The Terror Review
You just can't beat Roger Corman's wily old supernatural yarn, The Terror, from 1963. Starring a belligerent and pushy Jack Nicholson as a French officer cut off from his regiment during some parallel universe Napoleonic campaign and winding-up at the gothic cliff-top castle of Boris Karloff's love-lost Baron Victor Von Leppe in the midst of a bizarre set of hauntings, this imaginative quickie packs in an awful lot of mood and atmosphere, some startling visuals and a whole saddlebag full of yearning broken-hearted melodrama. There are lies, deceits, ghosts and phantoms, a quest for revenge and a tragic longing for romantic reunion. A witch, a deadly, eye-eating falcon, a facial melt-down, a ravishing colour-scheme that utterly entrances and an energetic turn from cult-favourite, Dick Miller, as the Baron's devoted servant all conspire to help a really rather contrived and jumbled story rattle along with eerie passion and vigour.
I feel compelled to mention Ronald Stein's score right up front, because that is precisely how it is – right up front. This is the quintessential creepy score so beloved of both the horror and SF genres during the fifties and sixties. With Les Baxter, who scored most of Corman's gothic horrors, acting as his orchestrator and supplying some cues as well, Stein establishes a texture of nerve-jangling redolence from the start. The electric-violin pretends to be a theremin, sliding like musical spider-silk all over the film and conjuring up that delicious though, at times, overpowering sense of the dark and spectral. This is a great score, make no mistake, but I do believe that there will be many who, because of its never-ending presence, will warm to it far less. There is a degree of fingernails being scarped on a blackboard to what Stein does with his haunted instrumentation … but, for me, it is one of the film's strongest elements, and, somewhat surprisingly, The Terror, as amateurish and low-budget as it is, has many strong points.
Just when he is about to collapse on a lost and lonely (though nicely sun-kissed) beach from thirst and exhaustion, Lt. Andre Duvalier (Nicholson) spies a beautiful woman. Hailing her for help, he immediately falls under her spell. Called Helene (Sandra Knight), the woman is vague and mysterious, acting as if encased in limbo. She helps him find fresh water to drink and then seemingly vanishes into the waves that are buffeting a spectral cove in the rocks. Going after her, Andre is attacked by a falcon and passes-out in the surf. When he comes to, he is in the cabin of a kindly old woman (Dorothy Neumann) who urges him to rest and recover. She claims to know nothing about any strange women called Helene, although Andre is a little perturbed to discover that the falcon actually belongs to her. Katrina, the crone, has a supposedly mute companion called Gustav (Jonathan Haze) who indicates to Andre that things around these parts aren't quite what they seem. This is magnified tenfold when the soldier spies the girl again that night and seeks, in vain once more, to further their relationship. Helene mysteriously eludes again. But Andre, lost and adrift both physically and emotionally, does not give up so easily. Against advice, he ventures to the imposing castle high up on the cliff and, seeing Helene in one of the windows, virtually forces his way into the depressed Baron's hospitality.
Obviously, nothing in the castle is straight forward. There is a picture on the wall of Helene but the Baron rather unhelpfully informs Andre that this is actually a portrait of the Baroness Ilsa that he mopes for … now sadly deceased. But, like a dog with a bone, Andre insists upon remaining in the castle to satisfy his own curiosity, against the seemingly good natured concerns of all around him. This impromptu odyssey is compounded all the more when the night finds Andre fraught with inexplicable events and visitations. It all proves too much for his once-trusty horse who bolts from the stable in quite a powerful scene, effectively leaving the soldier stranded in the middle of a nefarious plot that we will find is full of horror, the supernatural and warped revenge.
As hackneyed as all of this is, Corman's film is spirited, merrily malevolent and buoyant with the fantastique … and there is never a dull moment. Which is recommendation enough, as far as I am concerned.
It is the old adult fairytale standard of the stranger happening upon a domain of the weird and the mysterious, and then having to wander around in a vague attempt to unravel an enigma that they really shouldn't be sticking their nose into. Bram Stoker sort of kickstarted this plot off with Jonathan Harker's misadventures in Castle Dracula, although the notion had been toyed with in folklore since the original Beauty And The Beast, and then the idea has taken root and flourished in things such as The Old Dark House, Castle Of Blood, Malpertuis (which was influenced by Corman's work here) and a whole host of haunted mansion escapades. Of course, this trend was also the province of the Western, in which a beleaguered and possibly terrorised town would benefit from the intervention and heroism of a drifter – to wit, Shane, which would then become Yojimbo (the Samurai equivalent) and, by extension, A Fistful Of Dollars. What I like about Corman's somewhat clumsy, mood-infused narrative is that our hero, epitomised by the unlikely Nicholson, isn't actually very nice. Oh, he's no villain, but he can't help rocking the boat for his own ends. Despite being told by all and sundry that there is no girl, and that he should just move on, Andre is steadfast in his determination to get to the bottom of things, even though by doing so he is causing a fair amount of upset. In a way Corman is quite clever about how this guy becomes the audience-conduit simply by bullying his way into a story that was already very much underway before he even chanced upon the situation. This actually makes Andre a very unusual sort of protagonist. Partly, even we want him out of the way. One look at the poor old Baron, pathetically calling out for his lost love, and Andre becomes just an annoyingly nosey neighbour sticking his oar in. Bursting in on the Baron in his chambers, coldly demanding answers about things that, patently, don't even concern him, and threatening all manner of military recriminations if he doesn't get his way. To undermine this fervour, the lieutenant then switches tactics to apologise and to be courteous. You really don't feel able to trust this guy … and you really wouldn't want him to arrive on your doorstep when you're going through some sort of family crisis. And this is the hero we're talking about here!
