, he makes a wish, a wish for a new home - and just then, there's a knock at the door...
Producer and director William Castle fancied himself as something of a cross between a carnival showman and Alfred Hitchcock, and was in the habit of introducing his films either in the trailers or in the movies themselves. There had to be a gimmick, of course, and for this one it was "Illusion-O" (love that "O" on the end) which was a special viewer that audiences could see the ghosts in this chiller with. Or not, as the case may be, as along with a strip of clear red plastic to see the phantoms through, a strip of blue plastic was provided as well to block out all traces of them, for any scaredycats who might have been watching.
As for the film itself, 13 Ghosts is a straightforward haunted house horror in the Castle mould: contrived, slightly tongue in cheek and cheesy, but really good wholesome fun once you scratched the surface and saw the humour in it. Written by Robb White, it has the family moving into a mansion owned by Plato Zorba, a reclusive uncle of Cyrus's (that's what the knock on the door was about), complete with housekeeper played by the Wicked Witch of the West in person, Margaret Hamilton, which should give you some idea of the nature of the house. It's not long before the lawyer who drew up the will, Ben Rush (Martin Milner), is telling them surprising things about the recently deceased.
In truth, the ghosts aren't exactly smoothly integrated into the story. Cyrus is given a viewer of his own, a pair of special glasses (which zap a fly unlucky enough to land on them) that he dons when we are to be treated with the sight of an apparition. The first hint we get that the house is host to the supernatural is when the family try out a ouija board they have discovered behind a secret panel, and it tells them there are, yes, thirteen ghosts collected by Plato present and, even more ominously, someone is going to die there before long. When the planchette lifts up into the air and lands on Medea's lap, the signs are worrying.
Then we get to see the paranormal figures, who range from a killer chef planting a meat cleaver in someone's head to a headless lion tamer complete with lion, plus assorted skeletons. There's a sense of them being wheeled on as the party pieces, although the characters are traumatised by seeing them, except for Buck who takes it all in his stride. Also included are floating objects like candles, or stuff flying off the shelves of the kitchen, and in a sense 13 Ghosts is like a predecessor to The Amityville Horror with its family taking up residence in a house that is too expensive for them, not to mention possessed by the spirits. All in all, the film is fun, with a nice, unsentimental twist in the plot, and a gimmick that doesn't distract too much from the business in hand. Music by Von Dexter. Extravagantly remade in 2001. Doesn't one of those ghosts sound like Blakey from On the Buses?