Director: Roger Corman (collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola, among others)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff
Tagline: “DRACULA”… “FRANKENSTEIN”… “HOUSE of WAX”… “PIT and the PENDULUM”… and now The TERROR
MPAA Rating: unrated
Genre: suspense, mystery, ghost, haunting, witchcraft
Scare score: C-
Late on a Sunday night after an exhausting weekend was the perfect time to watch this horror ‘classic’, a hefty title for a film that doesn’t quite stand out in memory as much as, say, Dracula or Frankenstein. It was difficult rating this film given its production in 1963 and one’s automatic expectations of modern horror films, so I tried to take a step back, put myself in my 1960’s horror shoes, and enjoy the ride.
Plot overview: Set in an undetermined European coastal country (French Empire? Modern-day Bulgaria? Romania?) in 1806, French lieutenant Andre Duvalier (Nicholson) has been separated from his regiment and is found “weary and disillusioned” on the beach. Here he first meets mysterious beauty Helene (Sandra Knight) and becomes enraptured by her looks. After she inexplicably disappears (she does this a lot throughout the film) into the water, Andre is attacked by a very angry hawk (a la The Birds) and passes out for the second time in the first 10 minutes of the movie. When he comes to, he is in the care of an old woman (Dorothy Neumann) who nurses him back to health with a homemade potion from her sketchy lab-setup. She is also mysterious (as is every single character in the movie, except for the flat, 1-dimensional Andre), leaving our protagonist with more questions than answers, specifically centered around the whereabouts and disputed existence of Helene, and a now mild-mannered hawk under the witch’s, er, old woman’s care. At this point the plot takes a turn down the road of The Wicker Man as Andre searches the area, following clues to discover the truth about Helene, who he has now seen [mysteriously] on several occasions. His search leads him to the spooky, run-down castle of the elderly Baron von Leppe (Karloff), who lives in a self-sentenced solitude with his hot tempered servant, Stefan (Dick Miller). Andre quickly learns that the visions of Helene he has been seeing is the ghost of the Baron’s wife Ilsa, who has been dead for 20 years. Her brutal murder took place at the hands of her own husband, who returned from war to find her with another man, Eric, who we are told was killed by Stefan alongside the unfaithful Baroness. The Baron admits that Ilsa’s ghost has been haunting him for two years, urging him to commit suicide and join her eternally.
Little by little, with Andre’s meddling and all of the other creepy characters’ mysterious revealings, we learn that Ilsa’s spirit has been brought back (questionably in Helene’s body) by the local witch (Eric’s mom!) to lure the guilty and self-loathing Baron into death and avenge Eric’s murder as well. Drama, confusion, and scares wait around every corner.
Again, the quality of this un-remastered movie made it a bit difficult for me to get into, so I had to keep reminding myself to float back to 1963. While the plot itself is pretty understandable with lots of little twists, I found the movie to be generally confusing, filled with too many scenes of characters running around in the dark, in the woods, in the castle, in the crypt, on the beach, and too many mysterious characters popping in and out, leaving us with more questions than answers until the very end. The effects are not great (1963, Horror Buff, 1963!), including some presumably animated background drops that took me straight back to the good old days of Scooby Doo. I did rather enjoy the make up of the corpse we see in the middle of the film, the bloody-and-blinded-by-the-hawk minor character shortly before his convincing fall off a cliff, and the gruesomely decaying face at the end of the film. These provided some small scares that were certainly entertaining, and I can only imagine were very frightful for audiences at its debut.
I can’t say I was a fan of Jack Nicholson in this movie. Everybody else in the film is a convincing actor and an interesting character, except for our boring and even annoying protagonist, Andre. Nicholson takes on one mode the entire time as a rather angry and unfazed military officer trying to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the mysterious beauty he has his eyes on. His lines are delivered poorly, his acting is unconvincing, and his reactions to the twists and turns of the plot are non-existent.
From the moment Stefan, devoted servant to the Baron, begins to have long lines, I immediately found myself guessing what borough of New York City the actor Dick Miller was from. Not to my surprise in the least, this Bronx native brings his very Bronx-y persona to this character, again, a peasant in Europe in 1806. Hmm. I wonder, however, if this was on purpose because Dick Miller was such a personality at the time. Other than his quick-talking, short-tempered Bronx flare, Miller did a great job, and any viewer can relate to his character, who would do anything to protect his old master…including dying for him.
Karloff is excellent in his role, as we are led to believe, of the Baron Victor Frederick von Leppe, an old man of questionable mental fortitude, haunted by his personal ghosts and a very real one as well. An absolute icon to the classic horror film industry, Karloff’s Baron is both a character we can sympathize with and suspect of any and all wrong-doing that surrounds the plot of this film until we learn more about his true identity towards the end, and by that point, salvation from damnation is just too late.
Final critique: To appreciate this film, you need to be okay with the poor quality and sometimes kitschy set, plot, and overall feel of the production. In the movie’s defense, I will beat the dead horse and mention again that some 60’s films tend to have a cheesy feeling about them anyway. A modern remake, even one retaining the time period of Napoleon’s Europe, of this movie could be really frightening. I can’t get over my disappointment with Nicholson’s acting or lack thereof, but luckily he is more so a tool that helps unravel the plot for us to enjoy. The ghost aspect of the film: a will-less, vengeful spirit under the control of an even more vengeful witch, was pretty cool since I wasn’t even expecting the ghost to turn out to be real in the end. Some of the confusion could have been easily eliminated via clearer scenes and small changes to simplify the plot. The period was fun and different as far as most horror films go, sets were impressive overall, and all the characters (besides Lieutenant Devalier) were interesting and tragic in their own ways, adding depth and credit to the film. To bring up the movie poster (seen above) for a second, I really have no idea how all those people in a web apply to this movie at all… very random. The tagline, as well, isn’t very creative, and in fact I’m not reminded of Dracula et all after having watched this film. But that type of tagline does evoke thoughts of cinema in the 50’s, and we must remember that this was advertisement in the 60’s (Don Draper, even). Lastly, the title of the film kind of sucks. When I hear ‘the terror’ I imagine some devilish force, not just an attractive ghost commanded by a witch who in reality is pretty friendly, and in that case I’m still assuming that the ‘terror’ refers to Ilsa/ Helene. Why not “The Baroness’ Ghost” or “The Haunting of Castle von Leppe: Eternal Love, Eternal Damnation” (by now you’ve guessed I’m not in Hollywood writing movie scripts), or anything that gives us some preview as to what the film is actually about? Anywho, I appreciated the small scares throughout the movie, although they were certainly not too scary for me watching this alone late at night in a dark house. That being said, I’d recommend this movie to anybody, especially to those who scare easily, if they find the time to sit back and watch this somewhat suspenseful, somewhat grainy horror classic.