(Filmed under the title Communion; later re-released under the title Holy Terror.)
I’m going to start this entry with a rather embarrassing confession: I’ve never seen Don’t Look Now, Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novella. Okay, so my confession is not exactly earth-shattering, but it shows a definite gap in my film education. There are certain films that fans of the horror genre are expected to have seen, and Don’t Look Now is one of them. I am remiss in my duties.
The reason that I mention this at all is that Alfred Sole, the director of the film under discussion today, cites Roeg’s film as the catalyst for his making Alice, Sweet Alice (a title which Sole hates, by the way; it was forced on him by the movie’s distributor, Allied Artists). In fact, in the excellent commentary track on the Anchor Bay DVD edition of the film, Sole states that he was influenced by Don’t Look Now and Alfred Hitchcock. From what I know about Don’t Look Now, Sole took the idea of the raincoats that the killer and some of the suspects wear and the Catholic iconography from Roeg’s film. As far as the Hitchcock influences, Alice, Sweet Alice is far less related to Psycho than it is to Vertigo, although both films do inform the narrative and the mood of Sole’s film.
The plot, in a nutshell, concerns the murder of a girl (Brooke Shields, in her first movie) who is about to take her first Holy Communion. Although there is very little evidence, what evidence there is points to the girl’s twelve-year-old sister, Alice, as the killer. Alice is a little unhinged to begin with and seems the obvious culprit, but is she really the murderer? To give away any more of the plot would be to do a great disservice to first-time viewers. So I’ll leave it at that for the time being.
Alice, Sweet Alice, in addition to Brooke Shields, stars Linda Miller–mother of Jason Patrick, wife of Jason Miller (star of The Exorcist), daughter of Jackie Gleason, and featured player in The Green Slime. It also features a cameo by Lillian Roth, the actress who once starred with the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers. It was her first film appearance in over forty years. She had written a best-selling autobiography titled I’ll Cry Tomorrow in the 1950s about her struggle with alcoholism, which was turned into a popular film starring Susan Hayward. And here’s a piece of trivia for you—Paula Sheppard, the actress who plays the titular Alice, was nineteen when she shot the film, which was also her first film. It’s one of the two most convincing performances by an adult playing a child that I’ve ever seen (the other being Summer Bishil’s portrayal of Jasira in Towelhead). Look for yourself—does this look like the face of a nineteen-year-old?
Sheppard went on to be in exactly one more movie (1982’s Liquid Sky) before dropping off the radar. I’d love to see what she looks like today. Maybe she finally looks nineteen.
The film’s style belies its low budget, which, according to Sole on the DVD commentary track, was around $350,000. It was shot wholly in Sole’s hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, in fits and starts. As is the case with literally hundreds of independent films, Sole and his actors would shoot until they ran out of money, then pick up again after more money was found. What’s really surprising is that the film has such a strong and consistent sense of visual style, even though by Sole’s admission, the production went through six or seven cameramen during the course of its on-again, off-again schedule.
One of the things that makes Alice, Sweet Alice so memorable is its score by Stephen Lawrence. In the commentary track, Sole recounts that he asked Lawrence to give the score a Bernard Herrmann feel. When I hear the score, I don’t necessarily think of Herrmann, but I do feel that a large part of the film’s success can be credited to the score. It’s one of the most haunting scores ever composed for a film, and I’m doubly confounded as to why Lawrence ended up composing music primarily for children’s television shows.
It always surprises me that so few people have seen this film. It was one of the very first films to come out on VHS (and Beta!) back in the very, very early days of home video. Allied Artists was in dire financial straits, so they decided that they might be able to make some money off their films by releasing them to the home video market. They hoped that lots of people would spring for the tapes, and they stood to make a pretty good profit, as their releases carried a price tag of $79.95. They also had such films as Cabaret and The Man Who Would Be King in their library, so they had a good shot at reaching the all-important mainstream consumer. Unfortunately, they entered the game a little too early, years before VCRs had made enough of a market penetration to make such releases wildly profitable, and the company folded less than a year later. At about this time, Alice, Sweet Alice was also showing on HBO. My family didn’t subscribe to HBO, but we had learned through the grapevine that about fifty feet of antenna wire strung all over the house and connected to the back of the TV would sometimes offer a picture that was passably watchable. This is the way that I first saw Alice, Sweet Alice. Needless to say, the picture was snowy and blurry at best, but I was fascinated. I was also confused. I didn’t know if the confusion arose from the less-than-ideal conditions under which I viewed the film, or from the film itself.
