Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 13, 2016
Horror movies have long availed themselves of the iconography and sacraments of the Catholic Church, whose essential mystery has been exploited by film directors to ramp up whatever horrors the screenwriters have devised. Churches and their adjoining hallowed grounds became a battle theatre in the war between good and evil in such silent films as Georges Méliès’ DEVIL IN A CONVENT (1899) and Benjamin Christensen’s HAXAN (1922) but the desire to skirt controversy kept Hollywood horrors from being too church-specific. Heroes of fright films churned out in bulk from Universal Studios during the 1930s and 40s and from Hammer Film Productions in the 1960s and 70s tended to be laymen rather than clergy: academics steeped in the occult or passersby who understood (or came to appreciate) the power of the cross, while the church itself was paid only lip service. Rare is the horror movie that grounds its plot mechanics in Catholic orthodoxy, building character on a Papist mindset, and using its doctrinal absolutism and attendant contradictions as a catalyst for self-reflection and a springboard for screams. The success of William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973) was a genre game changer, encouraging a less generic approach to its metaphysics while engendering the critical charge of being a recruitment film for the Roman Catholic Church. Less personal, but no less divested of Catholicism, Richard Donner’s THE OMEN (1976) returned the conversation to the Holy See but bearing the message that, even if God wasn’t dead, his battle was lost. Lost in the shuffle of these provocative blockbusters, whose sense of spectacle too often overwhelmed their finer points, was the most Catholic horror movie ever made.
Though THE EXORCIST made heroes of a pair of mismatched priests thrown together in common cause, buddy-cop style, American horror movies produced in its wake tended to rely on the old trick of cashiering unaffiliated skeptics, agnostics, and downright atheists to fight the good fight, with church folk assuming the duties of war movie drill sergeants–characters who sound the charge but drop out of the narrative well before the third act. An exception to this rule is Alfred Sole’s self-financed independent feature ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976), which opens with the ghastly murder of a young girl (Brooke Shields, in her film debut) on the day of her first holy communion, suspicion falling on her own sister (Paula Sheppard, as the eponymous Alice). A self-taught regional filmmaker who had come to movie-making through the peregrinate study of painting, architecture and drama, Sole shot the film in 1975 in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, under the working title COMMUNION. Though Sole and co-writer Rosemary Ritvo wring extreme disquietude from the glum and not infrequently eerie iconography of Catholic Church, their perspective is from the inside looking out. Set in 1961, at a point in American history when papism was enjoying a measure of legitimacy with the election of Catholic President John F. Kennedy, but before the concessions to modernity of the Second Catholic Council (aka Vatican II), ALICE, SWEET ALICE localizes tension and horror in the dilemma of believers who find their complicated personal lives to be at odds with the unyielding medieval tenets of a faith that is supposed to be their bulwark against Satan and all his works.
Alfred Sole represents the reverse Hollywood dream, being a film director who really wanted to production design — a vocation in which Sole has worked for the past two decades, following a relatively brief tenure as a writer-director. An interior designer before he turned to cinema, Sole would accumulate props and set elements on his own initiative, even before he had a film project in which to use them; that packrat nature pays off in ALICE, SWEET ALICE, which Sole made for considerably less than half a million dollars (most of that in deferred payments) but which boasts a texture and an abundance of quiet style that masks its lack of wherewithal. Excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1972 for having made an X-rated movie as a money-raiser (and for using the home of the Archbishop of Paterson as an establishing shot), Sole nonetheless retained strong ties with local municipal agencies, whose contributions to ALICE, SWEET ALICE resulted in exceedingly high production values for an indie shot off-and-on over the course of a year, with cast and crew working for the most part without pay. Unable to afford Hollywood actors, Sole approached New York theatre troupers, cadging leading lady Linda Miller (daughter of comedian Jackie Gleason and ex-wife of THE EXORCIST star Jason Miller) from Bill Gunn’s THE BLACK PICTURE SHOW (for which she had been nominated for a Tony) and sending a script to Geraldine Page; then midway through the two-year run of Alan Ayckbourn’s ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR, Page passed on the chance to play the pivotal role of church housemaid Mrs. Tredoni but recommended Mildred Clinton, then most recognizable for having played Al Pacino’s mother in SERPICO (1973).
Against all odds, the completed film (then still known as COMMUNION) caught the attention of executives at Columbia Pictures, who agreed to distribute and went the extra mile of commissioning a tie-in paperback novelization from Bantam Books. Due to some shady back room dealings on the part of the film’s producer, the Columbia deal was suddenly off the table, forcing Sole to accept an offer from Allied Artists, who ordered the title change to ALICE, SWEET ALICE. (The novelization by Frank Lauria was published in July 1977 under Sole’s original title.) Due to a copyright snafu, the film was allowed to lapse into public domain, denying Sole and his collaborators their rightful recompense. (The escalating celebrity of Brooke Shields led to a 1981 re-release under yet another title, HOLY TERROR, which garnered a surprisingly compassionate review from New York Times critic Vincent Canby). It just may have been this reversal of fortune that led to ALICE, SWEET ALICE becoming a bona fide cult film, widely available (if in greatly varying degrees of quality) on bootleg VHS tapes through the next decade rather than being warehoused in the vaults of a major studio. Strong word of mouth kept the film alive in the hearts of horror aficionados, who classified it as an early example of an American “giallo” (Italian for “yellow,” the color assigned to Italian pulp novels, a term later associated by Italian psycho-thriller films of the 1970s, which in turn paved the way for the American slashers of the 1980s) and the cinematic lynchpin linking Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) to John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).
I CONFESS (1953) is not one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better-regarded films — not that means anything to me. I grew up in Catholic country, so even though I was not raised Catholic I tend to relate to that milieu — especially when it is employed in the service of genre. I own the movie (on VHS, truth be told) and like it, though my last viewing is far back enough to prompt me to refer to my colleague, Jeremy Arnold, who reviewed the movie more recently for the TCM website. Click here to read Jeremy’s thoughts, and peace be with you.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Criterion Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns