13 GHOSTS (1960)/13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS (1963) Blu-ray
HOMICIDAL (1961)/MR. SARDONICUS (1961) Blu-ray
Director: William Castle
Mill Creek Entertainment

For the generation of monster kids that grew up in the early 1960s, William Castle’s name meant just as much to audiences as the horror actors who appeared on screen and within the pages of drug store monster magazines. The absolute P.T. Barnum of the world of cinema, Castle was never thought upon as a great director, but it’s hard to think of any other like him that allowed his audiences to have so much fun or become so interactive during a theater-going experience. Proving that his world of cinema has everlasting durability, Mill Creek Entertainment now delivers two Castle double features on the Blu-ray format, slim in extras (slim meaning none) but boasting terrific HD quality.

Filled with Castle’s usual routine scare tactics, 13 GHOSTS concerns kindly museum paleontologist Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS) and his family who are having some problems: they’re having trouble making their payments and most of their furniture has been taken away. Coincidentally, the family – which includes mom Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp, SATURDAY THE 14TH), teenage daughter Medea (Jo Morrow, THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER) and young son Buck (Charles Herbert, THE FLY) – have just inherited an old house from their estranged uncle, Dr. Zorba. Seeing the chance to move into a rent-free and fully furnished home, the family settles in right away but are faced with the house’s dark history. It seems that Dr. Zorba dabbled in the occult, and with the property comes a dozen roaming spirits who haunt the place, as they’re not at rest. These twelve ghosts can only be seen through the special goggles created by Dr. Zorba, and it is believed that one of the inhabitants of the house will die, then making it 13 tormented souls haunting the joint.

Though 13 GHOSTS doesn’t have as many cheap thrills as Castle’s earlier THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL or even THE TINGLER, it still works as a family-friendly update of the “Old Dark House” chestnut. The very likable Zorba family is right out of a 1950s television sitcom, and Charles Herbert is especially a joy as the tyke who’s fascinated with all things supernatural, initiating a Ouija Board session on the family’s coffee table and later making a startling discovery hidden in the house. Margaret Hamilton (as the Zorba family housekeeper, Elaine Zacharides) looks every bit the witch (something young Buck asks her if she really is) as she somberly sends up her famous WIZARD OF OZ persona, not having to do anything significant to imply this except raise her eyebrow to the audience and walk off with a broom in her final shot. The late Martin Milner (who was on the hit series “Route 66” when this was released, and later starred on the classic cop show ADAM 12) is really good as the clean-cut attorney whose character is not all what he seems.

The central gimmick when the film was originally screened is “Illusion-O.” In a nutshell, theater patrons were given a cardboard visor (titles on the screen tell you when to use it) with separate red and blue tinted square cellophane options. The black & white film had its ghost scenes tinted blue, with the superimposed apparitions appearing in a rent tint. Look through the “ghost viewer” square (red) to see the ghosts, while the “ghost remover” square (blue) removed them. Not much of a gimmick when you think about it (who wouldn’t want to see the ghosts?) but a memorable one nonetheless. The ghosts on display include a flaming skeleton, a lion and its headless tamer, an irate chef along with his cheating wife and her lover, and the horrible-looking Dr. Zorba himself. Castle appears on screen, explaining the Illusion-O process to the audience, and he does the outro as well.

13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS is Castle’s color spy opus from 1963. The title refers to 13 teenage girls, all daughters of diplomats from different countries, who are staying at a Swiss boarding school. An American girl, 16-year-old Candy Hull (Kathy Dunn) is the daughter of diplomat John Hull (Hugh Marlowe, EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS). The trouble really begins when Candy visits the residence of her classmate Mai-Ling (Lynne Sue Moon), a sweet little girl who happens to be from Red China and lives with her devious uncle (Khigh Dhiegh, “Wo Fat” on “Hawaii Five-O”). While searching for food in the kitchen, Candy discovers the body of a Russian in a freezer, and she realizes from the letter opener thrust in his body that the murder was meant to be pinned on the Americans. Candy immediately becomes a rather immature and amateur secret agent, feeding information to her father’s right hand man Wally (Murray Hamilton, JAWS), whom she has an open crush on. Known only as “Kitty” through the information she relays, Candy is able to keep her spy antics up while keeping her identity a secret from Wally and her Dad, but when Wally’s assistant and love interest Soldier (Joyce Taylor, TWICE-TOLD TALES) is kidnapped by Red China thugs, Candy has to take action and give herself up.

