Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Thirteen Women (1932): An Unacknowledged Horror Classic

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Thirteen Women (1932): An Unacknowledged Horror Classic

Article excerpt

although david archainbaud's Thirteen Women (1932) has earned brief mention in several compendia of horror films, it has never received extended analysis. In an insightful review of the DVD, which was released as part of the Warner Archive Collection in 2012, John Beifuss notes that Thirteen Women is "not exactly a horror film," yet he goes on to map its numerous "horror themes," drawing a line from Archainbaud's film to both Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980) and the Final Destination franchise (2000-11).1 We argue that despite Beifuss's hedging, Thirteen Women is in fact a horror film. Released just one year after Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) and James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), it incorporates important themes of 1930s horror, even as it introduces a quite human "monster" and anticipates the insecure "paranoid" horror that by all accounts did not emerge until the late 1960s.2 While this article stakes a claim, then, for the place of Thirteen Women within the horror tradition-indeed, for its shaping of that tradition-it argues that the film was ahead of its time, partaking as much of post-1960s horror as of classic horror.

Based on the best-selling novel by Tiffany Thayer, Thirteen Women was produced by David O. Selznick for R. K. O. Radio Pictures and was released in September 1932. Like so many subsequent horror films, Thirteen Women features a vengeful killer stalking members of a sorority, all of whom attended St. Albans Seminary in northern California.3 Several years after graduation, the women start sending "round robin" letters to keep in touch with each other, and after one of them mentions the famous astrologer Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon), they all write to him for their horoscopes. Unbeknownst to the women, however, the swami is under the influence of their former classmate, the "half-Hindu" Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy). Ursula rewrites the swami's horoscopes in order to exact her revenge on the sisters who had, while they were in school, denied her access to the protections of the white world. Substituting her own predictions for those of the swami, Ursula wields the power of suggestion to lead trapeze artist June Raskob to drop her sister, May, during their circus act, causing May's death and June's insanity; she drives Hazel Cousins to stab her husband; she coerces Helen Frye to shoot herself; and she compels the swami to throw himself under a train. Ursula meets her match in the former president of the Kappas and the most rational of the women, Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne), who enlists the police in her efforts to thwart Ursula's "prediction" that her son Bobby will die before his next birthday. Ursula's efforts to kill Bobby get more desperate (escalating to the unlikely heights of a rubber ball with dynamite in it) as she draws Laura's chauffeur, Burns (Edward Pawley), into her plan. After her final confrontation with Laura on a train, however, and faced with the police and no way out, Ursula realizes that her reign of terror is over, and she throws herself onto the tracks.

Thirteen Women was not called a horror film upon its release in 1932, but as David Skal writes, the term "horror movie" was "in many ways an invention of 1931," the year Dracula and Frankenstein were released (144). Even those two iconic horror films were most frequently described as "melodramas" by contemporary reviewers, as were The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932) and Dracula's Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936) (Weaver, Brunas, and Brunas 33, 47, 72; Berenstein 11), so it is notable that reviews of Thirteen Women (unfortunately sparse) suggest that something a little darker than melodrama was unfolding.4 Variety called it a "butcher shop drama," presumably highlighting the high body count ("Thirteen Women" 15). The New York Times noted that the film "bends" under "an uncommonly violent assortment of murders and suicides," commenting, "It is horror without laughter, horror that is too awful to be modish," and pointing to an "uncomfortable absence of hearty male chatter in this demoniacal intrigue" ("Another Murder Mystery" 13). …

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