Sunday, February 26, 2012

Clyde’s Movie Palace: 13 Frightened Girls (1963)


Starring
Kathy Dunn
Murray Hamilton
Lynne Sue Moon
Hugh Marlowe
Khigh Dheigh
Norma Varden
Joyce Taylor
Produced and Directed by
William Castle
As I mentioned in my review of the film Carrie, there are some memories of your first viewing of a film that stick with you forever. But there is one caveat to that. As you get older, the further back in your childhood that you go, the more your memories become a bit cloudy. Let's take today's movie, 13 Frightened Girls as an example.
The film itself is one I remember very well, although. I also remember having originally seen it at a drive-in, probably as the second half of a double feature. But I couldn't tell you for sure what drive in movie theater it was. But I distinctly remember that when we were told that we were going to the drive-in to see 13 Frightened Girls, the title conjured up pictures of ghosts, horrors, and sexy girls in constant jeopardy. This of course was well before the dawn of the slasher era brought on by the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th. There was no rating system then, but even the worst films would garner a PG rating by today's standards.
Needless to say I didn't know who William Castle was in the early sixties seeing as how I was all of......well let's just say I was very young and there was no such animal as the internet. Things like producers, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, didn't exactly weigh heavily on my mind back in those days. As it turned out, except for The Old Dark House which I saw as part of a double feature at the Columbia Theater (see my Carrie review for more reminiscing about that) I saw most of Castle's other films on the late show on Friday or Saturday night which was when most of the Horror Films ran on local stations. This list would include films such as The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, Macabre, Straight Jacket (with Joan Crawford), and of course I Saw What You Did, a film which not only enticed kids to play on the phone just for fun, but to warn them of the consequences at the same time. No boys and girls, there was no such thing as caller ID or cell phones.
Having only watched these films on a small black and white television in the sixties, or even more recently on a big screen via DVD, I never had the chance to experience first hand all the gimmicks Castle used in his films to get people out their living rooms and to head downtown to the local cinema. If one were to try to explain exactly what it was that William Castle did beyond producing and directing, it would be to describe him as the P.T. Barnum of low budget films. Castle didn't believe in just making the films, he was also the ultimate movie showman, selling and promoting his films with whatever gimmicks he could come up with. And he had a Santa Claus bag full of them.
Macabre (1958)
A certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London was given to each customer in case he/she should die of fright during the film. Showings also had fake nurses stationed in the lobbies and hearses parked outside the theater.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Filmed in "Emergo". An inflatable glow in the dark skeleton attached to a wire floated over the audience during the final moments of some showings of the film to parallel the action on the screen when a skeleton arose from a vat of acid and pursued the villainous wife of Vincent Price.
The Tingler (1959)
Filmed in "Percepto". In the film a docile creature that lives in the spinal cord is activated by fright, and can only be destroyed by screaming. In the film's finale one of the creatures removed from the spine of a mute woman killed by it when she was unable to scream is let loose in a movie theatre. Some seats in theatres showing The Tingler were equipped with larger versions of the hand-held joy buzzers attached to the underside of the seats. When The Tingler in the film attacked the audience the buzzers were activated as a voice encouraged the real audience to "Scream - scream for your lives."
13 Ghosts (1960)
Filmed in "Illusion-O". A hand held ghost viewer/remover with strips of red and blue cellophane was given out to use during certain segments of the film. By looking through either the red or blue cellophane the audience was able to either see or remove the ghosts if they were too frightening
Homicidal (1961)