Despite the title, this unusual mix of teens and cold war espionage is not a horror film and was originally shot as “The Candy Web”, a more hip and accurate title, but I suppose American audiences needed to be reminded of Castle’s earlier hit, 13 GHOSTS. 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS has often received pretty lousy reviews (Leonard Maltin’s “Movie Guide” gave it a “Bomb” rating) but it’s still something of a fan favorite, a film that takes a while to find its stride, but when it does, becomes quite entertaining. Often resembling a live-action 1960s Disney effort (you could almost picture Hayley Mills in the lead), it was meant to appeal to teenage girls of the time, but don’t let that hold you back. Despite the juvenile lure, it still holds up as campy fun and isn’t afraid to show a few fairly violent murders, occasional displays of blood and (young) women using their sex appeal to get what they want.

Castle’s gimmick here was mainly in the pre-publicity for the film, before it was even shot. A campaign/contest was put together to gather 13 girls from all different countries, with the principal incentive being a starring role in the next William Castle Hollywood production. Thirteen girls from different countries were chosen (though several of them actually hailed from the U.S.), and this meant the introductory scene – concerning one of the girls doing introductory narration in their native language and driving their classmates off in a bus – was supposedly shot 13 different times depending on where the film was being shown, but it was likely shot less than half a dozen times. Several of the girls went on to become familiar sex symbols in exploitation/drive-in cinema, including British-born Alexandra Bastedo (THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE, THE GHOUL) and Judy Pace (UP IN THE CELLAR, FROGS). Look for long-time Three Stooges foil Emil Sitka (THE THREE STOOGES IN ORBIT) as Ludwig, the girls’ school caretaker.

13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS is presented in 1080p in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Colors here look richly saturated, with the picture having excellent detail and deep black levels. As the clean transfer well replicates the glorious look of the original theatrical prints, the organic appearance maintains some filmic grain which is never too excessive. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track offers a well balanced mix with always-clear dialogue, and the music also comes off perfectly. The black and white 13 GHOSTS looks terrific, presented in 1080p HD in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with the largely monochromatic portions being crisp in detail and exceptionally clean. There are no signs of excessive noise reduction or edge enhancement, and the grain structure is visibly organic, while black levels remain deep throughout. The blue and red tinted sequences are now more vivid, so the appearances of the spooks also stand out better than in standard def presentations (the “ghost viewer”— which actually works when watching this HD transfer — is not included here, but a pair was included with Sony’s 2001 single DVD). The Dolby Digital 2.0 track also sounds clear, with no detectable issues. No subtitles are included for either feature.

HOMICIDAL is William Castle's homage to Hitchcock's PSYCHO, and it's one of the director's sleaziest efforts and probably wasn't meant as Saturday afternoon kiddy fare like most of his previous efforts. Wanting not to cast a familiar face in the lead, Castle hired pretty actress Joan Marshall and changed her name to a more ambiguous Jean Arliss for the film’s credits. After a brief and rather straight-laced introduction by old Bill, we then see a flashback of a weird-looking boy nabbing a baby doll from his sobbing sister. Some 13 years later, a 20-year-old woman named Emily (Arliss) checks into a hotel and asks a bellboy to come up to her room. Flaunting a wad of cash, Emily offers to pay the bellboy (Richard Rust, NAKED ANGELS) to marry her on a specific date, making it known that the marriage will be annulled immediately. The guy is confused, but accepts the offer.

That night, Emily and the bellboy go to a justice of the peace to be wed. After he marries them, she viciously stabs the justice in the stomach in a scene that was pretty damn gory for 1961. She then goes into hiding as the nurse of a mute, wheelchair-bound elderly lady (Eugenie Leontovitch). Emily's behavior arouses the suspicion of Miriam (Patricia Breslin, I SAW WHAT YOU DID), the old woman's niece who runs a flower shop nearby. Later, the police show up to the shop and alert Miriam to the fact that a homicidal murderess checked into a hotel using her name, so now she's convinced of Emily's shiftiness. Back in town is Miriam's brother Warren, and he was the one that is thought to have hired Emily to take care of the old lady while in Denmark(?).

Now, I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen the film, but years of cinematic conditioning will lead anyone today to realize that Emily and Warren are one in the same and played by the same actress. As a man, Arliss has her hair shortened, darkened and matted, and she also sports some large false teeth and other face make-up. The actress is dubbed by a less than masculine man's voice! This makes for some pretty creepy viewing – and Arliss is actually convincing as a male, in bizarre kind of way. She's quite chilling and disturbing in the role (the other performances are not too memorable, including a rather bland Glenn Corbett, DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET) and a murder on a staircase is still pretty scary when viewed today. Robb White's screenplay is somewhat confusing (incorporating an inheritance as a murder motive), and unlike in PSYCHO, Simon "Vincenzo" Oakland is not on hand to explain what a transvestite is. During the final few minutes, there's the gimmick of the "Fright Break," a 45-second countdown clock that warns you before the camera enters a closed door, soon to unveil horrific events.

