Walt Disney and William Castle are not normally associated with the same sorts of films, but Castle had a range that many do not realize. He made films from noirish westerns like THE AMERICANO (1955) to the peculiar dark comedy SHANKS (1974) – both of which are on Blu-ray – but even during his popular horror period he departed from his typical formulas on occasion. A month ago I reviewed a pair of William Castle horror films released on a bargain-priced double-feature Blu-ray this summer by Mill Creek Entertainment. The same day, Mill Creek released another Castle double-bill with titles that sound like horror films but are really something else, especially the second. Castle aimed his memorable thrillers HOMICIDAL and MR. SARDONICUS (both 1961) mainly at teen and adult audiences. Both were serious horror films played straight, except for Castle’s cheesy promotional gimmicks (a built-in “fright break” for timid patrons to leave the theatre before the climax of the former, and an audience vote on the fate of the villain in the latter).
However, 13 GHOSTS (1960) and 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS! (1963) are kid-friendly, even Disneyesque family fare that, contrary to what their titles might suggest, could provide enjoyable holiday viewing for gatherings of a wide range of ages. They have just enough suspense to engage adults but enough comedy and over-the-top situations to keep children entertained while simultaneously wrapped up in plots that depict kids getting critically involved in dangerous adult schemes. Either film might seem perfectly natural to star Dean Jones and Hayley Mills and Fred MacMurray, though they work fine with the lesser-known casts they have.
13 GHOSTS (1960) 84m *** (Double-feature Blu-ray released June 19, 2016)
13 GHOSTS has another Castle audience participation gimmick called “Illusion-O,” which Castle as usual introduces to the audience personally at the beginning of the film. Although shot in black-and-white, scenes showing the ghosts were printed in blue with the ghosts in red. Audience members could then choose to look through either a red filter or a blue filter in a special “ghost-viewer” so they can either see or not see the ghosts. The Blu-ray edition has the colored ghost sequences but does not include any ghost-viewers. Anyone interested in the effect can easily construct a viewer with red and blue cellophane or just use an old pair of red-blue 3-D glasses. Otherwise the ghosts will be faintly visible in red over the blue background. The rest of the movie is straight black-and-white.
The plot begins as a family with money problems is having their furniture repossessed -- again. Just as the little boy Buck (Charles Herbert) makes a birthday wish for a home with furniture, the father (Donald Woods) receives a notification that he’s inherited the old mansion of an eccentric uncle, who apparently captured ghosts as a hobby. His collection of eleven ghosts comes with the mansion. The uncle’s ghost is the twelfth, and the thirteenth is to be someone living in the house. Despite all the supernatural legends, warnings from the uncle’s young lawyer (Martin Milner), and a spooky maid that Buck thinks is a witch (the wonderful Margaret Hamilton), the family is happy to have a fully-furnished house, haunted or not.
Another major plot point is that the uncle’s fortune is hidden somewhere inside the house. As things develop, it becomes clear that the film is as much a family sit-com and a murder mystery as it is a ghost story. Teenage daughter Medea (Jo Morrow) is attracted to lawyer Ben, who also makes friends with little Buck. 13 GHOSTS is designed to provide spooky thrills for younger children and campy comedy for teens and adults, and succeeds in both counts. It would make an appropriate double-feature with the classic Don Knotts old-dark-house comedy-thriller THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966), to which it bears some similarities.
Picture quality on the HD scan supplied by Sony Pictures for Mill Creek’s Blu-ray (at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio) is excellent, and audio quality is very good. There are unfortunately no bonus features.
13 GHOSTS on Blu-ray --
13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS (1963) 88m *** ½ (Double-feature Blu-ray released July 19, 2016)
13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS! was obviously titled to cash in on the earlier 13 GHOSTS, but does not in any way resemble a horror film and actually involves fifteen girls who attend an exclusive Swiss academy for daughters of diplomats. In Australia the film was called THE CANDY WEB and in Italy it was THE INCREDIBLE SPY, either of which would be a far more accurate indication of its content. Kathy Dunn stars as Candace “Candy” Hull, the precocious 16-year-old daughter of American diplomat John Hull (Hugh Marlowe) who has a crush on her father’s CIA agent Wally Sanders (Murray Hamilton), a frequent visitor to their consulate and home in England.
Castle does not introduce or appear in this film, like he did for many of his previous pictures. His promotional gimmick this time was a preproduction international contest to cast girls from the foreign countries. Each foreign release would then feature a special scene starring that country’s girl driving the school bus, as well as talking about the film in the local trailers. The Mill Creek Blu-ray naturally uses the American actress Kathy Dunn for this scene, but apparently an earlier DVD release included several of the other versions as bonus features.
While visiting the home of Chinese classmate and friend Mai-Ling (Lynne Sue Moon) Candy discovers the murder of another foreign diplomat that Red China has arranged to blame on the U.S. She immediately decides to help out the American intelligence officer she loves by sending him an anonymous tip signed “Kitten.” After this success, she sets out to become a super-spy, by reading up on modern espionage methods, then following the gossip among her schoolmates, even wooing away their boyfriends to gain information, and quickly building up a reputation in spy circles around the world. All this is unbeknownst to her father, who believes Kitten is a top secret agent code name whose identity the confused but pleased Wally wants to protect.
It doesn’t take long for Candy to get in much deeper and in more danger than her romantic notions of espionage prepared her for. Things especially heat up when she tries to seduce a foreign spy who catches on to her, with potentially disastrous results. There are a couple of unexpected twists along the way, and at least one traditional William Castle “shock” moment inside a dumbwaiter. Overall it’s an almost exceedingly cute Cold War spy comedy-thriller that came out around the same time the James Bond craze was starting. But instead of being a campy and risqué action-adventure for boys and young men, this one targets girls and families (though you’d hardly know it from the U.S. title or exploitation-style movie poster) with a Disney-like larger-than-life ambience and sense of fun. It provides an empowering role model for young girls (perhaps at times a bit too uncomfortably empowered for today’s PC ultra-sensitivity about certain underage activities), while promoting interracial friendships and cooperation, all against a backdrop of early 1960s Cold War issues with China, the USSR, and foreign intrigue in general.
The Blu-ray quality is again outstanding, with bright colors, a crisp film-like image (at 1.78:1), and fine sound. Again sadly there are no bonus features on the Blu-ray beyond a menu and chapter stops.
13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS on Blu-ray -–