AMERICAN GIALLO: Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Bill Van Ryn writes the film blog Groovy Doom, admins the Facebook page of the same name, and publishes the horror and exploitation fanzine DRIVE-IN ASYLUM

Alfred Sole’s 1976 horror thriller Alice, Sweet Alice is that rare horror flick that contains several twists and turns, yet holds onto its ability to shock and disturb even after the surprises are known. Be warned, in talking about this fantastic film and its creepy, multilayered pleasures, I will reveal the identity of the killer.

Catherine Spages (Linda Miller) is divorced from her ex-husband, Dom (Niles McMaster). She lives in a tenement apartment building with their two daughters, Alice (Paula Shepard) and Karen (Brooke Shields). Aside from the pressure of raising the girls without her husband, Catherine is challenged by the rivalry between them; twelve-year-old Alice seems resentful of the attention that her younger sister gets. She terrorizes Karen in a number of ways, including frightening her with a Halloween mask, stealing the girl’s favorite doll, and manhandling the veil Karen is to wear on her first Holy Communion. The parish’s handsome young priest, Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) also gives Karen a lovely family heirloom rosary as a gift, furthering Alice’s motivations for antagonizing her sister.

The family and the parish are shaken when Karen is murdered on the day of her first communion. She is attacked by a small figure wearing a child’s yellow raincoat and a mask, the same Halloween mask that Alice possesses; after strangling the child to death, the killer hides her body inside a chest and sets it on fire. Devastated by the loss of her daughter, Catherine’s emotional state begins to unravel, leaving Alice even more unstable than before. Could she be responsible?

Of course the movie toys with this idea, and Alice herself is a fascinating character, memorably played by actress Paula Sheppard. Sheppard only appeared in one other film, the 1984 cult classic Liquid Sky, before turning her back on acting and leading a private life. Here, she is the dark core of the film, an ambiguous character who veers between a glowering menace and a frightened child. The story captures her during a moment of passage into young adulthood, ultimately demonstrating the ways that adult conflicts can affect the course of a child’s development. Older than her sister, Alice is affected more deeply by the separation of her parents. Often silent and sullen, she is possibly even dangerous, as evidenced by a scene where she seems to kill a kitten with her bare hands when her lecherous landlord tries to molest her. Most likely, the story establishes these characteristics in Alice so that we believe she could indeed be responsible for the murder of her sister, as well as a violent stabbing attack that is carried out on her manipulative, overbearing aunt Annie (wonderfully characterized by actress Jane Lowry with all the exaggerated shock tactics of a drag queen).

Alice, however, is not the film’s killer. In a twist that predates the sudden arrival of Mrs. Voorhees at the conclusion of Friday the 13th, Mildred Clinton emerges as the mad slasher who carries out her violent revenge on those around her that she deems wicked. She plays Mrs. Tredoni, the rectory’s housekeeper, who we learn had a young daughter who died on the day of her First Holy Communion (shades of Friday the 13th again). Further defying expectations is the fact that the reveal isn’t made at the end, but with the final third still ahead.  She pulls off the mask for a reveal just as she murders Dominic, a character we may have thought would be the hero of the movie. Mrs. Tredoni’s motivations for carrying out this bizarre form of revenge stem from many places; in retrospect, we can see that she targeted Catherine because she considers her a ‘whore’ due to her divorce. Also, she feels a desire to see her own loss of a child inflicted on another woman. She dresses like Alice during the attacks in order to throw suspicion on her, perhaps recognizing that Alice is also a ‘bad’ girl. But also, Mrs. Tredoni harbors a love for the handsome Father Tom that may go beyond her devotion to the church. After murdering Karen, she reclaims the rosary that Father Tom gave her, a clue that Dominic takes to his death by using his teeth to pull it off the crazed woman and swallowing it.

Mrs. Tredoni is one distorted character, but yet another is Catherine’s obese landlord, portrayed by Alphonso DeNoble. With ghoulish circles under his eyes, pale white skin, and a tendency to talk to his cats in a high falsetto voice, DeNoble nearly steals the show. Jane Lowry, as Aunt Annie, also makes a meal out of the scenery, playing a shrewish woman who serves as yet another bad role model for Alice Spages. Annie addresses everyone in the film as if she’s a schoolteacher talking to a petulant student, and orders her weakling husband around like a drill instructor. Linda Miller as Catherine possesses few of these overblown qualities, herself being the ‘normal’ woman surrounded by horrible people—one of whom wants to destroy her life.

One intense moment in the film is a good indicator of the film’s haunting tone; Catherine comes to the rectory to wait for her ex-husband, who has been helping her cope with the loss of their daughter. She’s welcomed by Mrs. Tredoni, who we know has just murdered the man, but she has trouble keeping up a pleasant facade with Catherine, and grows increasingly agitated. While revealing her own tragic past, she suddenly picks up a large knife and casually aims it directly at Catherine. Moments later, news arrives of Dominic’s murder, and Mrs. Tredoni relishes Catherine’s screams of anguish.

The film’s horrifying climax furthers the contrast between Alice and Mrs. Tredoni, positioning them as similar personalities at different stages in their development as monsters. Having been spotted and identified by police at the scene of her latest crime, Mrs. Tredoni is pursued to the church, where Father Tom is saying mass and just about to give communion. At his own request, the detectives allow Father Tom to try to convince Mrs. Tredoni to go quietly with them. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of refusing her communion after giving it to Catherine. Mrs. Tredoni, now furious beyond reason, pulls the large butcher knife out of her shopping bag and plunges it into Tom’s throat. Tom dies in Mrs. Tredoni’s arms as the police close in, and in the ensuing horror and panic, Alice slips away with Mrs. Tredoni’s shopping bag containing the murder weapon. These events have almost certainly shaped Alice for the worse, perhaps beginning a new cycle of trauma, anguish and revenge.

The movie was conceived and originally released as Communion, which is the title of the tie-in novelization. It returned in a limited release as The Mask Murders in 1977, and then was released more widely as Alice, Sweet Alice in 1978. It returned in 1981 with yet another title, Holy Terror, featuring an ad campaign that played up Brooke Shields’ brief appearance in the film, despite the fact that she was about 10 when she made it (and the image of Shields in the ad was current!). Shot in New Jersey, the strange editing, sound design and overall look of the film is that of a European giallo.  The fact that it’s a period piece set in the early 1960s may also have something to do with the fact that it appears to be a European production, as if the film is a foreign storyteller’s take on American angst and terror. It also draws a few themes from Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 Don’t Look Now, namely the use of yellow raincoats, a diminutive adult female killer who disguises herself as a little girl, and the climactic throat slashing with rivers of blood.

The movie is not European, however, and director Sole actually grew up in New Jersey, although he did study architecture in Italy. Like the best horror directors, Sole takes familiar elements (working class families and the culture of Catholicism) and distorts them into grotesque caricatures to disturb and unnerve the audience. This slightly askew viewpoint, along with the performances Sole gets from his able cast, goes a long way in achieving that elusive goal of turning a seemingly ordinary world into a nightmare landscape. It’s a shame he didn’t keep going as a director; frustrated by industry politics, he abandoned directing in 1982, choosing instead to make a long career for himself as a production designer. I’d have loved to have seen him continue making films with modest budgets and the generous imagination he displays in Alice, Sweet Alice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.