This film contained a "Fright break" with a 45 second timer overlaid over the film's climax as the heroine approached a house harboring a sadistic killer. A voiceover advised the audience of the time remaining in which they could leave the theatre and receive a full refund if they were too frightened to see the remainder of the film.
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
In this gothic tale set in 1880 London a baron's face is frozen into a permanent grotesque hideous smile after digging up his father's grave to retrieve a lottery ticket left in the pocket of his father's jacket. The audiences were allowed to vote in a "punishment poll" during the climax of the film - Castle himself appears on screen to explain to the audience their options. Each member of the audience was given a card with a glow in the dark thumb they could hold either up or down to decide if Mr. Sardonicus would be cured or die during the end of the film. Supposedly, no audience ever offered mercy so the alternate ending was never screened.
Zotz! (1962)
Each patron was given a "Magic" (gold colored plastic) coin which, of course, did absolutely nothing.
Strait-Jacket (1964)
Joan Crawford. Advised by his financial backers to eliminate gimmicks, Castle hired Crawford to star and sent her on a promotional tour to theatres. At the last minute, Castle had cardboard axes made and handed out to patrons.
I Saw What You Did (1965)
The film was initially promoted using giant plastic telephones but after a rash of prank phone calls and complaints, the telephone company refused Castle permission to use them or mention telephones. So he turned the back rows of theatres into "Shock Sections". Seat belts were installed to keep patrons from being jolted from their chairs in fright.
Bug (1975)
Castle advertised a million-dollar life insurance policy taken out on the film's star, "Hercules" the cockroach.
But despite that, and despite the fact that most of these so called enhancements were more Castle bravado then anything else, of the Castle films I have seen most acquit themselves quite well just as horror films.
As for 13 Frightened Girls, Castle wanted to search the world over until he found true love......well at least until he found what he thought were the 13 most beautiful girls in the world to star in his next moving picture. Did he succeed in his endeavor? Well, do you know the old saying about beauty being in the eye of the beholder? In other words, they're not Frankenstein's Bride by any stretch of the imagination but no more mesmerizing than the girls in your nearest county fair beauty pageant. But I'll let you be the judge. I give you the Thirteen Frightened Girls
So you were expecting a bikini swimsuit competition or something? And yeah, the old gal in the middle is not one of Castle's discoveries and you may in fact recognize her as character actress Norma Vardan who played the Von Trapp Housekeeper in The Sound of Music. In this film she is the Miss Pittford of Miss Pittford's Academy for Young Ladies.
If you took the time to count the rest of the girls, (and I know damn good and well you didn't until I just now mentioned it) you'll see that they add up to fifteen, not thirteen. That's because two of the girls are just regular ordinary actors and not part of Castle's beauty queen search. One of them is Lynne Sue Moon as Red Chinese Student Mai Ling, and the other girl is Kathy Dunn as American Student Candace "Candy" "Kitten" Hull. And obviously they aren't the most beautiful unknown girls in the world, and no, I don't know how Castle went about the selection process.
The girls and their countries are as follows:
As for the actual names or their characters, that's a horse of a different color. Most of the 13 girls used their real first names in the film. I suppose that made things a bit easier for Castle to keep track of who was whom when filming but it's not like you really need to know. But there is one exception.
Gina Trikonis, who plays the girl from the U.S.S.R.,  goes by the name of Natasha. It turns out that Castle's Russian Beauty didn't actually come from the Soviet Union. She was born right here in the USA. I guess the Cold War kept Castle from being able to grab a genuine made in Moscow Soviet Union Maiden. Maybe she's of Russian ancestry though (I have no clue). It could be that Premier Kruschev didn't much care for Castle's films and refused to let any Soviet devushka take part. But that bald headed old fart didn't like Doctor Zhivago either so what did he know?

