Former students of an all-girls private school start dying under mysterious circumstances. It looks as if someone from their past has a personal vendetta against them.
Reaction & Thoughts:
If Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the grandfather of the slasher sub-genre, Thirteen Women must be the sub-genre’s great-granddaddy (great-grandma is perhaps a bit more accurate). This lurid and trashy Pre-Code thriller anticipates the slasher craze of the ’70s and ’80s, specifically the sorority-girls-in-distress horror movies.
The screenplay by Bartlett Cormack (The Front Page and Fury) and Samuel Ornitz is based on a best-selling novel by Thifanny Hayers. David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind and Rebecca) produced the film for RKO. Strange though it may seem, all these people invented a handful of popular slasher cliches.
Thirteen Women feels incomplete, though. The first scenes promised a tawdry tale of revenge, but then the movie failed to deliver on that promise. There are twelve potential victims, but the film gives up after a few killings. Because the movie is so short, I got the impression that much of the material was left on the cutting room floor.
Despite its many flaws, Thirteen Women remains an engrossing and fascinating production. The film is shockingly mean-spirited. Even the killer’s motivations are interesting: she is a half-Indian woman who wants to kill the “white girls” who rejected her. Racial discrimination is front and center for much of the film, and this is something you don’t often see in old Hollywood productions.
Although today she is better known for playing charming and witty wives, Myrna Loy is wholly believable as the malevolent Ursula Georgi, a character that has a few things in common with Mrs. Voorhees (Friday the 13th). It’s really a lot of fun seeing Loy act so cruel and nasty — the lady comes up with diabolically clever ways to kill people!
Irene Dunne’s “Final Girl” is a little on the weak side. Dunne is no Jamie Lee Curtis, but she does an adequate job as the goody-two-shoes type who must confront the killer at the end (by the way, this scene is curiously close to the climax of Roger Spottiswoode’s popular 1980 slasher Terror Train, starring Curtis).
Ricardo Cortez (The Big Shakedown) plays a cop who comes to the aid of Dunne. The cast also includes Kay Johnson (Of Human Bondage) as Helen Dawson Frye and Jill Esmond (The Skin Game) as Jo Turner. British actress Lilian “Peg” Entwistle, who plays one of Loy’s victims, entered trivia books as a woman who committed suicide by jumping off the famous Hollywood sign. Entwistle was only 24 years old.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Although it’s hardly a classic, Thirteen Women is a great curiosity. Who would have thought? The man who gave us A Star is Born (1937) and Gone with the Wind (1939) is also somewhat responsible for The Initiation of Sarah (1978), The House on Sorority Row (1983) and The Initiation (1984). Let that sink in for a second — some ideas are born in the most unlikely places. B&W, 59 minutes, Not Rated.