The Tomb of Terror: Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Being an older sibling can be difficult. Your parents fuss and muss over your younger brother or sister. Everything you do is wrong, everything they do is right. This is the situation that Alice Spages (Paula Sheppard, Liquid Sky) finds herself in. She lives with her single mother (Linda Miller, The Green Slime) and younger sister Karen (Brooke Shields, The Blue Lagoon) in working class New York. Alice is a strange girl who takes to hiding out in her apartment building’s basement, where she dons a creepy mask and collects cockroaches. This is the exact opposite of Karen, a young beauty who is the apple of her mother’s eyes. To say that there is a sibling rivalry between the two sisters would be an understatement.
As the film begins, mom is focused on Karen’s upcoming first communion. The family is very connected to the local Catholic church, so much so that they make house visits to the new priest in town, Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich, 9 ½ Weeks). In one of the first scenes, he gives Karen a new crucifix necklace, but of course has nothing for Alice. With how much effort the characters are putting into the first communion and the fact that this is a horror film, you know the event isn’t going to end well.
It is in this communion sequence that Alice, Sweet Alice earns its stripes as a brutal piece of horror filmmaking. As other children make their way from the backroom of the church to the altar, Karen is nowhere to be seen. Her mother looks around the church, but can’t find either of her children. The communion begins and the film cuts to the backroom, where Karen is attacked by a diminutive figure wearing a yellow rain slicker and the mask we saw Alice with earlier. The figure grabs a candle off of the wall and uses it to choke Karen to death. The murder of a child is a shocking enough event, but the movie surprises by not making it an easy death. During the spellbinding sequence, we see the other children receiving the host as the life is slowly squeezed out of Karen. Once her legs stop kicking, the killer shoves her body into a pew and lights it on fire. With this scene the film lets the audience know that it means business and won’t be pulling any punches.
Obviously, since Alice was missing and the killer wore her outfit, we are supposed to believe that she is responsible. The filmmakers go a little over the top trying to convince us of her guilt. The police investigating the death and Alice’s hysterical aunt (Jane Lowry) all repeat incessantly that something is wrong with Alice and that she hated Karen. In one especially ridiculous line reading, a police officer looks into Alice’s personal files at school and says, “This kid is nuts!” I have to give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to murder mysteries. If every bit of evidence points to one character, I always assume that that person isn’t the killer. Even if they played their hand a bit too much in pointing fingers at Alice, I do have to say that the movie is much smarter than one would expect. The revelation of the identity of the killer is a real shock and so are many of the death scenes. Many characters who you expect to be heroes of the story end up meeting the business end of a butcher knife.
It is in these death scenes that director Alfred Sole (1982’s Pandemonium) shows off his filmmaking skills. In most films featuring a small killer, whether it’s a killer doll or creepy kid, you usually have to suspend disbelief that they would be able to take down a grown adult. Sole keeps everything realistic. One of his best devices is to have many of the attack scenes take place in stairways. In the film’s best scene, Alice’s aunt is walking down the stairs when a knife is suddenly jammed into her foot. She hadn’t seen the killer waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs and is caught completely off guard. She falls to the ground, and the killer continues to stab the knife repeatedly into her leg. The commotion causes the neighbors in the apartment building to rush out to see what’s going on. The killer makes a run for it and the aunt crawls out into the street. In a high angle we see rain pouring down on her as she crawls for help, the blood gushing out of her leg forming a disgusting puddle. The scene is so effective because Sole keeps it grounded in reality. There’s no room in this film for a killer with superhuman strength and idiotic characters who walk off by themselves because they need a private place to be slaughtered. In this world, just like in ours, a killer can get the upper hand by finding a smart hiding spot, and attacks don’t always happen in areas devoid of witnesses.