But Ms. Trikonis had other previous film experience as well, having previously played Graziella, Riff’s girlfriend in West Side Story in 1961.  Looking at it another way, she went from playing a street gang member’s main squeeze in an Academy Award Best Picture film, to playing a hoity toity Russian Ambassador’s daughter for William Castle.  I guess that’s either a demotion or promotion, depending on how you look at it  No, she doesn’t get to sing or dance this time around..
Miss Pittford's Academy for Young Ladies is not just any old ordinary run of the mill private school. It's a safe haven for for the daughters of diplomats from all over the world. You know, your run of the mill working people and peasants, just like you and I. It is also where Candy and the rest of the students are about to embark on a holiday where they will rejoin their families in and around the embassies where their parents work. Candy, who is all of 16 years young, has won first place in Latin. The prize? She gets to drive the girls to the airport on the school's bus. Now one can look at this from several different angles:
1. You might decide that getting to drive a bus to the airport isn't much of a prize for having mastered a very difficult and a very dead language.

2. You could remember that it was much easier for a sixteen year old to get a driver's license in those days. Basically all one had to do was show up at the license bureau, ace the test, and they would punch your ticket. Heck, they didn't even put your picture on it in those days, or worry about such mundane matters as to whether or not you had auto  insurance.
3. If you were a diplomat, you might decide that it's time to start thinking about sending your teenager to public school instead of Crazy Old Miss Pittford's. Or...
4. While you munch down on your popcorn you could just shrug your shoulders and understand that Castle, being the showman that he is, needed a slam bang opening to grab your attention


















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And that of course is exactly what it is. As they head down the same quarter mile stretch of road three or four times (you have to see the movie to understand) a spider comes dangling down the windshield causing Candy's driving to suddenly advance from just being somewhat erratic to being scarier than hell crazy put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye kind of erratic. Well, you know teenage girls and spiders. They didn't get along in 1963, just like they don’t in 2010. Just put one in a girls shoe and see what it gets you. And of course, since Castle's 13 girls are now scared shitless, Castle's title now literally makes sense because this is the only time in the film that we will see thirteen frightened girls.

Of course, the spider appearance may also have been Castle’s goofy way of foreshadowing later events that have to do with another spider, this one being of the human species.

