Sunday 19 September 2010

13 Frightened Girls (1963)

Director: William Castle
Stars: Murray Hamilton, Joyce Taylor, Hugh Marlowe, Khigh Dhiegh, Kathy Dunn and Lynne Sue Moon

Every new William Castle discovery is a good one and there are plenty of them to make once you've seen all the regular horror titles. This one is a teen comedy of all things, set in the world of diplomatic espionage, the misleading and suggestive title notwithstanding. It came after his classic horror period, between Zotz! and his remake of The Old Dark House, and it fits pretty well with the former. For those used to the famous (or should that be 'infamous'?) theatrical Castle gimmickry, it might seem surprising to see a movie like this on his filmography, but if you take a glance at the rest of his career you'll find that he was far from a one trick pony. Sure, this is a piece of fluff, pure and simple, but like Zotz! it's a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fluff, with plenty of delicious moments of suspense, regardless of how unrealistic the framework is. After all, spies are just another excuse for twists and turns, shadows and chases, corpses and double agents.

The focal point here is Candy Hull, who lent her name to the film's working title, The Candy Web, and who is the epitome of the precocious young blonde American teenager who you just know is going to be a bundle of trouble for everyone. She's a sixteen year old student at Miss Pittford's Academy for Young Ladies, which hides away somewhere in the European countryside with a surprisingly multicultural student body, given that all the students are daughters of diplomats, very possibly one per country as if there's an enforced quota. There's no diplomacy on campus though, officially because Miss Pittford doesn't believe that such a thing leads itself to dignified behaviour in young ladies, but really because it had to be banned outright in order to allow all these varied children to even be in the same building together and thus for this plot to have even the slightest footing. Some are from the other side, you see: from behind the Iron Curtain.

And as soon as we find ourselves at Miss Pittford's we promptly leave again, because the girls all traipse off on holiday. Candy is the driver, because I'm watching the American release. To cast the girls in the film, Castle held a contest in thirteen different countries. The most obvious prize was to be in the movie, to represent their country as a teenage diplomat, which is standard stuff but Castle always went an extra step further. Winning the real contest meant that each also won a fake contest within the movie, some sort of Latin test at Miss Pittford's, the prize for that being to drive the school bus down winding roads and crash into a hillside when a spider crawls down the windscreen. It's a simple concept: just film one scene thirteen times, with a different girl each time, splice it into that country's print and hey presto, there's material tailored to that nation. The same logic applies to the trailers, each presented by their nation's contest winner.
Once we get past that though, it's all about America and Candy Hull. Her father is John Hull, the chargé d'affaires at the American embassy, but she's more interested in Wally Sanders. He's a spy, naturally, though he pretends to be a poker player, and he's known her since she was knee high to a grasshopper. More importantly she has a serious crush on him, the key reason that she decides to become a spy herself. She discovers by accident that his work has been slipping and he's in danger of losing his job, so naturally takes it upon herself to save it for him. The other reason is that she finds herself slap bang in the middle of a diplomatic incident at the Chinese embassy, while hanging out with her schoolgirl buddy Mai Ling, whose uncle Kang is presumably the chief spymaster of Red China. To prop up such an unlikely plot, I should point out that this unnamed city seems to consist of nothing but embassies and be populated by nothing but spies.

So you might assume that the sort of shenanigans that Candy stumbles onto is daily routine. You see, she and Mai Ling were merely dancing the night away to records in Uncle Kang's study, like the daughters of foreign diplomats on the other side tend to do, when they're kicked out so Kang can talk with Kaganescu, the man Wally Sanders is tasked with tracking. Aha, instant spy plot! So Candy goes back in to talk with him after the others leave, and finds him mysteriously missing with blood in the dumb waiter. She follows the trail through the kitchen to find him hung up on a hook in a food locker with a letter opener stuck into his chest, one with a US seal on it, one that she knows belongs to her father. She doesn't tell anyone, of course, but from then on begins training herself to be a spy, training that basically consists of reading Methods and Training for Modern Espionage and applying its techniques to every situation she finds herself in.

Given that this is emphatically a family film, you won't be too surprised to find that she doesn't come a cropper on her first outing and so get tortured to death by the other side. She succeeds beyond her wildest dreams, finding out everything from everybody and sending it to Wally under the code name of Kitten. She doesn't even let Wally know who she is, not only because it would only earn her a spanking from her father and an order to cease and desist, but because if Wally can't tell anyone who Kitten is, everyone will naturally assume that Wally is Kitten and so stop thinking about firing him. The adults flounder around, while Candy runs rings around them all, always blissfully free of suspicion, because hey, she's just a sixteen year old kid. To the mind of real sixteen year old kids, or to be more accurate twelve year old kids who picture themselves as sixteen, this is a delicious story, the Baker Street Irregulars extrapolated into espionage.
If I was twelve years old I'd have loved this film to death. I read voraciously and had a whole slew of books about teenagers who fought crime, from the Three Investigators to Einstein Anderson, Science Sleuth. I also had a bunch more that were effectively the same as Candy's Methods and Training for Modern Espionage but aimed specifically at children. They spoke to disguises, codes and ciphers, even how to hide secret messages at the end of a rolled up tube of toothpaste. Who cares that everyone at Miss Pittford's is a girl? That's just an excuse for characters like Ilona from Germany, who apparently falls deeply in love with a different boyfriend every day. Everything else is effectively unisex, except perhaps the dubious scene where Candy attempts to seduce an older man that she identifies as a foreign agent. It's not too dubious though as seduction is all about love and kisses not sex, because it's all written from a twelve year old's perspective.

Kathy Dunn is delightfully precocious as Candy Hull, making it all the more surprising that she never appeared in another film. Over six years she appeared in a couple of TV movies, a few TV episodes and The Sound of Music on Broadway, but then nothing. Perhaps she wasn't starstruck but her parents were. The other contest winners are capable as stereotypes if not actors, but that's all they're really called upon to do. Only a few of them even have names, the rest referred to only by the names of their countries. Beyond Candy and Mai Ling, only three get much to do. Ilona Schütze gets to look misty eyed a lot as Ilona from Germany and Gina Trikonis is suitably severe as Natasha from Russia. She had a long television career in the wardrobe department but the rest of the girls either had a few credits like Dunn or never acted again. Only two really made a career of acting: Alexandra Bastedo, Alex from England, and Judy Pace, who was Liberia.

This is hardly a film to watch for acting though, or for anything else of substance. It's capable in every department but doesn't shine in any of them, just a well made family film that offers a fair amount of entertainment if you can watch it with the right mindset, that of a twelve year old. You can tell just from his gimmicks that William Castle was a mischievous twelve year old until the day he died at 63 years of age and presumably Otis L Guernsey Jr, who came up with the story, and Robert Dillon, who wrote it, were on the same wavelength. It's consistently done, all the way to the plethora of famous childhood melodies that comprise the soundtrack. For those cringing at the concept of Castle apparently playing Walt Disney instead of Alfred Hitchcock, don't worry. This is a family film full of pixie-like daring rather than soporific niceness and there are a number of fright moments that remind us who made the film. I'll go back to it before Lassie and Flubber.

1 comment:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I genuinely believe William Castle to be the greatest film-maker of all time because nearly all of his films have an incredible re-watchability value unlike that of any other film-maker (with the possible exception of John Carpenter).