Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: 13 Frightened Girls (1963)

William Castle never fails to entertain me. I’ve enjoyed movies like House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Tingler (1959) for many years. And his legendary gimmicks are always an added plus to the experience (not that I’ve ever actually EXPERIENCED the gimmicks, but reading about them – and imagining what they would have been like -always adds to my enjoyment of his movies).

In the case of 13 Frightened Girls (1963), the gimmick is a little less visceral than, say, a giant skeleton flying over the audience (Emergo from House on Haunted Hill) or electric buzzers wired to theatre seats (Percepto in The Tingler). This time the gimmick was a world wide talent search for teenage girls to play the daughters of diplomats who attend a special school. So, presumably, this would mean that people from 13 different countries could take pride in one of their own being selected to appear in this movie. I’m not sure if this actually increased ticket sales in the winning countries, but I understand the spirit of the idea.

On the downside, this gimmick seems more like a pre-movie publicity stunt than something that would actually enhance the experience of watching the film. Still, it’s a fun idea.

Judging by the title and the poster, a person might be tempted to think that 13 Frightened Girls is a horror film. It clearly seems to have been named after Castle’s successful 13 Ghosts (1960) and, going in, I almost wondered if I was about to see some sort of sequel to that movie… but no.

13 Frightened Girls is unusual and unique – hard to classify or put into a category. As I watched the first few minutes of it I found myself wondering what Castle had thought he was creating. Did he imagine that this was his version of… a James Bond film? It did come out one year after Dr. No (1962) – and there certainly were a lot of James Bond knockoffs in the 1960s (including some spoofy comedies), but it seems unlikely that this one could have been a direct decedent. Let’s face it, a story about teenage schoolgirls doesn’t quite seem like an obvious riff on Bond.

As the movie wore on, I decided that Castle must have been thinking of Alfred Hitchcock when he made this one. Picture it: a suspenseful story about an ordinary person, in this case a teenage schoolgirl, who gets mixed up in a dangerous game of espionage when she accidentally stumbles upon a murder. That could be a Hitchcock plot – and Hitchcock certainly knew how to use humour in his films…

…which brings me to the point that while 13 Frightened Girls is sort of a suspense thriller, it’s also a fairly silly teen comedy. In fact, I’d say it’s more of a comedy than a thriller. It also contains a potentially uncomfortable Lolita-like sub-plot: Candy, our 16-year-old schoolgirl heroine, is in love with 40 year old Wally Sanders, an intelligence agent who works at her father’s embassy. Wally is in love adult woman named Soldier, so it’s not actually a Lolita story. Still, Candy’s feelings for Wally make her decide to “help” him by using her school connections to spy on other counties and pass the information along to Wally. She does this under her nom de plume, Kitten. 

As you can probably imagine, there is much silliness and humour in 13 Frightened Girls. There are also a few suspenseful sequences. It’s by no means William Castle’s best movie, but it’s quite a bit of fun. It’s also a fairly unique movie, as I can’t think of many (or any) others that are exactly like it. Some viewers might take exception to the cultural stereotypes that are on display. As a nearly 60 year old movie that deals with characters from 13 different countries, it’s almost inevitable that much of it would seem outdated now. For maximum enjoyment, it should be viewed as an artifact of it’s time.

Some reviewers have pointed out, quite correctly, that there are in fact 15 girls in this movie – not 13. I’m not sure how to explain that. Perhaps Castle was originally going to call it something else (The Candy Web perhaps), but then decided to cash in on his earlier hit movie, 13 Ghosts. Who knows? I suppose it should also be pointed out that most of the 13 (or 15) girls don’t ever appear to be particularly frightened, either.