I believe when I was told that the family was headed out to the drive-in to see a movie called 13 Frightened Girls, I conjured up all kinds of cool pictures in my head. I expected to see things like 13 very endowed females toughing it out in some haunted house in their p.j.'s then being ravaged and savaged by whatever ghosts, vampires, deranged killer or whatever else might be running amok. I got none of that at all. Was I disappointed?
No, because 13 Frightened Girls still conjured up just enough suspense to satisfy the average 10 to 13 year old sitting in the backseat of his parents car, crammed in between his seven siblings. Okay, so maybe this was one of the times we actually sat outside the car. As it turned out though, the film had more in common with James Bond than with it did with Vincent Price throwing a get together in a Haunted House on a Haunted Hill. In fact, change Candy's name to Nancy Drew and you could just as easily call this movie Nancy Drew And The Clue of the Kitten's Paw.
When she finally arrives at the embassy building where her father works, Candy wastes no time in letting us know that the love of her life is Wally Cleaver. Scratch that, I mean Miss Candace Hull is madly, definitively, and permanently, in love with Wally Sanders (Murray Hamilton), a CIA agent friend/employee of her father, John Hull (Hugh Marlowe). Okay, so there are a few small obstacles keeping Candy from eternal bliss. First, Wally is in fact engaged to another agent that goes by the name of Soldier (Joyce Taylor) who sits around in a room nearby all day trying to break the Soviet secret code.
But let's not forget that other tiny detail standing in Candy's way of luring Wally away from Soldier. He's 40 and she's 16. But it could still work out with Daddy's approval. Later when Pa comes into the room unexpectedly at the same time that Candy has her arms wrapped around Wally in a loving embrace, dear old dad doesn't really seem to mind one bit. In 1963, I didn't see a problem with all this. In 2010 it does seem a bit strange. Okay, so maybe John does know his daughter has always had crush on Wally, or maybe he figures Wally is man enough to handle the situation on his own. Hmmm....that doesn't sound exactly right either, and I'm not sure I would be that trusting. But then again, maybe Murray Hamilton decided to make his escape by becoming the mayor of Shark City.
Having failed to seduce Wally, when John invites Wally to have a private chat in his limo, Candy decides to go along for the ride although she is relegated to sitting in the front seat with the chauffeur, Mike (Charley Briggs) while the two men converse in the back with the partition closed. No problem for Candy though as she simply turns the front seat intercom on so that she can hear what is being said. And no, I don't know why they have a partition separating the front seat, since all one needs to do is flip a switch to hear what they couldn't hear otherwise. But don't muddy up the waters with simple logic or you'll never have any fun at all and neither will Candy.
What we find out is that Candy's father is kind of a prick. Okay, so that's a bit blunt even if it is true. It turns out that a fellow named Kagenescu, who is apparently the leader of a small unnamed country somewhere, has shown up in town a week before he was supposed to be in London. Worse, Kagenescu has been seen at the friendly confines of the Russian Embassy who want to acquire his services in exchange for two minor leaguers, a draft choice, and a player to be named later. And when Candy overhears that Wally let Kagenescu slip through his fingers and dear old Daddy Dearest may send his future son-in-law back to a Class Double A minor league spy school, she is none too pleased.
Back at the Embassy Wally and his fiancée Soldier  put their heads together to try to solve the Kagenescu affair before Wally ends up in the unemployment line. That is, they get busy after a few hugs and smooches and a little reminiscing about the good old days of spying when they used to really have fun or as Soldier  puts it, "two frightened secret agents huddling together in a steaming cow barn." Hmmm, maybe Castle should have made that movie instead of this one.
Before the movie can get on with it's story though, we are required to plod through a scene where Candy interacts with some of the not so frightened girls, in order that they can get some much needed screen time since Castle went through all that trouble of rounding them up to be here.
Soon, Candy gets a call from her best friend Mai Ling (Lynne Sue Moon, who is not one of the official "13 Frightened Girls"). She invites Candy over for cocktails at the Red China pavilion she calls home. Since Daddy wouldn't approve of Candy cavorting with the Reds or chomping down on some Chop Suey, she has to do a bit of conniving to get his approval. And as we find out later, this is just a tip of the conniving iceberg for Candy.
Over in China Land, they are celebrating the Holiday of a Thousand Tractors (don't ask, it's just just an excuse for us to see some fireworks and learn about Chinese Culture) and It isn't long before Candy arrives and begins putting down some Chubby Checker type dance moves with her friend Mai Ling. They are right in the middle of reminding us how foolish we all looked doing The Twist when Mai Ling's Uncle Kang (Khigh Deigh) and two other friends arrive.
As the girls are leaving, Candy overhears Kang address one of the men that is with him as Kagenescu. And of course, knowing that Kagenescu is the key to keeping Wally from being sent off to Amity Island, Candy decides to find out what's going on. And later, when she sees Kang and his aide leave the room without Kagenescu, Candy sends Mai Ling after some grub so that she can slip into full blown Nancy Drew mode to have her own private chat with the all important Kagenescu. But Kagenescu is nowhere to be found, and worse yet, there's a nice pool of fresh blood hanging out on the dumbwaiter. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the blood didn't come from a pound of undercooked Sirloin.
Nancy...er I mean Candy, isn't going to let a little thing like some spilled blood stop her from climbing into the dumbwaiter and heading down to investigate. I of course, can't tell you exactly what happens from that point on as it would spoil the fun. I will tell you that the outcome does make Candy realize that she has the perfect setup and can use it to feed information to heartthrob Wally, thus saving her love life, Wally's job, and the world, all at the same time. This task is made easier by the fact that all she has to do is to hang out with her friends from Miss Pittman's, keeping her eyes and ears open, and report on everything. So in effect, she has traded in her Nancy Drew merit badge for a couple of zero's and a number as the first female James Bond counterpart.
She sends her information to Wally in the form of letters using cryptic cut-out alphabet letters from newspapers and magazines. She signs them by placing her cat's paw on an ink pad and stamping the paw print onto the paper. Thus, her code name, Kitten.
13 Frightened Girls is as far from being perfect as a film can be and still manage to remain entertaining. Castle had a good idea here as far as the story goes, but this is one time when one of his gimmicks actually hampers the film more than enhances it. While the idea of a private school for the daughters of diplomats is one way to show the contest winners, and to tie them into the "13 Frightened Girls" title, in relation to everything else in the movie the title makes makes no sense at all.
In truth, the 83 minute running time hurts the film in other ways. While Candy's few adventures are suspenseful enough, they also seemed terribly rushed. In fact, much of what we find out about Candy's work as a spy comes while she is reading a book, Methods and Training for Counter Espionage (hey, doesn't every household library have one of these?), which acts as a voice over for a quick montage of scenes illustrating what she is learning. Better to have added about 20 minutes, drop the book, and actually show Candy doing her thing as a double-not spy because those are the scenes that actually are the meat, potatoes, and gravy of this film.
Candy seduces a Russian agent.
 
