Monday, July 29, 2013

The Candy Web: William Castle's 13 Frightened Girls!

When one thinks of the classic tell-tale images of a typical William Castle film, what exactly comes to mind? An arm rising out of a bloody bathtub? A skeleton tapping a lovely, scared lass's shoulder? An aging Joan Crawford holding an axe? One swanky Vincent Price? How about an intrepid, undercover spy/blonde piece of jail bait in the form of Candy Hull? Okay, the latter more than likely is not the first or fifth thing you think of when it comes to Castle, but exist it does in the form of his 1963 film, “13 Frightened Girls!” 

Despite the spider-web laden trailer, horror fans be warned, this is a total rosy-cheeked, borderline safe for the happiest-place-on-Earth crowd spy film, filled with teenage hijinks and brimming with girlish shenanigans. Proof? The proceedings begin at Miss Pittford's Academy for Young Girls, an idyllic school set in the Swiss Alps (or San Bernandino) for perfectly groomed, clean-skinned and lovely-as-a-Spring-flower daughters of world diplomats. At the head of the pack and narrating is Candice Hull aka Candy (Kathy Dunn), your all-American blue-eyed blonde lovely whose talent in Latin is disproportionate with her driving skills. The latter is used for early comic relief when Candy flips after a tarantula (?!) inexplicably comes down in front of her on the school bus. Scaring teenage girls? Who is this spider, anyways? Ted Nugent? 

Despite the minor wreck, all of the girls safely get to the airport for their school vacation. Candy goes to London, where her father, John (Hugh Marlowe), is stationed. Before greeting Daddy, she immediately beelines for Wally (the always impeccable Murray Hamilton), secret agent and worker for her father. Wally maybe the cat's meow, but he is also engaged to fellow agent Soldier (Joyce Taylor,) not that this deters young Candy. Thankfully, Wally actually has morals and did not attend the Jimmy Page Gentleman's School of Courtship and quickly rebuffs the 16 year old's hormone-laced advances.

The worm soon turns when she finds out, through annoyingly snooping, that Wally's job is in trouble. The main problem being his ability to obtain crucial information at the right time. Slack is an element needed in most jobs, but in the spy world? Not so much. Worried that her #1 crush could end up on the bread line, she ends up taking matters into her own hands. The name Kagenescu (Walter Rode) pops up in her father's conversion with Wally and of course, who does Candy run into while visiting her friend from China, Mai-Ling (Lynne Sue Moon)? Yeppers, Kagenescu.

Continuing her growing trend of being a bad guest, Candy immediately starts (yet again) snooping, traveling via the dumbwaiter. This is one of the best moments in the film, where a cat, randomly out of nowhere, gets thrown at Candy. Is it one helluva goony, not to mention cheap, scare? Absolutely, but it is wonderful in its lack of shame. Anyways, she makes a pit stop in the kitchen, managing to crawl around the most oblivious kitchen staff ever and goes to the freezer. It is there she discovers Kagenescu, hanging from a meat hook and stabbed with her father's letter opener. She manages not to arouse suspicion, amazingly enough, and excuses herself home soon after.

Meanwhile, Wally receives a mysterious note, lettered kidnapper style, along with the murder weapon. Turns out Kagenescu was killed by Mai-Ling's father, all in the hopes of starting international trouble with America. The note, signed by “Kitten,” gives Wally all the juicy info he needs to please his boss. This lights the espionage fire within Candy-Kitten, who puts all of her academic talents into studying the fine art of being a female spy. (All courtesy of a tome entitled, “Methods & Training of Modern Espionage.”) She practices the art of seduction, first to cure some love-lorn drama amongst the girls, then to provide more tidbits to Wally via her Kitten nom-de-plume, ranging from photos of canoodling world leaders to chess games gone hot-headed.

It's when she tries to further use her powers of seduction with a Russian Communist masquerading as a Dutch student, that she starts to truly play with fire. The handsome, in kind of a Quaalude sort of way, Peter (Garth Benton), is planning to orchestrate a student uprising, all in the scheme of having a Communist takeover in a foreign land. Candy narrowly escapes death after being drugged by Peter and manages to get her well bred posterior out of the frying pan.

That is, until Wally finds out who Kitten truly is, all after her Dad keeps putting the heat on him to reveal this independent agent once and for all. Typical teary adolescent drama ensues, only to be cut short by the news that Mai-Ling's daddy has kidnapped Soldier, with the ransom being non-monetary. Like everyone else on the Globe, they want to know who this “Kitten” is and want “him” delivered in person. That's another strange thing, is that everyone assumes that Kitten is a dude, which seems like it would be a very effeminate nickname for a super spy. Imagine calling James Bond “kitten” and you will immediately see my point. 

The rest of the film has some fascinating ziz-zags, some expected, including Mai-Ling getting upset after feeling used by Candy, but others not so much. Especially the ultimate and legitimately surprising twist near the very end.

On the whole phantasmagorical spectrum that is the film work of William Castle, “13 Frightened Girls!” tends to get mentioned a little less. Granted, compared to the big daddies that are “House on Haunted Hill” and “Straight Jacket,” it is easy to see why. First of all, it's not a horror film and even its gimmick, involving a world wide contest to find 13 lucky and comely girls from assorted countries to be featured, seems a little wan in comparison to the more outlandish stunts with the other films.

All that said, the film has a certain winsome charm and knowing cheekiness that makes it a fun ride. Sure, Candy is precocious to the point that someone needs to throw a brick in her general cranium direction and one has to take a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief that this tow-haired teen could pull off half of the antics she does. But that is the charm. It's like Castle is sitting next to you, cigar danging out of his smiling mouth and winking at you, as if to say, “Can you believe this shit?”

Forget believability, it's a fun, candy-shell-coated adventure. On top of that, Murray Hamilton is so good as the warm-hearted and world-weary Wally. Kathy Dunn is appropriately earnest and energetic as Candy. Of the rest of the teenage diplomats, the real standout is Gina Trikonis, daughter of former dancer turned director Gus Trikonis (“The Evil,” “Swinging Barmaids”), as the Russian representative, Natasha. She gets some good lines, including snarking on Candy's getting top grades in Latin while almost killing them on the bus (“a dead language is not worth dying for”) and possessing all sorts of bitchy verve with a nice center. Also worth noting is Alexandra Bastedo as Alex/England, who went on to have roles in the original “Casino Royale,” as well the top role in the horror-exploitation classic, “The Blood Splattered Bride.” There's also Judy Pace, who plays the student from Liberia. Pace went on to have a healthy TV career, having appeared on shows like “Peyton Place” and “Ironside,” as well as acting in notable films like “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and “Frogs.” Both Bastedo and Pace are given little do here other than smile and look pretty, but it is nice to see that they were able to build respectable careers on top of their debut work here.

“13 Frightened Girls!” maybe viewed as a mere curiosity in the silver screen world of William Castle, but it is sweet, silly and entertaining enough to merit a viewing. The power of Murray Hamilton and random cats compels you!

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