Although the presence of the great Boris Karloff (or Karloff the Uncanny as thrill-promising distributors still liked to market him at this time) provides some stately genre class to Corman's cheapo ghost-train ride, the Horror Titan was close to the end of his career and he is reduced to simpering regret and wallowing in self-pitying for much of his time as the remorseful Baron. He, Corman and Nicholson had worked together only a matter of weeks before on the great Poe-spoof The Raven, a less grandly gothic chiller about duelling warlocks, and the strain was beginning to tell on the most famous Monster of them all. After this, he would be consigned to little more than walk-on parts, although he still brought strong character to his role in Michael (Witchfinder General) Reeves' melancholy The Sorcerers in 1967 and would continue to crop in low budget horrors into the seventies such as The Curse Of The Crimson Altar and Cauldron Of Blood. Allegedly, Karloff was still contracted to work for Corman for a few more days after his stint on The Raven. So, not prepared to let such a golden opportunity go to waste, the ever-eager movie-maverick swiftly cobbled together the outline for The Terror, ostensibly tweaked into shape by Leo Gordon and Jack Hill, and just let the old boy run with it. Much of what Karloff said during his handful of shooting days was apparently ad-libbed, the same going for Nicholson, who comes up with some rather inept lines throughout. By all accounts the screenplay didn't add up anyway, with at least three different plots all vying for supremacy and something of a macabre stew being the patchwork result that came out at the end. But it was Poe-esque, and that was all that Corman and his legions of drive-in fans required of it.
When I reviewed Lucio Fulci's The Beyond I made reference to how much David Warbeck looked like Jack Nicholson, and watching The Terror now really brings this similarity home. It has to be said that the young Nicholson is an odd looking chap, and quite an unusual choice for a supposedly romantic leading man. You must remember that at the time of making the film, as well as The Raven and the even earlier Little Shop Of Horrors, also for Corman, no-one would have comprehended that the actor would go on to become a bonafide superstar, a very overrated superstar in my opinion, but a superstar nonetheless. What comes across with his admittedly crass performance here is his wry sarcasm. Oh, the screenplay doesn't exactly hand such opportunities to him on a plate, but there is no mistaking that mischievous arrogance that would ensure he was always going to be the smartest, smuggest guy in the frame from this point onwards. And he makes Andre such a pushy little squirt. Is he credible as a Napoleonic officer? Erm … nope. Not in the least. Does this matter, though? Hell, no. Strutting around in his fabulous green and red Chasseur uniform (which somehow manages to take turns looking either cool or looking idiotic), his head like a little self-aware anachronism on his shoulders, he looks like the idiot who turns up at the “regular” party in fancy dress, but this seems to suit his fish-out-of-water and rebellious attitude perfectly. “Oh, I'm in a French officer's tunic? Really? I hadn't noticed,” you can imagine his older self drawling sarcastically. The fact that he was married to Sandra Knight at the time doesn't intrude upon the weird, all-or-nothing rapport that the characters strike up in the film. But, in his intention to be as naturalistic as possible, given the queer circumstances that he finds himself in, Nicholson overplays the head-twitching and perplexed expressions of being forced to run around a ghostly castle with strange sights and sounds assailing him at every turn. It is also clearly obvious that he is running around the same corner several times over … and that he is continually forced to slow down because there is a bloody big camera in the way.
Genre-fans always enjoy seeing the great Dick Miller in a movie. Here, he gets quite a substantial part as the loyal Stefan, which even allows him to indulge in a fist-flinging fight sequence. Miller's Brooklyn accent doesn't jibe half as much as it ought to do, and he does have something that is instantly charismatic about him, despite that perpetual hangdog and exasperated expression.
