Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 89 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Kathy Dunn (RIDE WITH TERROR, KINGS OF BROADWAY), Lynne Sue Moon (TO SIR, WITH LOVE; 55 DAYS AT PEKING), Murray Hamilton (The Mayor in JAWS, THE GRADUATE, THE HUSTLER), Joyce Taylor (TWICE TOLD TALES; ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT), Hugh Marlowe (ALL ABOUT EVE, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), Khigh Dhiegh (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SECONDS), Charlie Briggs (CHARLEY VARRICK, THE BEGUILED).
Tag-line: "13 TERRIFIED TEENAGERS ON THE RUN!"
Best one-liner: "I definitely shall." (See context below).
AKA: THE CANDY WEB.
What's better than 13 GHOSTS? How 'bout 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS!
William Castle is a genius. Remarkably, it took me a some time to come to this realization. (And not necessarily quite in the same sense I mean when I make wild claims that Golan and Globus, or the people who created THE LETTER PEOPLE, or those who wrote the CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE novels are geniuses.) The zany shocks, the silly gimmicks, the unabashed joy of filmmaking: they're all genuine, but they're also a smoke-screen. Castle puts on his big jester's cap, tokes on his cigar, and wows us with some trivial, childish entertainments– or so he'd have us think. From HOMICIDAL to LET'S KILL UNCLE, Castle has snuck all sorts of startlingly subversive material into his films, camouflaging it beneath a noisiy, tramping parade of doe-eyed teenyboppers and dopey-grinned whippersnappers.
Ostensibly Castle's take on the Hitchcockian espionage subgenre (see: SABOTAGE, SABOTEUR, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, etc.), 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS! delivers silly thrills, cheap scares (i.e., a cat is thrown onto our protagonist by a stagehand),
and more double-crosses than you can shake a stick at. The plot concerns thirteen (actually, fifteen) girls from a Swiss boarding academy who go on holiday to London. The twist: all are daughters of top brass diplomats, each from a different country. The gimmick: all except our two main characters- 'Candy' Hull of America (Kathy Dunn) and Mai-Ling of China (Lynne Sue Moon)- were William Castle contest winners from such varied nations as Sweden, Australia, Liberia, and Argentina. Most of them have very few lines- if any- and while some have character names, most are billed in the credits simply by the nations they represent: "Venezuela." "Japan." "Canada." They all get a great moment at the end where they soullessly wave at the camera like a jaded law office in one of those cheapie late-nite TV commercials.
'Wave to the camera, girls....perfect.'
The gimmick went a step further, too– allow me to explain. Now, the opening sequence depicts Candy- having just taken first prize in the school's Latin competition- earning the wondrous and much-sought-after privilege of driving the school bus to the airport. A ginormous arachnid descends upon the windshield, causing Candy to swerve the vehicle like a drunken banshee down the perilous mountain roads. She crashes (relatively safely), and the opening credits roll.
[They filmed this sequence at least five times over, each time with a different contest winner taking the wheel for the wild ride, releasing those alternate versions only in the home countries. The new DVD shows us what they saw in England, Sweden, France, and Germany.]
In addition to being a possible inspiration for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2's opening sequence, this is just one of many insane adult situations foisted upon our sixteen-year-old heroine. Let's look at a few other things which would likely not pass muster today in a children's movie:
Candy's attempts to seduce her father's forty-something co-worker and friend (Murray Hamilton), insisting that though he's known her through childhood, now she is a woman:
Candy's Chinese Embassy shenanigans interrupted by the brutal discovery of a body skewered on a meat hook:
Candy further employing her skills of seduction, first on a fellow diplomat's son from Spain–
and then on a Russian-spy-posing-as-a-Dutchman, which gets her into hot water when he drugs her, forcefeeds her scotch, and prepares to fling her off of a precipice:
which naturally leads to an ole 'tables are turned' scenario, and some schweet dummy-flinging:
Now all of that is certainly edgy for a kid's movie, but I'm sure most of you would hesitate before labeling it 'subversive.' So let me tell you a bit about the plot: Candy, wishing to save the neck of her dad's spy buddy Murray Hamilton, becomes an amateur spy herself, Code Name: Kitten. She accomplishes more in a few short days than the entire CIA has in the preceding year. She's spunky, she's zany, and she's thwarting World War III.
When asked about the romantic notions of spydom early in the film, Murray Hamilton explains that they're merely glorified poker players, bluffing at a fancy table with little knowledge of the big picture. Castle proceeds to draw parallels between the folly of nations and the vagaries of little girls–
general fickleness, whiny phone calls, catty cliquishness, bellyaching about prior commitments, needlessly bitchy behavior, pretending to be a know-it-all: it's all par for the course for teenage girls... and world governments. The fearless, simple bravado with which Castle draws these parallels is nothing less than goddamned great. At a time (like any other, I suppose) when the masses are trained to believe that the men with the fingers on the doomsday buttons are crack decision makers and the most rational of human beings, Castle dares to drag them into the mud, to tear off their pompous uniforms, and to reveal the infantile petticoats beneath. We look deeply into the eyes of the men who rule the world, and see not the stalwart visages of Uncle Sam or Chairman Mao, but the scowling faces of catty, spoiled children who have all the integrity of a back alley dealer in Three-Card Monte. (And vote today, by the way!) When the dust settles, we have more faith in a whacky kid with a lotta verve than the stuffy hordes of professional chowderheads. William Castle gives the finger to the government- all governments– throws back his head, laughs heartily, and puffs on that cigar once more. Go ahead, Bill- you earned it.
[And one final, semi-spoilery side note of inappropriateness– ]
In continuing with my observations of what wouldn't quite pass muster in a kid's movie these days–
After an international incident involving the American and Chinese governments, Candy is unveiled as the master spy, and a Mexican standoff ensues, between agents from both nations (China- in a stroke of casting brilliance- being represented by THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE's Khigh Dhiegh).
Murray Hamilton calls for leniency in the name of it being embarassing to China to be outsmarted by a teen girl. Khigh calls for DEATH. Finally, a deal is struck: instead, only a harsh spanking will be delivered to Candy. Wait, WHUTTTTTTTTT?!
As the Americans back away, Khigh calmly drives the point home:
"The spanking- administer it with vigor."
"I definitely shall."
And, on that note...