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.
I believe that the first time I saw William Castle’s 13 Frightened Girls was at a drive-in movie with the family. When we were told that we were going to the drive-in to see 13 Frightened Girls, the title must have conjured up pictures of ghosts, horrors, and young ladies in peril. All of the things an eleven year old boy could possibly want in a movie.
I had no clue who William Castle was. Things like producers, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, didn’t exactly weigh heavily on my mind. I’m sure I didn’t know what a director was until Lucy assigned Charlie Brown to be the director of their School Christmas play.
Except for The Old Dark House which I saw as part of a double feature at the Columbia Theater in Portsmouth Ohio, I saw most of Castle’s other films on the late show on Friday or Saturday night.
This included films such as The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, Macabre, Straight Jacket (with Joan Crawford), and 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. There was no such thing as caller ID or cell phones so playing on the phone was a favorite pastime for many.
I never had the chance to experience firsthand all the gimmicks Castle used in his films to get people out of their living rooms and to gather at the local cinema. William Castle went way beyond producing and directing. He was the PT Barnum of low budget films. He was 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.
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 theater. Some seats in theaters 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.
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.
Each patron was given a “Magic” (gold colored plastic) coin which, of course, did absolutely nothing.
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.
Castle advertised a million-dollar life insurance policy taken out on the film’s star, “Hercules” the cockroach.
Despite the fact that most of these so called enhancements were more Castle bravado than 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. Did he succeed in this admirable endeavor? 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 you be the judge.
The first trailer showcases the girls so I’ll let you decide as to whether they are the most beautiful girls on the planet. The second trailer hardly mentions the 13 Diplomats and it’s actually all the better for it. The first trailer is under the 13 Frightened Girls moniker and the second one is labeled The Candy Web. I guess it depended on what theater in what country as to which one you saw.
I don’t know how Castle went about the selection process. That remains a mystery. I don’t think he put any real effort into it. At least a few of the girls are not from the countries represented. Gina Trikonis was not from Russia and she’s not mentioned in the trailer. Judy Pace was not from Liberia.
In fact, Trikonis who plays Natasha was born in New York City and Pace who is never given a name in the film (although most of the rest of the 13 girls used their real first names) hails from Los Angeles and was cast after Castle saw her picture in Ebony Magazine.
Ms. Trikonis had other previous film experience as well, having 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 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 although it probably wouldn’t have hurt having this group of young female rowdies break out into a chorus of “Cool” along with some fancy dancing. I will say this, she does an impressive impersonation of a Soviet.
Here is the list of girls and the countries they “supposedly” hailed from. Placed here for your educational enjoyment and enlightenment.
These actresses were all signed up to be the daughters of ambassadors from all over the world. Coincidentally, they are also students at the same private school, Miss Pittford’s Academy for Young Ladies. You may recognize Miss Pittford as Norma Vardan who played the Von Trapp Housekeeper in The Sound of Music so she has experience dealing with young Hellions of any age or sex. I guess she started her school after the Von Trapp Family headed for the hills.
If you count the girls early on, 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. Moon of course, is not from Red China, but was born in Islington, London. Dunn is an American and bleeds red, white, blue, stars and bars.
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.
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, 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.
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 2020. 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 literally makes sense because there are now thirteen frightened girls for real.
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.
Turns out, the film has more in common with James Bond than it does 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) and future mayor of Amity Island aka Shark City. 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. I was all of eleven years old though. In 2020 it may come off as kind of creepy and what the hell were they thinking? Yeah, it’s supposed to be her love of Wally that motivates her to save his job, but couldn’t that business be taken care of just as easily if she wanted to be his BFF? On the other hand….(Why is there always another hand?)
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 there it is on the screen and you be judge and jury as to the motivations of the participants. I’m clueless as to how Kathy Dunn felt about it and I don’t think anybody bothered to ask her before she high tailed it out of Hollywood for the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Just remember, that when Candy was young, Wally was somewhat of a babysitter and regaled her with stories of his spy adventures. Ergo, the lifelong crush.
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 eavesdrop. 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 on Planet Earth, 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 legal aged fiancée Soldier (Joyce Taylor) 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, “as two frightened secret agents huddling together in a steaming cow barn.”
Maybe Castle should have made that movie instead of this one.
Before the movie can get on with its 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).
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 Red China Land, they are celebrating the Holiday of a Thousand Tractors (don’t ask, it’s 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 under-cooked Sirloin.
Young Miss Drew, 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.
Candy realizes 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 symbols 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 no sense at all.
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. Like this suspenseful moment.
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, playing Julie Olsen, a role that would be made famous later on when Susan Seaforth Hayes made it her own. Afterwards she seemingly dropped off of the face of the earth.
But doing my own Nancy Drew research I found out she married some guy by the name of Roger Roper Jr. who made his living working for a tobacco company and that she was born in 1947. When she was on Days of Our Lives playing one of the early editions of Julie Olsen for a brief six months in 1967, this article lists her age as 61 when it was written. It also says she was a 20 year old veteran when she did that show. So using math that Einstein would have been proud of, Ms. Dunn-Roper would now be 73 or 16 when she starred in 13 Frightened Girls, coincidentally the same age as her character. Whether she or her husband is still alive, I don’t have a clue.
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. Dunn keeps the plot moving along even when Castle tries to bog it down with his co-called discoveries.
Her seduction scenes are about what you’d expect: an inexperienced 16 year old trying to act like a seductress instead of actually being one. When she is in an apartment with a Russian Spy, she tries on the role of Mata Hari once again and it manages to almost get her killed although she makes it through with her virginity intact.
Dunn’s 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.
For most fans, character actor Murray Hamilton will always be known as Mayor Vaughn from the first two Jaws movies and never the object of a 16 year old girl’s affection. 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. Once he wards off her advances that is.
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, which has a lot to do with the way Candy sees him. Wally sees himself as just a friend, figuring Candy will get over her infatuation in good time.
Which brings us to Hugh Marlowe. Marlowe, as you may or may not recall, played Patricia 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, doesn’t check on her whereabouts, and pretty much let’s her do her own thing from beginning to end.
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?” This incompetent jackass must have been appointed by Trump Monster.
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. He got on my nerves with his uppity grandstanding holier than thou bullshit.
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. 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?
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. She certainly had the looks and the personality to make it big in Hollywood but made the mistake of signing on with Howard Hughe’s RKO in the fifties and he wouldn’t let her be used for anything. Why? Because he was off his nut, that’s why.
There’s not much to be said about Lynne Sue Moon as Mai Ling and most of the 13 Girls. 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.
There are girls who obviously had talent but lose what little screen time they have to those that don’t. Three of those that do, Alexandra Bastedo (England), Judy Pace, and Gina Trikonis 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 has miraculously appeared on DVD. And if you want to see all of her in action, she also appeared in the film Cotton Comes to Harlem.
Gina Trikonis continued working in Hollywood 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. Or maybe several of them. Castle was so wrapped up in promoting his 13 beauties, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Anyway, I find this film despite its many 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.