On July 5, Mill Creek Entertainment will double-up with a pair of Blu-ray double-bills showcasing the films of director and film promoter par excellence William Castle.
The Blu-ray double bills are: William Castle Double Feature: 13 Ghosts and 13 Frightened Girls and William Castle Double Features: Homicidal and Mr. Sardonicus. The SRP for each Blu-ray double-feature is just $14.95 (before discounts at retail) and that will have genre-fans salivating as they eagerly await the arrival of July 5.
Beginning with the Halloween-season release of Macabre in 1958, William Castle went from being a B-movie line director for Columbia Pictures, where he learned his filmmaking craft under the tutelage Harry Cohn (who died suddenly of a heart attack in early 1958), to that of a film impresario who ran off a string of six horror hits in a row. Right in the middle of this run was the summer of 1960 release of 13 Ghosts.
Castle had a knack for coming up with promotional gimmicks that garnered publicity and elevated his films beyond just B-grade exploitation fare. 13 Ghosts, used a now-you-see’em, now-you’don’t gimmick involving red and blue colored cellophane panels to see the ghosts haunting the Zorba mansion.
Counted among the cast members of 13 Ghosts is the Wizard of Oz’s Margaret Hamilton, Martin Milner — who would rise to stardom with the debut of the television series Route 66 beginning in October of the same year — Rosemary DeCamp (who had just finished a five-season run as the co-star of The Bob Cummings Show — nominated for an Emmy during the final season) and veteran actor Donald Woods (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Watch on the Rhine, etc.).
The second half of this “triskaidekaphobia” double bill is director William Castle’s summer of 1963 film, 13 Frightened Girls. This is more of a mystery than a horror film, with the gimmick used by Castle being that of recruiting girls from different countries (which were featured in the opening scene that was spliced onto the beginning of the film for that particular country’s theatrical run) to play themselves at a boarding school in Switzerland (actually shot on location in Big Bear, California).
Kathy Dunn is the “star” among the girls (the catalyst that moves the story along) — this was her only theatrical release and soon “retired” from the business. Her co-stars were screen regulars Murray Hamilton and Hugh Marlowe.
Of the 13 girls, Alexandra Bastedo (Miss England), Ilona Schütze (Miss Germany), Judy Pace (Liberia — who was actually an American), Gina Trikonis (Miss Russia — who was also an American) and Lynne Sue Moon (Miss China — likely born in England) — who all made their film debuts here — were the only ones to continue with film careers (the others, one and done).
The second double feature, William Castle Double Features: Homicidal and Mr. Sardonicus, teams two horror delights that were both released theatrically in 1961 (Homicidal was released during the summer and Mr. Sardonicus was Castle’s Halloween-season entry for 1961).
William Castle saw the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and went into production with Homicidal, but it wasn’t going to be just a quickie rip-off, he had to come up with a really clever twist, so he sat down with his long-time collaborator, Robb White (Macabre, House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts … and the author of such novels as “Up Periscope” (1956), “Torpedo Run” (1962) and “Deathwatch” (1972)), and they came up with a doozy!
Jean Arless (actually Joan Marshall acting under a pseudonym so as not to give away the twist) stars as Emily, a gaunt-looking blonde who has a lust for murder. The police suspect that a woman named Miriam (Patricia Breslin) might be connected to the grisly murder at the beginning of the film, but her alibi is strong. Meanwhile, Miriam’s half-brother, Warren, has returned from Europe and the two of them are in line for an inheritance as Warren’s father has passed away.
Miriam’s boyfriend, Karl (Glenn Corbett), begins to suspect that Emily, who is acting very strange, might be involved. It gets even stranger when we learn that Warren has secretly married the creepy Emily, who is charged with the care of the elderly Helga (who knows a terrible secret, but who has had a stroke and is now mute), the woman who served as the family’s housekeeper when Warren was just a youngster.
So how do Karl and Miriam convince Warren that Emily is dangerous? That’s their problem.
As the film reaches its climax, Castle interjects a “fright break,” where theatrical patrons have the opportunity to leave the theatre — and receive a full refund — if they are too scared to continue watching the film.
The reveal — the MacGuffin — is excellent and so worthy of William Castle’s reputation as a showman (the New York Times critic assigned to the film back in 1961 did not recognize that Jean Arless was a fraud and dubbed her performance “her film debut”).
The companion film on this Blu-ray release is Mr. Sardonicus, a period piece that sought to take advantage of the Edgar Allan Poe gothic adaptations that Vincent Price had with The Pit and the Pendulum earlier in the year and House of Usher (the previous year).
Castle saw the opportunity for a wholly original work when he recruited Ray Russell to adapt a screenplay of his own short story that had appeared in the January of 1961 edition of Playboy Magazine.
It spins around the mysterious Baron Sardonicus (played by Guy Rolfe — Ivanhoe, King of Kings, The Alphabet Murders, etc.) and the efforts of Dr. Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) to find a cure for the Baron’s tortured condition (which is explained in a backstory).
The gimmick here was that the audience could choose the ending to the film — mercy or no mercy for Sardonicus. Of course they picked no mercy (legend has it that Castle never shot a “mercy” ending — he knew what the outcome would always be).