This week on TCM Underground: Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) and Bloody Birthday (1981)

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Oh, it’s wall to wall problem children this week on TCM Underground!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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Chasing ALICE, SWEET ALICE in the overnight slot is BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1981), a low rent but highly entertaining heir to the legacy of killer kid movies. Though it suggests that its trio of prepubescent population-thinners was sired by an unfortunate celestial conjunction, BLOODY BIRTHDAY shrugs off cause-and-effect in the second act to focus more squarely on the caprices and predations of its unholy three: Debby (Elizabeth Hoy, the little girl that Jake and Elwood offer to buy from her horrified father in THE BLUES BROTHERS), Curtis (Billy Jayne, billed as Billy Jacoby, then coming off of a season on the short-lived BAD NEWS BEARS spinoff series), and Steve (Andrew Freeman, who inherited the Ike Eisenmann role in BEYOND WITCH MOUNTAIN, the second sequel to Disney’s 1975 hit ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN).

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Though raised in relative comfort and given all of the perks of their middle class upbringing (the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale subs for sunny Meadowvale), these kids mark their first decade of life by going on the offensive, taking out Debby’s sheriff father (Bert Kramer), a character coded as a major player (the name Sheriff Brody draws an obvious parallel to JAWS) but disposed of with a suddenness that is truly shocking. The children have already killed a pair of cemetery lovebirds, a double murder that leads us to suspect that they will operate below the radar of polite society, targeting strangers whose seemingly random deaths cannot be traced back home; this murder, committed within ear shot of Debby’s mother, changes the equation. Next to go is school teacher Viola Davis (prominently-billed Susan Strasberg), whose death is equally unbalancing to any viewer expecting more of the Hollywood veteran.

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I won’t go so far as to say that BLOODY BIRTHDAY is brilliant but for one girding one’s loins for the expected body count slog of the typical killer kid movie, it does toss an undeniable curveball. Sussed out for their psychopathy by the brother-and-sister act of Lori Lethin (who went on to good roles in Nicholas Meyer’s made-for-TV THE DAY AFTER and the low rent horrors of THE PREY and RETURN TO HORROR HIGHbefore retiring from the business) and K.C. Martel (the kid with the headphones in E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and Eddie in the dire 1981 MUNSTERS reboot REVENGE OF THE MUNSTERS), the kids go after the goody-goodies with a mind for murder… and fail repeatedly to hit their mark. Nearly the whole of the film’s second act is a PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976) style series of botched attempts, from which the intended victims walk away unharmed as their would-be killers gnash their teeth in frustration. Derivative as writer-director Ed Hunt may be in the broad strokes of this undertaking, BLOODY BIRTHDAYeventually becomes its own animal via a latticework of quietly gonzo setpieces that no other movie would attempt… and perhaps none more bizarre than the scene in which Lethin is pursued through an auto wrecking yard by a hotwired junker driven by a kid in a Halloween bedsheet. Shot in broad, unevocative daylight, the bit can hardly be said to ape John Carpenter’s pitch black HALLOWEEN (1978), yet it retains a kind of sickening strangeness in light of its utter banality, even as Arlon Ober’s aggressive score goes balls-out Penderecki.

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Unremittingly sleazy (the copious female frontal nudity will seem an ill-fit on Turner Classic Movies),BLOODY BIRTHDAY is a catchbasin of a movie, offering pop culture seconds in a way that feels like home cooking. While never scary, the film hits an unpleasant vein of tenable menace that, however it may fail to make you forget such subgenre milestones as THE BAD SEED (1959) or WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976), just may make you jump up to check the children.

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On a personal note, this will be my last blog post for The Movie Morlocks. I’ve been here since Day One back in 2006 and in that time I have written in excess of 500 posts, to say nothing of the programming articles, movie reviews, talent bios, and assorted sundries I have cooked up for TCM.com during my tenure. It was my honor to serve in these ranks for so long and to keep the company of such fine writers. But all good things must come to an end and, with that, I bid you all a very fond farewell. See you at the movies.

11 Responses This week on TCM Underground: Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) and Bloody Birthday (1981)
Posted By KC : June 22, 2016 4:52 am

I am so sorry to see you go. I’ve always made a point of reading your posts, because they are so informative and entertaining. Thanks for all the great writing. I hope you enjoy whatever it is you have ahead of you!

Posted By Doug : June 22, 2016 10:52 am

Farewell and thank you, RHS, for the fine work you’ve done here.

Posted By LD : June 22, 2016 11:39 am

Thank you, RHS, for your insightful posts, primarily about horror films, and your humor. Good luck!

Posted By Ben Martin : June 22, 2016 1:35 pm

Oh no. Don’t go. I so look forward to your weekly insights, the historical background you provide, the fresh take on even the most familiar films, your humor, your deadly ability to use language to construct so many save-able essays.
All right – don’t blubber, Ben.
So let me ask you – What’s next for you? Where can we find your work now?

Posted By Arlene Domkowski : June 22, 2016 6:27 pm

Don’t go! You will be sorely missed.

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2016 7:38 pm

I became a fan of your work in Video Watchdog, and was overjoyed to find more of your writing here at MM, especially when I knew I could see many of the films you were writing about on the channel, on TCM Underground and elsewhere.

BTW, is that one of my other favourite online film writers, Glenn “DVD Savant” Erickson in that last photo? I heartily recommend his online column/reviews to all Morlocks followers as well, although reading his work has wound up with me putting a lot of money in the pockets of home video companies when he writes up titles I didn’t even know existed.

Posted By George : June 23, 2016 7:54 pm

Also sorry to see you go. I hope TCM replaces you with someone who is similarly expert on horror films.

Posted By Jenni : June 23, 2016 10:06 pm

I am truly bummed to read today that this is your last post for the Morlocks! No! You can’t stop writing for this blog!!! I always enjoy reading your articles and bow to your knowledge on all things Horror. This has truly ruined the rest of my day!! Best Wishes on your next ventures.

Posted By Jonathan : June 24, 2016 7:56 pm

Halloween will never be the same without Richard Harland Smith.

You’re a very gifted writer and I’ll miss reading your posts and how you always looked forward to Halloween. Your name, or the way you include the middle name, will always remind me of that scene in Foreign Correspondent where Harry Davenport comes up with a name for Joel McCrea and he uses Richard Harding Davis as a supreme example. There’s a lot in a name and plain old Dick Smith wouldn’t suit a writer of your caliber.

Thank you for all the posts the past eleven years.

Posted By Frankebe : June 24, 2016 10:03 pm

Whiling away some of my time in reading these blogs about movies, I am strongly reminded why I almost entirely stopped going to the theatres to watch new films about 20 years ago.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 25, 2016 1:40 pm

I sure wish you’d stay. You can’t leave! You’re one of the best writers out there!

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