For my mom’s birthday in August, I bought her a bunch of old William Castle movies and promised that I would take a day off from work to submerge ourselves in these spooky (mostly) black and white delights. My mom loves classic film, and I love horror, so… it was a natural mishmash of interests. A guaranteed good time.
But life gets busy, time passes—and no Castlemania occurred.
And really, what better time to savor these films than during a most perfect, cool, crisp day in October, aka Halloweentime? ‘Tis the season for ghostly pleasures, after all. Also, Columbus Day is a bit of a sham, and W. Castle’s murder aplenty seemed like a fitting tribute, so here we go…
As someone who’s only seen bits and pieces and remakes of Castle films, I was incredibly excited for this venture. Thanks to the outright praise of John Waters, I knew Castle was the king of B-horror gimmicks—specifically for The Tingler (1959) where he zapped his movie-goers with vibrating seats every time someone screamed on camera.
So, what were we going to watch today? Let’s get to it.
Morning Feature: 13 Ghosts (1960)
It probably goes without saying that I have seen this one’s 2001 remake, Thir13en Ghosts (that was actually co-produced by Castle’s daughter, Terry).
But 13 Ghosts is far superior, in my opinion. While it can’t get fancy with modern-day graphics and gore, it succeeds in weirdness, the “Illusion-O” gimmick, and charming, slightly odd characters.
In short, the film centers on the Zorbas, a down-on-their-luck, often-broke family. It’s Cyrus and Hilda and their 20-something (?) daughter Medea, and young son Buck (who’s obsessed with scary stories). Cyrus’ mad scientist uncle dies and leaves the house to the family—complete with its bizarre baggage. Ahem, a barrage of ghosts collected from around the world. But the skeptic Zorbas don’t care—as long as they get a house they can call their own, they’re fine!
The spirits are pretty wild. In particular, there’s an Italian chef who killed his wife and her lover. But the special effects direct our attention to the chef’s hat and his absurdly large mustache. Elsewhere, Buck (who’s friendly and fascinated by all of the happenings) finds a ghost lion. A LION. What other movie has done that, eh?
But the Zorbas get threatened, and in the end, 13 Ghosts takes a small (albeit, slightly predictable) turn as some things are not exactly what they seem. And all is quickly wrapped up in a tidy bow. It’s a bizarre, fairly sweet family ghost story—I dug it.
William Castle and the gimmick
So, why didn’t anyone tell me that William Castle will often add an introduction to his movies? In 13 Ghosts, Castle appears in his spooky office to inform us about this movie’s gimmick—the “Illusion-O.” It seems movie-goers were given special glasses that had two different color frames (not to be confused with 3-D glasses). At certain times in the film, you were prompted to wear the glasses. If you were a believer in ghosts, you looked through one lens. If you were a skeptic, you looked in the other. One enhanced the appearance of the specters and the other diminished it.
Castle caps off the gimmick—and the movie—by telling the audience to try out the glasses later that night … while they are home alone. Clever.
The gruff off-putting housekeeper/medium, Elaine, was portrayed by Margaret Hamilton, aka the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. She was a good 20 years older in 13 Ghosts, but Hamilton was remarkably the same old Witch we loved to hate. And at two different moments in the movie, Elaine held a broomstick. Wink, wink.
Lunchtime Feature: The Old Dark House (1963)
After quickly reading the synopsis, our next pick was The Old Dark House—chosen merely for its mention of London, as my mom loves a good London mystery. And we literally had no idea what we were getting into: a nonsensically enjoyable romp in the vein of Hitchcock’s Family Plot (before there even was Family Plot). And this one was in color.
Our lead is an American car salesman, Tom (played by comedic actor Tom Poston of Newhart), making his way through London. Casper Femm, Tom’s wealthy, and extremely odd roommate, invites Tom to the Femm family estate for reasons not entirely clear. Casper does tell Tom that he should meet his lovely cousin. So, there’s that.
Antics ensue and Tom is stranded at the home for the evening—with an unidentified killer and a cluster of insane family members. Eccentricity is putting it mildly. We soon learn that everyone in the family is set to inherit the Femm wealth as long as they are present at the home at midnight each night. If they are absent or go missing, they forfeit their portion of the pot. And tonight, that killer is making the rounds…
The Femm Family
Now, when I say this family is odd, I mean it. First, we have Roderick—the gun-toting patriarch who idolizes the monetary prize at the end of the tunnel. His wife, Agatha, is clearly the most likable oddball, earnestly knitting her hours away (to stave off idle hands) and saying off-the-wall comments—all with a sweet smile.
Morgana is a sex addict—or least she wants to be with her big 60s lashes, wild wardrobe, and overtly suggestive behavior with Tom. But he’s got his eyes set on Cecily, the seemingly only normal one of the bunch.
But let’s not forget about Morgana’s overly protective mute brute of a father, Casper’s twin brother, Jasper, and Potiphar, the kindly relative who’s just building an ark outside (complete with animals by the pair).
This is a remake of a 1932 film by the same name which stars Boris Karloff. Reportedly, Karloff denied a role in the ’62 remake due to its comedy-over-horror tones.
Afternoon Feature: Dr. Sardonicus (1961)
And finally we capped off the day with the most serious of the bunch: Dr. Sardonicus. Without ever knowing it, this has one of those famous movie stills—a distorted face with too many smiling teeth straight out of something from The Twilight Zone. I’m fairly certain I thought it was something from The Twilight Zone.
It’s London, 1880. And here we follow Sir Robert Cargrave, a world-renowned doctor with a specialty in innovations and experimentations. A good guy. He gets a letter from his old flame Maude where she requests his assistance with her husband, the Baron Sardonicus.
Upon traveling out to his new client’s estate, Robert is quick to realize things are not quite normal for this married couple. See, the Baron has a condition—a freezing of the face (THAT STILL) that occurred when he saw his father’s dead corpse. And now it’s up to Sir Robert to cure him—or else.
But that’s just a brief glimpse into this weird world. There are leeches, presumed sexual abuse, heartbreak, and more.
William Castle and the gimmick, part 2
Dr. Sardonicus presents to us another entertaining intro at the start of the movie. But instead of revealing the gag, Castle merely welcomes us in the vein of the beloved Crypt Keeper. Castle’s just more pleasing to the eyes.
By the near end of the movie, after a certain twist is revealed, Castle appears again. And this time, he puts the movie-goers in control of one character’s fate. A happy ending? Or a form of punishment? It’s up to us to decide. Castle takes his own careful time “tallying” the audience’s votes and interacting with fictional movie-goers. It’s an utter delight—as I’m sure I had a smile on my face the entire time.
Truth be told, Castle only filmed one ending for the movie—and I’m sure you can guess it wasn’t the “happy ending.”
Watching three William Castle movies in a row was a thrilling experience. Generally speaking, it made me miss having movie marathons, and it reminded me of the ingenious beginnings for horror in film. Castle was a B-movie genius who cared about his audience’s experience. He wanted to scare them, make them laugh, and scare them again.
I can’t wait to dive back into Castlemania—sooner than later—and I hear there’s even a documentary out there complete with a John Waters interview. Hm, I think I may have found a new obsession.
Happy Halloweentime. Now, go watch 13 Ghosts.