Not everything about the film is perfect though. Sole keeps the direction taught and stylish, but the script he co-wrote with Rosemary Ritvo isn’t always the most subtle. Nearly every supporting character is an over the top caricature, none more so than the aforementioned aunt. She apparently hates Alice because her sister was pregnant with the child before being married. Does that make any sense? There’s also the landlord, Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble, Bloodsucking Freaks), an incredibly obese man whose garbage-covered apartment is overrun with cats and whose gigantic shorts are covered in crusty stains. His scenes are all bizarre and seem to come from a much different and more disturbing movie. The actors don’t do anything to help these extremely written characters. Jane Lowry plays the aunt only at levels of hysteria, while Alphonso DeNoble talks as if he’s trying out for a job as a late night horror host. I’d honestly never seen someone be so over the top as to overact while sleeping, but I’ll be damned if DeNoble doesn’t pull it off.
The other actors do a decent enough job. The adults all just seem to go through the motions and don’t bring much emotion to their characters. The only exception is Rudolph Willrich as Father Tom. He brings a genuine sense of caring to his character, who wants nothing more than for the trouble with his church to come to an end before anyone else gets hurt. The best acting comes from the two young sisters. Brooke Shields has her name plastered all over the cover art of the DVD because she’s now such a big name. What that art doesn’t tell you is that she’s only in the movie for maybe 10 minutes before being killed. In that time she does a good job being a spoiled brat who has everything handed to her. Paula Sheppard didn’t have nearly the career of Shields, but she does a superb job as the troubled Alice. She’s able to simultaneously convey both the pain of being under-appreciated and the possible insanity brewing because of it.
Anyone who’s seen Alice, Sweet Alice knows of the tour-de-force performance given by the killer. I don’t want this review to spoil the surprise, but the character belongs in the pantheon of the best slasher killers. Not only do you completely understand and buy their motivation, but you never feel like the movie was cheating when you think back on the scenes before they were revealed as being crazy. Both of these are tremendous accomplishments that Sole and the actor were able to pull off. Another interesting thing about the killer’s revelation is that it happens at a little over the half-way point in the film. Instead of a monologue explaining motivation during the final scene, we get to spend time with the character after we’ve discovered that they are the killer. This amps up the tension, as the other characters in the film have no idea that the person in the room with them is a psychopath looking to take them out.
When Alice, Sweet Alice was originally released in 1976, it was given glowing reviews by critics and won the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. Since then it has slipped into relative obscurity. This might have something to do with the fact that it was released without a copyright (much like the original Night of the Living Dead) and so it has been released many times in sub-par editions. The title has also been changed more than once, leading to some confusion. Throughout the late 70s and early 80s the film was re-released theatrically every time Brooke Shields had a new hit released. The film has been known as Communion (the director’s preferred title), Holy Terror, and finally as Alice, Sweet Alice.
It isn’t just the film itself that has seemingly disappeared from public view, but also the people involved with it. Most of the actors wouldn’t work in any other major productions and eventually left the business altogether. Alfred Sole would only direct two more feature films before settling into a career as a production designer on TV shows such as “Veronica Mars” and “Castle.” It’s too bad, because all of the best elements of the film come from his script and keen direction. I for one would love to see Sole tackle another horror film. With his first he brought a lot of originality to a genre that seems at times to only exist in cliché. While the film isn’t as fun as many of the slashers that followed, Alice, Sweet Alice remembers that the element of surprise and a sense of reality are integral to making a successful horror film. This is something many of its younger siblings seem to have forgotten.
Final Grade: B
For the best release of Alice, Sweet Alice on disc there are two options. Anchor Bay released a version in 1999 that features a commentary by writer/director Alfred Sole, editor Edward Salier, and Manic Cop director William Lustig. It also came with a photo gallery, cast & crew filmographies, and an alternate credits sequence which showed the film’s title as Communion. This edition has since gone out of print. In 2007, Hen’s Tooth Video re-released the disc and carried over the two most interesting extras, the entertaining commentary and the animated photo gallery. These two releases feature the same transfer for the film, an unfortunately non-anamorphic letterboxed affair replete with bits of print damage throughout.