Thursday, October 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Frightened Girls'

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

William Castle is best known for his gimmicky B-horror pictures like House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and 13 Ghosts (an inevitable future subject for this feature), but the prolific filmmaker worked in a number of genres, churning out whatever cheap quickies he thought could reach impressionable moviegoers. His 1963 film 13 Frightened Girls is clearly aimed at a younger audience than his horror movies, but it's just as hokey and ridiculous. In a grating performance, Kathy Dunn plays bratty teenager Candy, the daughter of an American diplomat in London. On break from her posh boarding school (whose students are all the daughters of international diplomats), Candy finds herself caught up in a nonsensical web of intrigue when she decides to become an amateur spy. Her clumsy antics set off a frenzy among the international espionage community, attracting the unwanted attention of some dangerous Chinese spies.

Despite a climax that puts Candy in danger of getting killed by the Chinese, Girls is goofy and innocuous, with a Disney-movie feel and a childish understanding of the workings of the spy world. Candy is loud and obnoxious and completely conspicuous, yet somehow no one picks up on her devious spy tactics until the very end of the movie. Dunn plays the character with an irritating mix of brattiness and sultriness, so that her "seduction" scenes with young secret agents come off as gross and inappropriate, and her obsession with her father's middle-aged co-worker (including a scene in which she essentially throws herself at him) is uncomfortably off-putting. The adult actors kind of muddle through their moronic scenes as best they can, but the teenage performers (including Lynne Sue Moon as Candy's Chinese best friend) are universally terrible.

Of course, a bunch of them came from one of Castle's gimmicks, in which he launched a contest to find the most beautiful girls from various countries to play the diplomats' children. He even shot different versions of the movie's opening scene (in which Candy is inexplicably thrilled at the prospect of driving the school's bus) showcasing actresses from different countries to cater to international markets. The eye-catching title is a gimmick, too, since it has nothing to do with the story (there are 15 girls at the school, not 13, and only Candy is ever really frightened) but sounds quite exciting. The trailers on the DVD advertise the movie under an earlier title (The Candy Web) that's more accurate but less titillating. Attention-grabbing gimmickry backed up by mediocre filmmaking was Castle's stock in trade, and 13 Frightened Girls is a perfect example of it.

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