Written by: Tiffany Thayer (novel), Bartlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz (screenplay)
Directed by: George Archainbaud
Starring: Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, and C. Henry Gordon
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Suggestion is a very common occurrence in the life of every normal individual...waves of certain types of crime, waves of suicide are to be explained by powers of suggestion upon certain types of mind."
What is the first slasher film? Sometimes, I feel like this discussion can be just as interesting as some of the films spawned from the genre itself. A perceptible arc can be traced charting its evolution, allowing one to point to obvious signposts: sure, Halloween was practically the modern big bang that turned the genre into a cottage industry, but several forbearers exist, ranging from the obvious (Psycho, Black Christmas) to the more obscure (The Bat). However, its roots stretch back even further, all the way to the silent and pre-Code eras of Hollywood. While these efforts are a far cry from what we’ve recognized as “slasher flicks” for the past 40 years or so, there’s no mistaking the genre’s faint DNA in something like 1932’s Thirteen Women.
Consider how familiar certain elements of the setup are: a group of (now graduated) sorority sisters are terrorized by a vengeful maniac out to exact revenge for her unfair treatment while at school years ago. It’s not exactly the “prank gone wrong” setup that so many slashers would feature decades later, but it’s not a far cry. There’s also no mystery surrounding the identity of the spurned killer: early on, viewers are made completely aware of Ursula Georgi’s (Myrna Loy) scheme to manipulate a fortune teller (C. Henry Gordon) into sending foreboding horoscopes to her former classmates. Upon learning of their grim fates, each girl falls victim to each prediction, right down to the letter. Police are confounded but diligent in their efforts to stop the bizarre rash of killings, especially when one of the potential victims’ young son is in the crosshairs.
Armed with precious few revelations (namely, Georgi’s motivations) and a brisk 59-minute runtime, Thirteen Women moves with a familiar purpose: to dispose of as many bodies as possible and with as little pretense as possible. You might expect Thirteen Women to be a little on the tame—or even refined—side. To do so is to underestimate just how acutely Hollywood had already figured out its audience’s bloodlust: while it doesn’t exactly live up to its numerical title in terms of body count (it actually only features eleven women), Thirteen Women piles up an impressive stack of corpses. Within the first five minutes, we watch a trapeze artist plunge to her death, a grim overture for the mayhem to follow.
Granted, Thirteen Women isn’t as graphically violent as later slashers since that particular taboo wouldn’t be broached for another few decades. Still, it’s marked by that nasty pre-Code mean streak that makes this era’s horror movies so indelible. What the film lacks in explicit on-screen violence, it makes up for with the willingness to suggest the hell out of it: one victim is callously shoved into the path of an oncoming subway train, while another is coerced into committing suicide because she’s unable to overcome the loss of her young daughter. Audiences hear the gunshot of the act while gazing at Georgi’s unhinged delight before director George Archainbauld cuts back to the victim's dead, slumped-over body, which is just about as fucked up as you can get for 1932. Of course, in true slasher movie fashion, Thirteen Women is committed to constantly one-upping itself, so even the suicide scene eventually feels like a footnote once Georgi rigs up a trap involving—I shit you not—a bomb hidden in a box stored away in a child’s closet. I think even Jigsaw would admire that kind of pluckiness and ingenuity.
It follows that one of the most notable slasher precursors would feature a memorable slasher villain. Loy is, to put it bluntly, fucking awesome as Ursula Georgi, a scheming vixen without much of a conscience. There’s a diabolical glimmer in Loy’s eyes in every scene, a sly performance choice that signals the lurid, pulpy direction of Thirteen Women. Like so many horror films of this era, it exploits fears of the exotic, as Georgi’s defining characteristic—and the one that led to her being ostracized at school—is that she’s a half-Javanese Eurasian woman. Having Loy play this particular role—something she did quite often—is most certainly the sort of #problematic thing that would raise eyebrows today (it was actually quite commonplace for Loy herself), but to get hung up on that would be to ignore how socially conscious Thirteen Women is. Georgi’s motivations are racially driven: as she flatly puts it, she was never allowed to succeed in school because the other girls purposely humiliated her. At one point, she even rails against how all she ever wanted was to be accepted as a white woman in society, which is one of the more amazing slasher movie motivations.
If Thirteen Women has gone the extra mile to make Georgi truly sympathetic (in the end, you can bet your ass it’s all about preserving the life of an actual white woman), it’d be a little more rich and complex. As it stands, though, it kind of plays to both sides—it’s somehow kind of racist, yet woke all at once, marking it as a harbinger of the exploitative track the slasher genre would eventually take. It’s not as immediately and obviously provocative as later efforts, but it’s willing to embrace its trashy potential. One could easily see it being criticized in way many 80s slashers were: this is nothing but a pure body count movie, where most of the intrigue rests in watching the cast get picked off. Each letter from the fortune teller practically invites the audience to wonder if the film will really go there. More than often, it does.
Of course, a lot of this owes to a plight many slashers would eventually face: before Thirteen Women was ever released, it had nearly fifteen minutes trimmed from its runtime. Where many of its descendants would fall under the knife of the MPAA, it suffered at the hands of its own studio after RKO trimmed it following some negative test screenings. This keeps the film moving at a more brisk (if not possibly more shallow) pace, almost as if RKO knew exactly what audiences craved. In fact, RKO would re-release the film a few years later to capitalize on the growing the popularity of its cast, proving that Hollywood has always had a bit of a love-hate affair with the horror genre (it’s also interesting how actors and actresses managed to gravitate towards horror early in their careers even back then, something that would also become commonplace years later).
It’s further fascinating that this is a notably female ensemble, a fact foreshadowing how the slasher genre would continually prey upon and exploit femininity—it’s arguable that Irene Dunne’s Laura is among the first “final girls” in slasher history. Thirteen Women doesn’t just qualify as being some skeletal outline of a slasher—nearly every bit of its spirit is in keeping with those later splatter movies that would cram video stores and multiplexes. I would even argue that it’s more recognizable as a slasher movie than something like Psycho or Peeping Tom. This is a set-‘em-‘up-knock-‘em-down exercise in violence delivered by a completely disreputable author in Tiffany Thayer, whose original novel inspired the film. His work was often criticized as being scandalous and graphic (in fact, even more lurid material from the book—including a lesbian subplot!—never made it into a movie). Even F. Scott Fitzgerald got in on the action, referring to Thayer’s work as “slime” only fit to be enjoyed in “drug store libraries.” Perhaps only in the heart of a slasher movie fan would something like qualify as a ringing endorsement.
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