I don't really know what to tell you about Kathy Dunn's acting, because to this day I'm not sure exactly what to make of it. But  her performance is fascinating to watch. She started her career as one of the Von Trapp children in the Broadway production of The Sound of Music. She ended it about four years later after a short stint in the daytime soap, Days of Our Lives, when she seemingly dropped off of the face of the earth. I guess the best way to describe her performance here is that she's got spunk, and unlike Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I actually like spunk and she keeps things moving along quite well. Her seduction scenes are exactly what they should be: an inexperienced 16 year old trying to act like a seductress instead of actually being one. And her work in the action/suspense sequences is good enough to make you wistfully wish once again that Castle had done more not only with the scenes, but Ms. Dunn as well. How old Ms. Dunn actually was when this film was made is unknown, as it is not even listed at the IMDB.   In fact, Ms. Dunn has pretty much dropped off the face of the earth. Update:  Kathy married a cancer stick pusher who worked for Philip Morris and went on to dabble in Japanese Flowers.  Among other things.  Use the link.
For most fans, character actor Murray Hamilton will always be known as Mayor Vaughn from the first two Jaws movie. Always a dependable character actor or heavy, depending on the role, here he is more or less the male lead as Candy's friend, father figure, and companion, and he does his usual stalwart job. It is easy to see why she has a huge crush on him, especially when he mentions the stories from his early years as a spy. Call it hero worship or whatever, but unlike the way Candy sees him, he sees himself as more of a friend then anything else.

Which brings us to Hugh Marlowe. Marlowe, as you may or may not recall, played Patricia O'Neal's suitor in the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. In that film he wooed O'Neal to further his career, then chose being a wealthy bastard over cohabitating with O'Neal by turning in Klaatu and cashing in some diamonds. And although he obviously isn't meant to be seen that way in Girls, he does come off as a bit of an ass. He has little time for Candy. It's obvious that when things aren't going exactly as planned he uses Wally as his scapegoat. Then, in a move that makes no sense at all towards the end of the film he insists that Wally blow the cover of his best agent, who just happens to be Kitten. Why in the hell would you want to blow the cover of your best agent, even if you think "your allies want to use him and your enemies want to kill him?" For one thing, your allies can't use him if his cover is revealed, and second, why would you reward him by exposing him to your enemies? In other words, compared to spunky daughter Candy, Hull is a rather clueless dolt, but Marlowe does okay with it considering the sloppy way his character is written. It’s not his fault.
Khigh Dheigh as Kang warms up for his role as Wo-Fat in the TV series Hawaii Five-O some six years later, and those were always the best episodes of that show. And he is menacing. He can be as sweet as apple pie to his niece Mai-Ling one minute and then slapping her across the kisser the next. With friends like him, who needs enemies. Oh wait, the Reds weren't exactly our friends in those days, were they?
In this clip from Hawaii Five-O, McGarret finally captures Wo Fat. Or does he?
Joyce Taylor as Soldier is as good looking as any of the 13 girls, but she really has little to do beyond conversing with and smooching on Wally, and being thrown in for plot convenience near the end of the film.
The less said about Lynne Sue Moon as Mai Ling and most of the 13 Girls, the better. After this film, Moon had one more role in To Sir With Love, and then like Dunn, dropped out of sight. Considering her terrible dialog she is given here and her stiff as a board acting to go along with it, it doesn't surprise me that she figured out that the big screen just wasn't her thing.

