Alice Sweet Alice. 1976. Directed by Alfred Sole. Screenplay by Rosemary Ritvo & Sole.
Starring Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, Lillian Roth, Brooke Shields, Niles McMaster, & Jane Lowry.
Rated R. 98 minutes.
Alice Sweet Alice has been released as Communion and also Holy Terror. There were lots of worries about what the film might do to the religious community. Poor Catholics were worried because of how it made them look. Rightfully so, as Alfred Sole’s underrated 1976 slasher takes brutal shots at the Roman Catholic Church through juxtaposition of murder and Christian iconography.
From the haunting opening credits – a whispered prayer, sweeping music, as well as the creepy image of someone stabbing with a knife and the bloodily written title scrawled down the screen – to the last chilling shot, this is a great bit of horror cinema. With homage to a genre classic, plus plenty of eerie mystery and a strong resemblance to Italian giallos, Alice Sweet Alice brings the business. More often than not people discount this slasher. Either they think it’s no good, not strong enough, or they don’t realise how good it is at the core. Part of the charm is in the ambiguity. Even when you think the film is headed toward its finish, the killer all figured out, you can never be sure
All we can know positively is that people die.
Is Alice the killer? Is it somebody else? And in the name of God; why?
The biggest target of Sole’s slasher is clearly Catholicism. First of all, Karen (Brooke Shields) is killed in church; this is our big plot point which kicks everything off. It’s not enough that the murder takes place within the church walls, Sole makes sure to start in on the Christian iconography. After the masked murderer kills Karen, dragging her body, we see the looming face of Jesus on the cross – a crucifix hangs above, Jesus’ pain-filled face looking down. As if religion in that moment is helpless, unable to actually save anybody; the statue as effective as Catholicism itself. Later, there’s even a drop of dark humour. Aunt Annie (Jane Lowry) insists on getting to mass on time, superseding her sister Catherine’s (Linda Miller) crying over the death of her daughter; darkly funny, especially how Lowry plays the scene (she is amazing in general as the hysterical aunt). No time for emotion when you’re running late for church. That Catholic guilt and rigidity come out, full force.
One of the real frightening scenes involving the Christian symbols is when the killer calls Catherine. Only briefly do we see them, hidden in shadow and holding a telephone receiver. Nearby are the symbols: a red cross on a candle holder and what looks like an small angel statuette. Literally, Sole shows us how the killer is steeped in Roman Catholicism.
Sole hired his friend William Lustig to take care of the bloody practical effects during the murderous scenes; this was four years prior to Lustig giving us the demented Maniac. He did amazing stuff, as well as worked in the capacity of assistant cameraman. Some mad moments make for nice slasher sub-genre fare. For instance, Annie’s stabbing on the stairs is nasty and well edited, too. Her crawl into the rainy street, screaming, is especially memorable. Nice, vivid blood. Dom (Niles McMaster) gets himself a knife to the shoulder, followed by a truly gruesome bludgeoning to the head with a rock. Savage. Not only that, the shots afterwards are so tense. The killer pushes Dom, slow and agonising, and rolls him, tied, over the side of a building – when Dom hits the ground it’s sickening, against a bunch of glass, and then eerily a faded reflection of the killer is visible. All around the violence of the movie is brutal and rough, yet it’s stylised. Perhaps that’s the biggest reason many critics and reviewers have compared this to the Italian giallo films of Dario Argento and others.
A hugely enjoyable element for me is the fact Sole references Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – masterful cinema, a haunting one at that. The yellow St. Michael’s raincoat we see Alice (Paula Sheppard), the killer, and other girls wearing is a parallel to the slick red raincoat that pops up again and again in the Roeg film. Moreover, the coat serves as a way to throw us off, and the characters. Like yellow herrings.
I’ve got to say that Paula Sheppard – Alice – was downright fantastic. Her acting was frantic in the right moments, calm in others. What I didn’t know the first time I saw this film is that Sheppard was actually nineteen play twelve. That’s probably why she has a sense of maturity about her while playing a young, lost girl. So much good writing goes into the character, little bits and pieces we’re never given exposition on totally but play out in the eyes of little Alice. And there’s also Alphonso De Noble, who plays the paedophile landlord Alphonso – there are a couple stories on this one, the most reliable being director Alfred Sole came across him pretending to be a priest in a cemetery and cast him in the movie. Regardless of how he was found, De Noble plays the character to utterly bizarre effect. Not a major character, he does add a strange quality which works.
There’s much to love in this slasher. It’s one of my favourites, one I find actually close to the perfect sub-genre flick. With Sole injecting lots of anti-Catholic sentiment, Lustig providing gnarly gore, on top of enjoyable acting, Alice Sweet Alice – Communion, Holy Terror, whichever title you see it under – has a horde of likeable qualities. Sure, it’s a very early Brooke Shields movie. There’s a manic performance out of Jane Lowry. But the horror is visceral, it feels real and terrifying. Prominently placing Catholic iconography in certain frames, Sole does violence to the idea that Christ is the redeemer of anything; least of all our sins.
I’ll leave you with this: judging by the almost fourth-wall-breaking final shot, can we say for sure the murderer is caught? Or did Alice use the murders to pass of her own attempted murder on Aunt Annie? Or, are we seeing the literal carrying on of the killer, as Alice walks away with the murderer’s bag, bloody knife and all? I only wonder where Alice ended up years later. If someone could give us a sequel, I imagine her all grown up and living in the city, confused about herself, her religious belief. And who knows how she’d work it all out…