Thursday, April 1, 2010

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

'Alice, Sweet Alice' (1976)* * *

Those who have seen this creepy, low-budgeted horror gem -- either in the late 70s when it played theatrically, or maybe in the early 80s when it would surface now and again on HBO or as an oddly-chosen weekend afternoon matinee on a local channel -- tend not to forget it. Goes under a few different titles, including Holy Terror and Communion, but Alice, Sweet Alice is what it was called when I was first spooked by it long ago.

Though in some ways derivative of the films of Hitchcock, Polanski, and other horror-in-the-home-type thrillers with domestic settings, director Alfred Sole’s Catholic-themed tale is nevertheless highly suspenseful -- even unsettling. Set in 1961 in Sole’s hometown of Paterson, NJ (where it was filmed), the story focuses on a mass-attending family, the Spages, whose status in their faith-based community has become uncertain following the separation of Catherine (Linda Miller) and Dom (Niles McMaster).

The doe-eyed Paula Sheppard stars in the title role as the troubled older sister, envious of the attention-grabbing Karen, ably played by Brooke Shields in one of her earliest roles. Their sibling rivalry receives even greater scrutiny when -- in an early, surprisingly shocking scene -- little Karen is murdered at the church just before taking her first communion. Could moody little Alice, whom we’ve already discovered likes to wear creepy masks and terrorize her sister, have committed such a horrific crime?

The murder eventually brings the estranged Dom back to Paterson, and as the subsequent investigation evolves the plot takes a few hard-to-anticipate twists, some of which involve more violence being visited upon the conservative, working-class community.

Sole’s direction is obviously very meticulously handled, with nearly every scene peppered with thoughtful, well-crafted shots -- frequently made all the more affecting thanks to the abundance of Catholic imagery as well as Stephen Lawrence’s often eerie soundtrack. The atmosphere reminds me a bit of another low-budgeted, religious-themed, domestic horror film of the era (shot in Pittsburgh) -- George Romero’s Martin (1977). Like that film, Alice does a great job with details, conveying the community and its concerns with a kind of uncanny verisimilitude, yet finding within that realistic world all sorts of strangeness over which to linger and contemplate.

There are a number of impressive set pieces that engage the viewer while helping build suspense throughout, including the murder of Karen, a couple involving the must-be-seen-to-be-believed obese neighbor/landlord Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble), a sequence involving Dom and Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton), and the stunning finale.

'Alice, Sweet Alice' (1976)While there are some overwrought moments here and there (a couple of which involve emotional outbursts by Jane Lowry as Aunt Annie), the performances are mostly quite good, particularly those of Miller, Rudolph Willrich (Father Tom), and especially Clinton as Mrs. Tredoni, Father Tom’s middle-aged servant. Sheppard steals it, though, incredibly pulling off the unusual feat of portraying a 12-year-old Alice at the age of 19.

As I say, there are a few obviously derivative elements (e.g., the yellow rainjackets are an unsubtle crib from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now). And while those plot twists I mentioned may not be entirely coherent (especially on a first viewing), I think there’s ultimately a way to understand everything. Still, as I say, I appreciate the imagination and creativity on display here.

There are dozens of versions of this film out there in various formats, thanks largely to the fact that the original copyright was not protected. The Hen’s Tooth DVD (released a couple of years ago) is probably the one to pick up, not necessarily for the quality of the transfer but for the commentary by the director Sole, the film’s editor Ed Salier, and Bill Lustig who spent a short period assisting with the film’s make-up effects. Lustig -- probably best known for having directed the squalid, depraved Maniac (1980) -- goes on too much about the challenges of low-budget filmmaking, but Sole (who besides directing also co-wrote the script) does get a chance to explain a lot of the ideas behind his film, including exploring some of the thematic issues it raises.

Definitely not for everyone, particularly those who dislike unsettling domestic dramas or films with less-than-favorable depictions/commentaries on Catholicism. (Or those with an aversion to gore, which though infrequent does occur.) But if you’re a fan of smart horror with a willingness to shock, Alice, Sweet Alice is probably worth a look.

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