No matter how you look at it, 13 Frightened Girls (1963) is #NotQuiteClassicCinema. I had no idea what to expect from it – and if I had, I might have thought twice about screening it on a  #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. After all, it’s not a horror movie, or a monster movie, or any other kind of typical drive-in movie. It’s certainly not an exploitation film… or is it? Maybe what William Castle was exploiting this time, was the national pride of 13 (or 15) different countries. Maybe he was trying to start a whole new kind of exploitation. Or maybe he was just making a PG schoolgirl comedy. Someone suggested that it might pair well with an old Gidget movie (Gidget (1959) or Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) anyone?). And actually that might not be a bad way of understanding this film. Perhaps 13 Frightened Girls was William Castle’s Hitchcock meets Gidget movie. It may have failed to spark a whole new genre, but it’s a fascinating relic of another time. 

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: 13 Ghosts (1960)

I always liked ghost stories. In most of the ones I remember from when I was a kid, there was only one ghost. There may have occasionally been two or three ghosts in a story. But the idea of one movie having thirteen ghosts in it was absolutely unthinkable to me.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first heard mention of the title 13 Ghosts, but I was certainly aware that the movie existed for a long time before I ever saw it. It is not a movie that I watched on late night TV, or on a Saturday afternoon (which is when I saw great films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) for the first time). I’m sure that the original 13 Ghosts, would have appealed to me in a similar way when I was a kid. And I was certainly a fan of The Wizard of Oz (1939) back then, which seemed to come on TV at least twice a year (and I watched it every time). So, I liikely would have recognized – and appreciated – The Wicked Witch of the West (or Margaret Hamilton, as some might know her) playing the mysterious housekeeper in 13 Ghosts. But alas, I never saw the movie when I was young.

In 2001, I was a member of the board of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights, and we used to meet once on month on Tuesdays right after work. Like most unsuccessful playwrights, I worked at home, so this meant that I had to walk downtown just as most people were leaving downtown for home. The meetings would often last about two hours, which meant that I would be walking back home around 7:00 PM. And the journey would take me right past the Towne Cinema 8 – which I could remember being built twenty years earlier. It had been a big deal at the time, because it had been Canada’s first stand-alone multiplex cinema.

I would often think, as I walked past, that it would be fun to just stop in and see a movie. But I almost always had other plans, so I would keep walking. But on this particular October evening, there was nowhere else I needed to be. And, I happened to know that there was a horror film playing in honour of the Halloween season.

This was another issue for me. I went to a lot of movies back then. I had friends who would want to go as often as once a week, and it was not unusual for me to wind up at the theatres two or three times in a given week. However, most of my regular companions were not horror fans. They might occasionally agree to go to one, but if it wasn’t spectacular I’d be hearing about it for the next six months. So, I mostly watched horror films on my own, at the Home Drive-In.

The movie playing at the Towne Cinema 8 on this fine October evening was Thir13en Ghosts (2001), the remake of William Castle’s original – which I still had never seen. I don’t usually like to see remakes of classic horror films before I see the originals – in fact, I often don’t like to see them at all – but it had been ages since I’d seen a horror film on the big screen and this seemed like an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. So, I walked through the front doors, down the set of stairs into the basement, and bought a ticket…

I know that some people enjoyed Thir13en Ghostsand I suppose that I did too, on some level. But basically I thought that it was a big budget spectacle that was short on quality storytelling. It’s been almost twenty years since I suffered throu -I mean, watched it – so, I can’t really remember enough details to talk about it intelligently. And I will be the first to admit that if I watched it again now, I might, possibly, feel very differently about it. So… The point is, on that October evening in 2001, I vowed that I must finally track down watch the original 13 Ghosts.

Thankfully, because of the remake coming out, the original had been released on video and was pretty widely available. I managed to rent it at my favourite video store, Movie Village. I knew going in that it had to be better than the remake. In fact, I was so sure about that, that I probably raised the bar of my expectations so hight that I expected the film to be a work of brilliance that would make Thir13en Ghosts look look a bad re-run of (’80s robot sitcom) Small Wonder.