The idea for MR. SARDONICUS (1961) came about when Castle was browsing through Playboy magazine one day and what caught his eyes (of all things) was a novella titled "Sardonicus" by Ray Russell. Castle purchased the rights to the story and gave us one of his most memorable efforts. Transforming Columbia's soundstage to resemble period Europe, the film delivers a satisfying gothic mix of psychological horror and cheap thrills.

In a role that would have been perfect for Vincent Price (he was steadily working with AIP at the time), lanky Guy Rolfe (THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY) deliciously plays the title character. Initially, he was a pauper who discovers that his late father was buried with a winning lottery ticket. When uncovering the coffin lid, the shock of seeing the father's decaying skull causes his face to freeze in a ghoulish grimace. Now changing his name to Sardonicus, his wealth allows him to become a baron, and he now resides in a castle with his second wife, Maude (Audrey Dalton, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD). Sardonicus calls upon a well-known London neurosurgeon, Sir Robert (SCREAM/TASTE OF FEAR's Ronald Lewis) – his wife's former lover – to travel to his castle and attempt to cure him. When Sir Robert arrives, he's shocked to discover experimental leech applications to the maid, administered by Krull (Oskar Homolka, I REMEMBER MAMA), Sardonicus' vile assistant. Top-billed Homolka plays it properly creepy, possessing only one eye after his master plucked the other one out. Finding Sardonicus to be cold-hearted and ruthless, Sir Robert is blackmailed into helping the smiling Baron (who wears an expressionless mask to conceal his deformity), but it's he who gets the last laugh in the end.

Castle is on hand to introduce the film, hamming it up from what is supposed to be the foggy streets of London. Towards the end, he appears again to carry out the "Punishment Poll," inviting the audience to vote on whether Sardonicus should be shown mercy or not. Theater patrons were asked to hold up a card (thumbs up or thumbs down) to vote for his fate while Castle pretends to tally up the votes. Of course, there's only one ending and fate for Sardonicus, but Castle later claimed that he actually filmed a different one just in case (as if the usher was going to count votes and tell the projectionist to stop everything!). But then again, knowing the showman that Castle was, he'd want fans to believe that.

Mill Creek previously released MR. SARDONICUS on Blu-ray (as a double feature with THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN which is still in print) so it’s sort of odd that they would repeat it rather than offer a Castle title not already available on the format. The 1080p HD 1.78:1 widescreen transfer looks excellent, so much so that the studio backdrops are all the more detectable. Although the print source shows minor dirt and debris in spots, the image is largely clean with decent contrasts, satisfying grayscale and good black levels. Filmic grain is also organic, proving that no extensive digital noise reduction tactics were involved, with the transfer living up to Sony’s usual high standards. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track also sounds clean, replicating the dialogue nicely and the terrific score by Von Dexter (THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) has good range and fidelity. HOMICIDAL is also presented in 1080p in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and shines on Blu-ray. The depth and clarity on the black and white picture is very impressive and contrast and sharpness levels are also stable. Grain levels are healthy and never too heavy in appearance. Dialogue is satisfactory on the Dolby Digital 2.0 track with no hiss or distortion, and Hugo Friedhofer’s score is handled effectively. No subtitle options are offered for either movie.

Neither Blu-ray set has any extras, not even a trailer. All of these titles have been previously released on DVD with all of them being in a massive set of Castle/Columbia titles: “The William Castle Film Collection”. That set included a number of extras including trailers and featurettes (for 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS, the set included the original British trailer introduction (featuring beautiful Alexandra Bastedo), the original trailer under the “Candy Web” title, the original “Candy Web” theatrical opening, closing messages from William Castle and four different alternative opening scenes; all absent here and sadly missed). Although Mill Creek is using Sony’s HD masters and the presentations on these Blu-rays are very satisfying, they should really add more bonus features (at least from what’s already available) and try and up the collectibility factor and not just look to casual browsers of the Walmart bargain racks as the main focus of their consumers. At least these two are priced right (as with all Mill Creek product), and we were able to help them recognize (through an improvised fan campaign on their Facebook page) the significance of their Sony Hammer titles on the Blu-ray format, in which they quickly responded to, with the first two double feature sets of the kind coming in the Fall of 2016. (George R. Reis)