Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Suicide and on-screen murder aplenty.
- Guy who attempts to both poison and blow up a child (seriously) but doesn’t get caught.
- Divorced women and single moms, happy to be without men.
- In fact, all of the men are pretty damn stupid in this movie, and the heroine is saved by luck rather than a generic love interest.
- Frank discussion of sex: “Do you remember how you always worried that the men would go too far and I worried that they wouldn’t?”
Anyone who’s ever worked in retail or spent substantial time on the internet can all confirm one simple fact: people are goddamn gullible. It’s not often that people build a film around such a concept, though saying that last part in a world where Transformers 2 made a mint almost gave me a stroke.
Thirteen Women plays with such a notion freely and aggressively, giving us a circle of former sorority sisters who all decided on a lark to write to a mystic asking for their fortunes. The swami, under the influence of a rival to the sorority, sends back letters foretelling the doom of each woman, all of them grisly.
The film sets this all up pretty quickly, and delights in watching each vapid woman doom themselves through their own paranoia. Thirteen Women functions a lot like a slasher film in many regards, as each pretty woman is given their own story that ends in a melodramatically brutal fashion.
For anyone who thinks that Hollywood was timid with violence or murder at one point must have missed this film. The opening involves two former sorority sisters who’ve since gone on to become trapeze artists. Not the best thing one can do with an education, but the girls seem to enjoy it, up to the point that one gets a letter from the swami telling her that, one day, she’s going to miss catching her sister. Mortified, she heads out to the trapeze, and as they’re gearing up for their world-famous, death-defying double flip with no net, and, wouldn’t you believe it, the one predicted to do the dropping drops her friend.
The director, George Archainbaud, plays this scene in complete silence, up until the woman slips from the other’s grip. And then he lingers as the woman flails, screaming, falling helplessly to the cold hard ground below. He cuts away right before impact, but it’s a chilling scene filled with dread that does more good than the rest of the movie that follows it.
A major problem with the film, if I haven’t mentioned it before, is that all of the characters fall into their demises because they’re stupid. While this is a staple of slasher cinema now and may have even been clever back in 1932, it’s still distinctly difficult to care for these characters or their plight. Also add on that you will already have a general idea of how many of these women are going to die (not more than thirteen, that’s for sure!), and it feels more like watching a prerecorded baseball game than a thriller.
Not helping matters is the antagonist, a mysterious half-Javanese woman played by Myrna Loy. Myrna Loy is obviously white, and the pancaked amount of glitter, mascara, and makeup it takes for her to be Hollywood-Brand Oriental makes her look like she just woke up from a five-year-old’s super fairy princess slumber party. I normally find yellow face completely contemptible, but it’s simply so awfully done here that it almost swerves into parody. It doesn’t help that Loy barely seems to do much with her part, figuring that looking menacing is about her only hope in this clunky script.
The atagonist in this movie (wow, I probably should have gotten to this sooner) is played by Irenne Dunn as an eternal skeptic and single mother who just doesn’t believe in the stupid swami crap. Yeah, one out of thirteen, way to go public education system.
Since she won’t kill herself, Loy’s sultry murderess decides to do it a little more conventionally, seducing Dunn’s butler and having him try to first poison the kid and then, when that fails, blow the kid the fuck up. Mean Girls only wishes it encapsulated the bitterness of female social exclusion this well.
Thirteen Women has its flaws, and some of those may come from the fact that it’s missing about fifteen minutes from it’s original release, trimming it down to a brisk but dizzying sixty minutes. It’s also hard to sympathize with a great many of the characters since they’re obviously rock stupid and have no screen time, but, hey, it’s a horror flick.
I can’t say it’s a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I am glad I watched it. It’s an interesting forebear to a lot of the crap we have today, and probably of much more interest to anyone who wants to explore who we like to see die onscreen and why.
P.S. – I didn’t personally keep track, but IMDB does note one thing: there are only 11 women in the movie, not 13.