Sunday, May 13, 2012

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Ghosts' (1960)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

As I said when I wrote about his 13 Frightened Girls, William Castle's schlock-horror classic 13 Ghosts was pretty much an inevitable subject for this feature (as is the 2001 remake). As gimmicky as any of his other well-known films, 13 Ghosts also manages to be mildly creepy at times, thanks to some relatively contained performances (at least for a horror B-movie) and a simple, straightforward plot that focuses on scares rather than outlandish twists (well, for a little while, at least). It's your basic haunted-house setup, with a down-on-their-luck family mysteriously and serendipitously inheriting a creepy old house that, oh yeah, is also populated by the titular ghosts. (Actually, there are just 12 ghosts, because the 13th ghost will be ... one of the family members!)

The family actually seems pretty sanguine about the whole haunting thing, especially after dad Cyrus (Donald Woods, very dad-like) gets trapped in a mysterious room with a bunch of flying fiery pinwheels, then just goes off to work the next day. The handsome young lawyer (Martin Milner) who informed the family of their inheritance seems rather keen on getting them to leave the house; could he possibly have a hidden agenda? Well, duh, of course he does, and the eventual reveal of the lawyer's motives leads to the most Scooby-Doo-like ending I've ever seen in a movie (there was actually a one-season Scooby-Doo cartoon series called The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo in 1985, although it has nothing to do with this movie; also, to be fair, Scooby-Doo didn't exist until 1969).

Before that, there's a Ouija board scene (of course), a seance (of course), lots of pseudo-scientific explanations of the supernatural, and some surprisingly effective ghosts, made all the more unsettling by Castle's trademark gimmickry, this time featuring a handheld viewer that could block out or intensify the images of the ghosts thanks to old-fashioned red-and-blue 3D technology. On DVD, the effect doesn't come across, but it does make the ghosts look immaterial and otherworldly, which is about as much as a low-budget horror movie from 1960 could do to freak out its audience. The supposed "ghost viewer" left behind by the owner of the house is a flimsy excuse for the gimmick, but it does the trick well enough. Add to that a performance by Margaret Hamilton (who played the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz) as the house's enigmatic, witch-like housekeeper, and you have a fun little B-movie that moves along nicely until its totally boneheaded, sitcom-style ending.

Friday, May 11, 2012

'Common Law'

USA's latest lighthearted crime procedural opens with a quote from Dr. Phil, and things don't really improve from there. Common Law supplements its by-the-numbers crime-solving with a silly gimmick about the main characters, bickering homicide detectives played by Michael Ealy and Warren Kole, attending couples counseling to heal their dysfunctional relationship. So there are cutesy jokes about how their partnership is like a marriage, and there is the exaggerated banter that's not much different from any other mismatched buddy-cop show or movie, only here it's placed front and center, so that solving the crime in the needlessly expanded pilot feels almost like an afterthought.

Ealy is a charismatic actor, but both of the main characters come off as smug and grating, thanks to the show's needs to play up their antagonistic (but ultimately loving) relationship. Kole, playing the more uptight character, fares worse, and it's hard to find anything appealing about his constant self-righteous nagging. As far as the crime-solving goes, it's entirely rote, which is to be expected from a show like this but is still tiresome to watch. The real appeal, as with almost all of USA's "blue sky" dramas, should be in spending time with the characters, but by halfway through the first episode I never wanted to see these guys again. 

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on USA.