Flash forward a few years to 1981 or so. I was trolling the aisles of Wal-Mart, checking out the new LPs, when I saw a display of videotapes for sale. Now, I didn’t own my own VCR yet, but I had gone in halfies with a friend who had bought one. (Okay, I really never paid for my half. Sorry, Dana.) Still, these videos were priced somewhere around $15 each, and they had both Night of the Living Dead, one of my all-time favorite films, and Alice, Sweet Alice. I snatched up Night of the Living Dead that day, but came back a day or two later for Alice, Sweet Alice. When I finally got a chance to watch it, it still confused me, and I knew that the presentation being offered on videotape was light-years ahead of the bootlegged HBO viewing. So, I watched it again. After several more viewings, it all came together for me. I finally understood the film, and that’s when I started showing it to anyone who would watch it. Oddly enough, around this time the film was re-released to theaters as Holy Terror, with Brooke Shields’s name prominently displayed in the advertising and ten minutes hacked out of the middle. Still, I thought it was kind of cool that I could watch the same film playing in theaters in my home AS IT WAS PLAYING IN THE THEATERS! Well, I could have if I’d had a VCR.
Due to a slip-up by the film’s producer, Alice, Sweet Alice wasn’t copyrighted when it was released. Because of that little mistake, anyone who wanted to sell a copy of the movie could—legally. So the onslaught came—by the mid 1980s, you couldn’t go into any store that sold VHS tapes without bumping into a copy of Alice, Sweet Alice. Although I can’t prove it, I have a sneaking suspicion that the original Allied Artists home video release became the source of the Goodtimes Home Video release (the one that I bought at Wal-Mart), which was then bought by every bootlegger in the world as the source for THEIR releases. Many of these releases had artwork that would make any sane consumer steer clear of the film—here’s just one that I was able to find:
Wow, could Video Treasures have made that cover art any less scary? It’s one rabbit with a basket full of brightly-colored eggs away from being the cover of an uplifting Easter tale. But I digress.
In spite of being in bargain tape bins all over the country in the 1980s and on into the 1990s, with prices as low as a dollar, Alice, Sweet Alice STILL remains a well-kept secret amongst horror film fans.
In 1997, Alfred Sole decided to make some edits to the film in an attempt to finally copyright it. He was able to get the film copyrighted, and it was released on VHS and in a special edition laserdisc by Roan. In fact, the commentary track that appears on the Anchor Bay DVD is the same one that first appeared on the laserdisc. I sprung for the laserdisc, and I was disappointed to see that Sole had cut a few minutes from the middle. Still, it looked great in widescreen and had a marvelous commentary track, so I dealt with the disappointment. Two years later, the DVD came out through Anchor Bay, and I was happily astonished to find out that the cut footage had been restored. So I snapped it up as fast as I could. I compared the Anchor Bay DVD to the Goodtimes VHS that I bought all those years ago, and the only differences that I could find between the two (besides the much-appreciated letterboxing of the film) was that the Allied Artists logo was gone from the beginning of the film, and the final music cue had been extended. Which is hunky-dory with me.
Man, but this has turned into a lengthy chat! I’ll try to wrap things up. In case you can’t tell, I love love love this movie. I consider it to be THE most unjustly unheralded horror film of the 70s, which is saying a lot. It has what I feel to be one of the top ten scores for a film, horror or otherwise. It’s essential viewing, plain and simple. And if you’re confused, as I was, upon first viewing, watch it again. And then again.
Back in the Stone Age when I worked in television, I found a thirty-second TV spot for Alice, Sweet Alice on 2-inch videotape in the sales office garbage can. I absconded with the tape immediately. I have no idea what happened to it. La vie continué…. I’d love to post a link to a trailer, but the only ones that I could find were fan edits. Ugh. There is a video of the incredibly misleading yet spoiler-packed Holy Terror re-release trailer on YouTube, though–so if you’re so inclined, you can watch it here. And thanks to YouTube user MissVoodooKitten, you can watch the full-length version here. (Sorry, but I can’t embed it. Still, see what cool things reading all the way to the end of an entry will get you?)