It may be an exaggeration to say that Alfred Sole is one of the great forgotten horror directors but there’s certainly room for disappointment that he only directed four films, even if only one of them is fully successful. However, the one which works – his second, Alice Sweet Alice – is so good that it’s clear that Sole could have potentially been a very fine genre filmmaker.
Essentially the film is an American giallo in the anti-clerical vein of Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling. Paula Sheppard gives an astonishing performance as Alice, a pubescent girl acting out her anger against her parents’ divorce in a series of pranks directed against her spoilt younger sister Karen (Shields). One of her favourite devices is the use of a translucent mask to conceal her identity so she can scare the younger girl. When Karen is found murdered in church on the morning of her first communion, Alice is suspected both by the police and her hysterical Aunt Annie. But the truth, as you might expect in this genre, is not quite so simple.
Paula Sheppard was 19 at the time the film was made but she is totally convincing as a jealous, confused adolescent, and it’s largely down to her ambivalent performance that the film works. We never particularly like Alice and the film doesn’t seem to intend us to, but Sheppard evokes her confusion and misdirected rage so well that we can empathise even while we don’t sympathise. Sheppard has a particularly effective ambiguous stare which could mean everything or could simply be blank and it’s used to great effect, particularly in the final scenes. Her strongly naturalistic performance contrasts nicely with the more theatrical work by some of the adults. This ranges from the effectively dramatic in the case of Linda Miller as the emotionally torn mother to the hysterically hammy in the case of Jane Lowry as Aunt Annie – who seems to be auditioning for the role of the Wicked Stepmother in panto – and particularly Alphonso DeNoble as the landlord, cunningly named Alphonso. DeNoble is ludicrously oversized in every sense of the word. It’s good to learn that he was a quirky character off-screen as well – apparently he was a bouncer in a gay bar in the evenings and one of his real-life hobbies was dressing up as a priest and hanging around cemeteries on the off-chance that he might pick up donations from believers eager for a blessing.
Some spoilers in what follows
The film was shot in the New Jersey town of Paterson and it has a gritty, almost sleazy realism which gives it quite an edge. The setting is supposedly the early 1960s although you’d be hard-pressed to notice, but this doesn’t really matter too much since the details of a strongly religious community are so well, and subtly, evoked. Images of religious conviction abound throughout the film – crosses, devotions, pictures of the Virgin Mary and Christ – and this feeds in to the central theme which is the way that religious fervour can turn to twisted obsession.
As in Fulci’s film, the obsession with religious purity is damaging and dangerous. The motivation of the killer – or at least, if the final shot is to be trusted, one of the killers – is scriptural fanaticism and an obsession with judgement over forgiveness. In this regard, the original title Communion is obviously much more appropriate.
Made for an incredibly low-budget, the film is very well written and looks remarkably impressive, largely due to the excellent location filming and some imaginative art direction. The special effects, partially provided by future director William Lustig, are highly effective too, contributing to some memorably bloody murder scenes which are shot with surprisingly brutal force. We are left unsettled throughout, not merely by the violence but also by some of the uncomfortable details which seem very dated now – a policeman’s casual remark about her coming on to him as he hooked her up to the lie detector is particularly distasteful. On a satisfying horror level, there are at least two great ‘jump’ moments and the final murder in particularly comes when we are unprepared. Alfred Sole is decent enough, incidentally, to fully acknowledge the film’s debt to Don’t Look Now, not least in the use of the raincoat. But his direction is remarkably confident considering that this was only his second film and his first “legitimate” one and you can see that there is natural talent there – the layering of the community sequences, the attention to the emotions of the family and the importance given to the religious details are all signs of a filmmaker who has more to say than your average slasher movie director. He never repeated the success of this film and now works as a production designer for television, a career which he seems to enjoy more than directing.
This new release of Alice Sweet Alice from 88 Films is the first time that the complete and uncensored version of the film has been made available in the UK. It seems to be based on the restoration done by Anchor Bay some years ago and it has a reasonable level of detail and clarity although there is a constant softness which some viewers will find irritating. It does seem to be characteristic of the original film since the Anchor Bay DVD had the same appearance. The colours are, however, disappointing and there is a washed-out quality which is unattractive. Occasional print damage is also present. However, if you’ve only seen the film on the cut VHS release then you’re undoubtedly in for a treat. The mono soundtrack is excellent throughout and renders music and dialogue is an excellent balance, with the frequent screaming and the undercurrent of a voice making contrition coming across loud and clear. Regrettably, there are no subtitles.
A few extras have been provided. There is an audio commentary ported over from the US disc featuring Alfred Sole, editor Edward Salier and William Lustig. It’s an entertainingly chatty affair which reveals some interesting trivia and expresses deep love for the film. We also get the alternative “Communion” title sequence which was used in the UK and a trailer for the film when it was released as Holy Terror in 1981 in an attempt to capitalise on Brooke Shields’ fame in The Blue Lagoon. Finally, there is an extensive stills gallery containing rare promotional materials and a collection of trailers for other releases from 88 Films. One of these is Ted V. Mikels’ quite jaw-dropping The Corpse Grinders about which more soon.
Alice Sweet Alice is a great 1970s horror film which deserves a lot more attention. 88 Films have presented it very well in an edition which can definitely be recommended.