For tonight’s double feature, we continue our survey of the films of William Castle. When last we checked in, he was taking a break from abject gimmickry and horror with Zotz! (1962), a slapstick comedy-fantasy of the sort that Walt Disney was making around this period. But Zotz! was more than a one-off experiment. William Castle may have made his name with horror, but comedy suited his style – after all, The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler (1959), and 13 Ghosts (1960) weren’t serious horror films; they were fun, and popular with those kids who could convince their parents to take them. So Castle kept following his muse, which led him to collaborate with a studio just as famous for their horror product – England’s Hammer Films. The studio’s Anthony Hinds would co-produce a film which Castle would direct: The Old Dark House (1963), a remake of Frankenstein director James Whale’s 1932 hit, adapted from the 1927 novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley.
If it seems to be a very strange little film, I would only point out that so is Zotz! (and tonight’s B-feature, 13 Frightened Girls!). Castle enjoyed black comedy, but he always plays it a bit broad, which is why it tends to be more successful when cloaked by the horror genre. The Old Dark House, however, is most certainly a comedy, and the comic rhythms sometimes click, and too frequently don’t. Zotz! star Tom Poston returns, playing Tom Penderel, an American car salesman who shares an English flat with Casper Femm (Peter Bull of Dr. Strangelove). Casper only needs the flat during the day, and Tom only needs it during the evening, so their paths seldom cross; any suggestion that Casper might be a vampire, alas, is a red herring. At the film’s outset, Tom meets Casper at a casino to deliver his new car, but his bad luck costs Casper at the baccarat table. Ultimately, Tom agrees to drive the car to Casper’s family estate, Femm Hall; on the way, more bad luck: knocking against the front gate, one of the gargoyles topples and drops straight through the hood of the car. When Tom, sopping wet from the storm, walks up to the front porch, he knocks and is promptly dropped through a trap door and into the cellar. An apologetic Potiphar Femm (Mervyn Johns) greets him there, noting that the trap was built long ago to dissuade visitors (which is curious, since it would drop them inside the house). Potiphar is a softspoken and somewhat batty member of a clan that will shortly prove to be very batty indeed. We don’t know right away, for example, that Potiphar is anticipating a Biblical Flood and is constructing his own Noah’s Ark in the backyard. That will come later, once the madness has properly escalated.
Potiphar informs Tom that Casper died but an hour ago. He’s shown the corpse, lying in an open casket and gazing at the ceiling. He also meets the rest of the Femms, as they begin to gather: the beautiful young Cecily (Janette Scott, The Day of the Triffids), the domineering Roderick (Robert Morley, Around the World in 80 Days), sexpot Morgana (Fenella Fielding), her father, Morgan (Danny Green), the ever-knitting Agatha (Joyce Grenfell), and – to Tom’s bemusement – Casper’s perfect twin, Jasper, who was known as “Dumpty” to Casper’s “Humpty.” Roderick Femm explains to Tom that their ancestor, Morgan the Pirate, left a fortune which can only be inherited if each member of the family meets in a particular room of the house at midnight every night. The family member who doesn’t make it to that room by the appointed hour loses out on their share. Roderick suspects that Tom might be a Femm himself, but once members of the family begin dropping dead (over the course of one long evening), suspicions in Tom’s direction grow more hostile. Meanwhile, he attempts to negotiate a romance with Cecily Femm while eluding the seductive embrace of Morgana, as well as physical assaults from her mute, brutish father.
One can easily see why William Castle would be attracted to the material, bearing as it does a passing resemblance to House on Haunted Hill (albeit without the ghosts). Tom Poston remains an appealing comic lead, lovelorn, clumsy, and aghast at the lunatics who surround him; at one point, Morgana delivers him a saucer of water which turns out to be acid, and he loses the end of his tie while leaning over it. The supporting players are well cast, though the familiar Hammer faces are absent. Castle seems to make a gesture at British bawdiness by a loving close-up of Morgana’s breasts as she descends the stairs, but for the most part it’s easy to see why this film flopped in England, when it was belatedly released: the slapstick humor is very American, and British wit is sorely lacking. The film has many awkward gags, like a trip to Potiphar’s zoo in the ark, where Tom imagines Morgana’s face on a barking seal – not an image you will easily erase from your consciousness. The Old Dark House comes to life, thankfully, in its climax, as Tom races to defuse bombs set in the clocks scattered throughout Femm House, but one is left lamenting: if only the script were as sharp as the knitting needles which pierce poor Agatha’s neck. (Special attention should be given to the stellar opening credits, drawn by none other than Addams Family creator Charles Addams. He signs his name with a pen wielded by a monstrous claw.)
While The Old Dark House struggled to find an appropriate release in England, it came and went in the States (in black-and-white, oddly; the Sony/Columbia DVD restores the uncut film to full color). Castle moved on quickly. 13 Frightened Girls! (1963), aka The Candy Web, was another comedy with elements of suspense, though lacking any touches of horror this time around. The Old Dark House was pitched at adults with some risque humor and gruesome murders, but 13 Frightened Girls! courted an altogether new audience for Castle: adolescent girls. The film tells the story of Candy Hull (Kathy Dunn), the teenage daughter of a CIA honcho. She goes to school with a number of diplomats’ daughters, all of them of different nationalities (the thirteen girls of the title). She’s madly in love with an older CIA agent (Murray Hamilton – the mayor in Jaws), but he rebuffs her virginal advances. To get his attention, she engages in some freelance espionage work under the codename of “Kitten” (after her cat). She also begins manipulating her foreigner friends to glean information out of them, like the true American patriot that she is.
This leads to a funny moment when she seduces away the boyfriend of her German friend, though she gets more than she bargained for when he invites her back to his hotel. The threat of – gulp, sex – is dispelled when he realizes that she’s discovered he’s a spy, so he drugs her, and tries to push her off the balcony before his crime is interrupted (he falls to his own death instead). Next Kitten takes on her biggest case yet: trying to find out why an American agent was apparently murdered at the house of Kang (Khigh Dhiegh, the brainwasher in The Manchurian Candidate), the father of her friend Mai-Ling (Lynne Sue Moon). Is it a Communist conspiracy? Well, yes. Of course it is. But what matters most – from the perspective of a teenage girl – is that Candy’s friendship with Mai-Ling is broken when she confesses that she’s really Agent Kitten. Mai-Ling thinks she was being used, so she tearfully goes to her father…who then sends an assassin called the Spider to murder Candy. Sweet Valley High this isn’t.
The title promises a climax in which Spider terrorizes the international consortium of teenage girls, but sadly, this doesn’t quite happen, and the Hitchcockian conclusion the film deserves never actually materializes. Instead, Castle satisfies himself with a too-wacky setpiece in which the girls go to Candy’s rescue by vexing the Communist agents, and then outright piling on top of them. Finally Candy confronts Spider on her own (there’s a twist, though not a surprising one). 13 Frightened Girls! has a genuine Nancy Drew-ness which it never shakes, but at least that gives the film some shape and purpose. As disposable teenage entertainment for 1963, it’s perfectly fine. It’s hard to imagine a more unusual fit for someone with the reputation of William Castle’s, but he seems just at home with the mugging of overacting teenage girls as he does with the sleepy-eyed mugging of Tom Poston. I enjoyed The Old Dark House more, perhaps because of the milieu: stormy night, drawing room mystery, and so on. But I asked my wife which film she preferred, and she said 13 Frightened Girls! without hesitation. “That’s just because you’re a girl,” I said, and she answered, “That’s right!” So who am I to judge Castle? He was a showman, but he never lost sight of his audience.