Most of the other girls are worse. And the ones who obviously had talent lose what little screen time they have to those that don't. Two of those that do, Alexandra Bastedo (England) and Judy Pace (Liberia),  went on to fairly decent careers in film and in television. Bastedo starred in the short-lived (one season) but memorable show The Champions which was an excellent series that deserved a much better fate than a one season run. Among Judy Pace's many roles were playing the wife of Gayle Sayers in the original Brian's Song, and starring in another short lived series I adored, The Young Lawyers, which ran on ABC for one year. And if you want to see her in action, she also appeared in the film Cotton Comes To Harlem.

As for the aforementioned Gina Trikonis, who plays the Soviet Girl Natasha, her work in film continued as well.  After West Side Story and this film she did a one shot guest role on the TV show The Farmer’s Daughter and afterwards made herself a career working in the costume department and later as a wardrobe supervisor in several TV series.

There are those who think 13 Frightened Girls is a much better film than it is given credit for. You can include me among that group. And while everybody remembers William Castle films like The Tingler and I Saw What You Did, this particular film gets scant attention. There's a very clever idea here, and the basic premise is good enough that if properly made, it should be a candidate for a remake with one of the younger up and coming teen actresses of the day. Never mind that though. Hollywood would probably muck it up somehow.  Anyway, I find this film despite its flaws to be quite a bit more entertaining than 2007's Nancy Drew, and since I gave that film a C, I have absolutely no choice but to give 13 Frightened Girls a B-.

GUEST COMMENTATOR
Joshua Curtis
 
13 Frightened Girls is an older movie that offers viewers an unusual but effective plot. Born in the '90s, I grew up on one spy movie after another, each one more ridiculous and silly than the next. I'm here to tell you that 13 Frightened girls is the silliest and most ridiculous of them all...and yet somehow it's a movie with a formula that works!
Candace (often referred to as the spy, Kitten) is a 16 year old girl that is very ditsy and has an appalling taste in older men. This taste in older men leads her to become a very unusual spy in order to help out the much older man that she has a crush on: Wally. At this point in the movie I found myself thinking that it was a dud, but out of respect for good old Hollywood I kept watching; I'm glad I did.
As the plot of 13 Frightened Girls progressed, the creators managed to instill a sense of seriousness into the theme, and before long I was anxious to find out what was going to happen next. From sneaking around the depths of Mai-Ling's gigantic mansion to wooing sexy teenage boys, Candace (aka Kitten), shows us that even for a diplomat's daughter she's got real spunk!
A majority of the scenes in this movie led me to realize just how silly the overall premise was, but that doesn't detract from the entertaining and rather unique plot. My biggest gripe with this movie is the fact that the '13 girls' that were supposed to be Castle's big gimmick for this particular movie, added practically nothing to the plot as a whole. We see some very pretty girls who are only really called on to help out once, but in general they were either missing entirely, or simply on the screen as scenery.
13 Frightened Girls is well worth watching, but it is far from the best spy movie I've ever seen. I commend the creators, writers, directors, etc. for making me laugh and feel a certain amount of tension in the same movie, but by the time the end rolled around I felt like something was missing, despite the good time that I had while watching it. I recommend giving this movie a shot if you're in the mood for something that's somewhere between a comedy and an action flick. It fits nicely into both worlds and is good at what it does. I give 13 Frightened Girls an 8/10
So how do you see this film? You can buy the William Castle Film Collection from Amazon using my link at the top, in which case I would love you forever, not to mention the price is way cheaper now than when it was released so it’s a bargain. You can also buy it individually from an Amazon Associate, also by using the provided link above.  Or, if you are the economical type like myself, rent it from Netflix or wait for a showing on Turner Classic Movies. It popped up on there a couple of years ago which is the good news. The bad news was because it was a "theme night" regarding Castle, they may have just sprung for the rights for one or two  showings. But you can always go to their web page and request it again. As for Castle, there is a documentary called Spine-Tingler: The William Castle Story. But like the other films, you have to buy the boxed set to get it. But since the price of that set has come way down, you should probably pick it up now while you can. 












1 comment:

  1. Excellent web, thanks for this "remember's" Lynne Sue Moon....

    ReplyDelete