Thursday, 27 October 2016

Halloween 31 For 31: The Terror (1963)

Director: Roger Corman (with Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Jack Nicholson)
Screenplay: Leo Gordon and Jack Hill
Cast: Boris Karloff (as the Baron von Leppe); Jack Nicholson (as Andre Duvalier); Dick Miller (as Stefan); Sandra Knight (as Helene); Dorothy Neumann (as Katrina); Jonathan Haze (as Gustaf)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #51

Not all Roger Corman films are created equal, and in the period of his legendary Edgar Allen Poe films The Terror was spawned from still having Boris Karloff after The Raven (1963) and deciding to take advantage of resources he already had from the Poe films he'd already made. Surprisingly, despite the ridiculous and illustrious list of people meant to have directed parts of the film unofficially with him, it's a surprisingly coherent and curiously woozy supernatural chiller, but the real issue is how undercooked in parts it is against the moments which do succeed completely. Jack Nicholson is a very unconventional choice for a French soldier, Andre Duvalier, who has lost his way from his regiment and into countryside where the alluring and mysterious woman Helene (Sandra Knight) is. Her existence, denied as merely his hallucinations, leads to the castle of Baron von Leppe (Karloff), an elderly lord who claims the woman is his long dead wife, causing Andre to try to get to the bottom of who is right.

Even if it suffers from being in the public domain, and lacklustre versions of the print, The Terror even if it looks like you're viewing it through a dirty sock at least has the same decadent, Technicolor style of the Poe films. Corman's films of this time aren't historically realistic in the slightest but, even on a small budget, are some of the only true examples of the baroque in American cinema, bright colours against dark shadows an irresistible combination in these films of his. As a result, everything from the dark woodland that Helene leads Andre to near danger to the sunny beach coast von Leppe's castle looks over, an opulent castle in itself which naturally has a dank underground family crypt which can be flooded, The Terror certainly has the look and style that made the Poe films so rewarding.

So much so you forget even as tamer films from their era how nasty and macabre Corman's gothic horror stories actually are. In terms of violent content, The Terror has a far more violent scene than many of the films from this period of his in a character having their eyes gouged out by an eagle and then falling off a cliff. Aside from this the plot is as appropriately morbid for a gothic story as you could get as it deals with murder, adultery, a woman getting revenge through witchcraft and bodily possession. If anything, especially with Karloff as strong a charismatic individual as always to safely support his scenes on, The Terror would've worked without being a Poe adaptation with its unconventional original story.

The issue is that Karloff is only in a few scenes and the film drags without a clear magnetic prescience to support it during the plodding periods of dialogue. Even when he wasn't the lead, Vincent Price still was the glue that makes a great deal of the Poe films successful alongside their other virtues. The Terror suffers from a lack of Karloff and how Jack Nicholson is very young and green behind the ears here, perfect to play the bumbling son of Peter Lorre in The Raven but still stepping forwards awkwardly as a lead here, before he became a more charismatic actor, dealing with less than perfect dialogue without enough relish to it. Barring Karloff, the film is deflated in terms of charisma, needed to prick its spirit up but only standing out in its more colourful and macabre moments. Likely the reason The Terror is lesser known is that it's quite a flat, sluggish story in spite of its short feature length and moments of sparkle. As much as Corman is an incredibly talented director and shrewd producer, his tendency to recycle and take advantage of resources didn't necessary always work, and there's moments to The Terror that are fun but does suffer from this.


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