Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 2, 2016
TCM’s spotlight on American International Pictures is over but I recently got my paws on a copy of The Film Detective’s new Blue-ray of The Terror, a film that was originally released by AIP in 1963. I was so bowled over by the quality of the disc that it made me reconsider my long held view of this low-budget Gothic horror film initiated by Roger Corman.
Like any horror film fan worth their salt and of a certain age, I’d seen badly beat-up and butchered prints of The Terror on TV and video a number of times. The film suffered the unfortunate fate of falling into public domain decades ago so it became a staple of late night television and was repeatedly released as part of cheap video and DVD compilations typically sold in bargain bins. What I hadn’t realized is how much the poor presentation of the film had colored my opinion of it.
Until now, I’d taken The Terror for granted and bought the idea that it was a lessor Corman film rendered incoherent due to its haphazard production history. In my own defense, it’s easy to overlook the film’s merits and nuances when you’re only exposed to barely recognizable prints crudely edited and accompanied by fun-loving horror hosts cracking jokes at the movie’s expense. Now, thanks to the fine folks at The Film Detective and their extensive restoration of The Terror on Blu-ray, I’ve gained a new found respect for the film and after careful consideration, I find it to be one of the more interesting AIP pictures released in the sixties.
In The Terror, young Jack Nicholson plays André Duvalier, an 18th century lieutenant in Napoleon’s army who is separated from his regiment during wartime. Wearing one of Marlon Brando’s costumes from Désirée (1954) that’s a bit too wide in the shoulders, Nicholson’s character wanders an abandoned beach on horseback until he’s overcome by exhaustion. When our hero awakens (or does he?), he meets a woman named Helene (Sandra Knight, who was married to Nicholson at the time) and the graceful brunette beauty helps him recover before she seemingly vanishes into the ominous ocean. The disoriented lieutenant becomes obsessed with the mysterious woman eventually finding sanctuary with an old gypsy crone (Dorothy Neumann) and her simple-minded lodger (Jonathan Haze). After learning that the woman he seeks might be residing at a nearby castle occupied by a Baron (Boris Karloff) and his butler (Dick Miller), Nicholson’s character is determined to find her and as a result, he becomes immersed in the castle’s terrible history.
Incorporating sets from previous Corman films including The Raven (1963) and The Haunted Palace (1963), the film was cobbled together in a few short weeks utilizing the directing skills of Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and even Jack Nicholson himself, who oversaw some of the film’s final scenes. The combined talents make this one of AIP’s most prestigious pictures despite its spotty reputation. Leo Gordon and Jack Hill provided the slim script that was based on an idea from Corman while editing duties were left up to Stuart O’Brien who was assisted by Jack Hill. Editing must have been an extremely difficult task considering the piecemeal nature of the production and one has to wonder how much credit O’Brien and Hill deserve for the final product.
After seeing The Terror presented on Blu-ray where the colors popped and the images were sharp, clear and true, I was able to fully appreciate the filmmaker’s impressive use of the rocky California coastline. Particularly Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, which was also used as a backdrop in Corman’s The Trip (1967). I also ogled the imaginative, low budget and surprisingly gruesome special effects involving eyeball gouging, translucent phantoms and melting corpses. The film is lit beautifully at times especially in and outside the Baron’s castle where shades of majestic purple, misty blue and putrid green expose cobweb strewn hallways and rotting tombs.
The Terror makes observable nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1956) and The Birds (1963) suggesting the filmmakers had Hitchcock on their mind during the shoot. And as my fellow Morlock Richard H. Smith pointed out in his superb write-up about the film for the TCM website, it can also be appreciated as an interesting predecessor to Chinatown (1970) where Jack Nicholson repeats his detective act while pursuing a mysterious woman. However, my own instinct is to place the film within Corman’s ‘Poe Cycle’ due to the similar themes, tone and aesthetic it shares with the director’s previous work. The disjointed narrative and languid pacing evoke Poe’s nightmarish tales of terror, which often reject logic and pull readers into a confused maelstrom of imaginary horrors. In fact, the film could easily be retitled after Poe’s final poem, Annabel Lee, which takes place in a “kingdom by the sea” and involves a tragic lover affair severed by death that ends with a haunted narrator taunting demons and damning the heavens.
Corman, along with many of the crew that worked on his Poe films, was undoubtedly familiar with Poe’s Annabel Lee but I’m not sure how much it actually influenced the film. Although it’s worth pointing out that editor Stuart O’Brian and composer Les Baxter both eventually worked on another low-budget horror movie similarly titled Annabelle Lee (aka Diabolique Wedding; 1974). I haven’t had the opportunity to see it so I don’t know if it actually shares any similarities with Poe’s poem or The Terror but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
Limited resources didn’t allow for multiple takes or reshoots, which hobbled the performances a bit but The Terror is an AIP production so I don’t expect the actors to put on fake French accents or deliver show-stopping soliloquies. Karloff is always fun to watch and despite his limited screen time, the 76-year-old actor exhibits some genuine passion here and makes you care about his character while you’re questioning his suspect motives. Jack Nicholson is out of his element in this period piece but his urgency and early commitment to the role is admirable. He also shares some genuine onscreen chemistry with real-life wife, the lovely Sandra Knight, who is memorable in her dual role as the enigmatic Helene/Ilsa.
The Film Detective Blu-ray comes with no extras, which is unfortunate given the rich and complex history of the production. There are plenty of film historians who could have provided an interesting commentary for the film and many people associated with The Terror including Roger Corman, Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Dick Miller are all still with us. Arranging a round table discussion or video chat with the cast and crew might seem like a farfetched idea considering the film’s checkered past but it’s something I’d love to see or hear.
Despite the barebones presentation, the new Blu-ray has my highest recommendation. This is a BD-R disc and the print has been restored from 35mm archival material in its original aspect ratio. The quality of the picture and sound have been greatly enhanced and with a retail price of just $14.99, it’s well worth a look. Kudos to the fine folks at The Film Detective for saving The Terror from bargain basement bins and restoring it to its original full-color splendor. I suspect the film will eventually acquire many new admirers besides yours truly.
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