Well…

It was definitely better than Thir13en Ghosts, in my opinion. But I have to say that I was just a little bit disappointed in it. 13 Ghosts was not light years better than the remake. It had some of the same problems, it seemed to me in that moment, as Thir13en Ghosts. Again, this was almost 20 years ago and I can’t remember exactly what had turned me off. And it’s not that I hated it. I thought it was pretty good. But I had loved movies like The Tingler (1959) and House on Haunted Hill (1959) so much, that maybe I expected more from William Castle. 

But the real culprit, I think, was Thir13en Ghosts. Watching it first, even though I didn’t like it, had somehow cast a shadow over my experience of 13 Ghosts. And as a result, I did not watch the movie again until last Friday. If I hadn’t bought a box set of William Castle Blu-rays, which included 13 Ghosts, I’m not sure if I ever would have.

But I’m really glad I did. This time I went in with much lower expectations. Not really expecting it to be bad – I had thought it was at least decent the first time I saw it – but perhaps I just didn’t have the recent hangover of watching the remake first. And I must admit, that part of me was afraid that I might hate it. However…

I loved it this time! It has a sense of humour, plus some nifty ghost effects (for their time) and some moments of legitimate creepiness and suspense. Had I watched it on a Saturday afternoon when I was a kid, it probably would have thrilled me.

It may still not reach the heights of William Castle’s best work, but 13 Ghosts (1960) is certified #NotQuiteClassicCinema that would be welcome on any #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn or Saturday matinee, and I look forward to watching it again!

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Back in the 1990s, I was asked to join the board of The Manitoba Association of Playwrights (MAP). I was a playwright, and a member of MAP, and I suppose I thought it was some kind of honour to asked, so I said yes. In retrospect, I now realize that an unemployed playwright might not be the best choice for your volunteer board. My (somewhat limited) understanding of the art of putting together a board for the arts and culture sector is that you want to include people who can raise money. And one suggestion of where to start looking for likely candidates is among your largest donors. That’s right. People who already give you money, and might have friends and colleagues who can also give you money. It’s worth noting that people like that can likely afford to volunteer their time, because earning money to pay their rent is not an ongoing problem for them.

The Map Board was full of playwrights. And somehow I was chosen to be the head of The Fundraising Committee. It sounded like an impressive title until I realized that I was the entire committee. So, basically, I would come up with ideas and pitch them to the board. The board would generally say yes and I would put together an event that would raise a couple of hundred dollars (if we were lucky). Not exactly keeping the organization afloat, but I guess it was something.

In 1998, I put together a fundraiser that would ultimately change everything. It was a double bill of new plays called Mountain Climbing (by my friend and fellow playwright Gary Jarvis) and The Inner City Dead (by me). We cast the shows with volunteer actors, most of whom were university or high school students. They were keen and hard working, and when the plays were performed, they drew many friends and family members out to see them – making the fundraiser a huge success.

“This is the best idea we’ve ever had!” one of my MAP colleagues said, as he watched hundreds of people file into the threatre.

This got me to thinking… What if we produced a high school playwriting competition? We could pick five high school playwrights, then hire five young, keen recent university graduates to direct them, and then cast a bunch of high school and university students to act in them – and to top it off, we’ll have the winners determined by audience vote (so everyone will try to bring out as many supporters as possible)! It seemed like a surefire way to draw big crowds to the show and raise some money to help support MAP!

Surprisingly enough, when I pitched the idea to the MAP Board in 1999 they didn’t seem to understand it, and opted instead to authorize a different fundraising project. I had to admit temporary defeat, but I knew that the idea was a good one, so in 2001 I tried again. This time the MAP Board said yes, and The Manitoba High School Playwriting Competition was born.

I edited an anthology called I Was a Teenage Playwright: The First Ten Years of the Scirocco/MAP Manitoba High School Playwriting Competition in 2011, in which I wrote an introduction explaining the entire history of the project. Those who want to know more about it (if there are such mythological creatures) can seek it out there. The important detail for this rambling blog post, is that the winners of the competition were chosen by AUDIENCE VOTE.

That’s right. After each performance, audience members would fill out ballots that would be collected by ushers and counted very carefully – twice. At the end of the second night, we would announce the winners and award prizes in front of the audience.

When I saw the ad campaign for Mr. Sardonicus (1961), I couldn’t help but imagine what this was going to like. William Castle, the genius behind such gimmickry as “Emergo”, the giant skeleton who would fly out over the audience during House on Haunted Hill (1959) and rigging buzzers under audience seats during The Tingler (1959) had surely come up with another winner. Before the final reel of the film, Castle would give the audience a chance to vote and then, depending on the results, the theatres would play one of two final reels. This would surely bring people into the theatres. It might even make people want to come back to see the film again and vote for the other ending (the one they didn’t see the first time). Brilliant, if I do say so myself.

The reality is a little less brilliant. It appears as if Castle only shot one ending to the movie. He comes out on screen right before the final scene and asks the audience to vote. He pretends to count their votes from on screen! Cute and funny, but clearly not possible. Maybe audiences would have been fooled by this in 1961, but I’m not so sure. One person I spoke to, who saw the movie back then, said that the ushers would come out and pretend to be counting votes as well. But there was no spot during the flow of the movie when those votes could have been taken into account and the correct final reel of film been cued up and started. I had expected Castle to say something like:

“Now we will have a brief intermission while votes are counted. When we come back, one of two possible endings will be screened…”

Alas, this was not the case.

Still, it was kind of a fun, silly gimmick. And nice to see Castle doing his thing on the screen.

Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is a great piece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I truly enjoy. It’s beautifully shot, with great performances from a stellar cast, and simply oozes gothic horror atmosphere. It gives me a similar feeling to the great Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films – which are some of my favourites. I would recommend Mr. Sardonicus to anyone looking for a good time on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. Just don’t expect more than one ending…

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Homicidal (1961)

Much like Scream of Fear (1961), Homicidal (1961) is a post Psycho (1960) psychological horror film shot in black and white. Also like Scream of Fear, Homicidal features a character in a wheelchair. Both movies also contain some clever twists and turns. Scream of Fear is the better of the two, in my opinion, but Homicidal is still an entertaining and effective little thriller.

Homicidal was made by William Castle, who was famous for his gimmicks, like Percepto!, the attaching of electric buzzers to some theatre seats during The Tingler (1959), or Emergo, a giant skeleton that would fly over the audience during The House On Haunted Hill (1959). The gimmick in Homicidal is a 45 second “Fright Break” during which members of the audience who were too scared to continue watching the movie could leave the theatre and receive a refund.

Unfortunately for Castle about 1% of the audience took him up on his offer of a refund (presumably because they hated it, not because they were scared). Castle fought back by creating a “Coward’s Corner” which filmmaker John Waters described in his book Crackpot:

“When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn’t take it any more, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward’s Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stencilled message: “Cowards Keep Walking.” You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform? … I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, “Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner!” As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity – at Coward’s Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, “I am a bona fide coward.” Very, very few were masochistic enough to endure this. The one percent refund dribbled away to zero percent…”

William Castle is certainly an important figure in the world of #NotQuiteClassicCinemaHouse on Haunted Hill (1959) has been a personal favourite of mine for years. I also really enjoyed The Tingler (1959). Castle did produce one undeniable classic as well, which is another personal favourite of mine: Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The story goes that Castle could only get the rights to Ira Levin’s book of the same name if he agreed NOT to direct it. Thankfully he went ahead hired a young, up and coming director named Roman Polanski, and the rest is history. 

Somehow I had never seen Homicidal until last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. I enjoyed it very much and will be happy to watch it again in the future. Sure, it may be overly influenced by Psycho (1960). Yeah, maybe it isn’t William Castle’s best film. But it starts with one the most intriguing opening sequences I’ve seen in a long time. If you haven’t seen it, give it a shot. For the first 20 or 30 minutes, I thought it might be my new favourite movie.