Much of the film is spent gliding through the expansive sets for the castle, the crypt and the graveyard – and this is wonderful. Corman always made terrific use of his limited environments, literally incorporating them as both storytelling devices and characters in their own right. In this case, the sets were left over from The Raven, which had barely even wrapped. His lighting style was always something to savour in these Gothic chillers, and The Terror is certainly no exception. Coloured filters drape across the proceedings, making even the most drab and dreary mausoleum a thing of exquisite beauty. The spinning lantern in the witch's cabin adds a hypnotic glamour. And the camerawork, itself, from Monte Hellman, who handled all of the spooky interiors, is often extremely arresting. There are some wonderful compositions made that genuinely seem to be inviting you into the film. One such shot makes tremendous foreground use of a big stone archway in the castle that acts as a curved lid above the figures moving about within the room. Whilst I would normally say that the exterior shots in an early Corman picture would be banal and unimaginative, that is most certainly not the case here. He has John Nicholaus (who was in charge of the exteriors) use that Californian coastline, full of bays and coves, very well indeed. The bright sunny appeal of these rugged and secluded inlets acting as the perfect contrast to the dark menace of the castle and its crypt. The first time we see Nicholson's disenfranchised trooper riding along the shore, our view coming from up high on the cliffs, it makes us think of Charlton Heston as he makes that staggering shell-shock of a discovery at the end of The Planet Of The Apes. If this shot inspired Franklyn J. Schaffner in any way, then, once again, we have Roger Corman to thank. He also finds a beautiful tunnel carved by nature into the rocks that plays a beguiling part in the mystery of Helene. Juan Antonio Bayona expanded upon this captivating visual treat in his own haunting story, The Orphanage, for when a ghostly figure is half-glimpsed by a sea-cave. Corman also adds some more fantastic animated titles, courtesy of Paul Julian, who supplied similar duties on the producer/director's Attack Of The Crab Monsters and Not Of This Earth, as well as for Dementia 13 for Francis Ford Coppola (which was, again, under the protective wing of Roger Corman). The underground crypt that Julian depicts is like a cross between Bela Lugosi's in Tod Browning's original Dracula and the one seen in Bava's Black Sunday. Check out the way that the sinister custodian of the dungeon becomes a bag of bones and his tri-corn hat collapses onto empty, dead shoulders.
Shock-wise, Corman offers us a few knee-jerk instances, but what is more interesting is his evident glee at presenting us with a falcon-clawed face, the still-living victim's eyes very gorily plucked from their sockets as he stumbles blindly around a cliff-top. The sixties were in full swing and Hammer had already given audiences “buckets of blood” (of the home-grown Kensington variety) and Mario Bava, to whom Corman owes a massive debt, had stunned audiences with his brutally explicit opening to Black Sunday (aka The Mask Of Satan) in 1960. Violence in movies – even mainstream ones such as Psycho – was becoming far nastier and much more graphic. The Terror is not a nasty film, however. It thrives more on its ghostly tone and dreamy atmosphere of dread and unease, which is why suddenly grim scenes such as this one become all the more effective.
Corman was the man who introduced Francis Ford Coppola to the world of film-making. Here, Coppola served as a producer but, as is well known, when Corman had to scarper off to helm his next project (the terrific Poe/Lovecraft combo, The Haunted Palace with regular Vincent Price), the future auteur took over the directing reins. But then so did Jack Nicholson, and Jack Hill and Monte Hellman who all took a stint calling the shots. It is testament to the flow of the tale and the overriding ambience of it all that these baton-changes are not signposted. Whoever stood at the wheel, this is a Corman picture, through and through.
The Terror neatly merges with many of Corman's Poe-inspired cauldron-boilers. A gloomy and haunted old house populated by a manically depressive patriarch whose bitter past is determined to catch up with him. A love betrayed and desperate acts committed that weigh heavily. Interlopers blundering into the path of a terrible and predestined course. Ghastly secrets to be unearthed in the shadowy confines of ancestral crypts, and buildings that become metaphors for the anguished labyrinths of the mind. It's all here, the format that Corman had worked to since The Fall Of The House Of Usher happily adhered to with all the cut-price relish that he and his ever-adaptable team could muster. These films all have a unique atmosphere and a visual style that will forever be appreciated and admired. Above all, they reveal that vast budgets and technical wizardry is not always required to create something that is supremely entertaining and imaginative. The Terror is not the best that Corman came up with during this audacious early run, but it is certainly a bravura and visceral exercise in what made this cycle so special and memorable. Fans of Nicholson will get a blast out of seeing how the icon began to sow the seeds of a persona that many revere. Fans of Karloff will enjoy seeing the grand master of the macabre prowling around dark tunnels and crypts, where he belongs, and there are certainly some little lingering grins that he produces that remind of the good old days for Universal. And fans of the grand old gothic style will find plenty of brooding menace and dark romance with which to smother themselves.
Dreamy, illogical and demented, The Terror is no classic … but it is great fun, albeit on a very obvious shoestring. It is frequently hailed as a low-rent loser, but this really isn't the case. If you enjoy the other entries in Corman's sixties canon of cursed occult chillers, then I am sure that you will enjoy this too.