Alfred Sole was an architect who dreamed of making movies. His first film, 1972’s Deep Sleep, which starred Deep Throat‘s Harry Reems and The Devil In Ms. Jones‘ Georgina Spelvin, was made for only $25,000. However, it was ruled obscene and pulled from theaters. His second film — the one we’re about to cover — may not have done well at first thanks to spotty distribution, but thanks to Brooke Shields’ popularity and multiple re-releases under multiple titles, like Holy Terror, Communion and The Mask Murders.
Sole wrote the film with his neighbor Rosemary Ritvo, an English professor who he often discussed films with. A Catholic herself, they would often talk at length about the church in between discussing theater and horror films. Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now was a huge influence, as is obvious by the yellow raincoat worn by the film’s villain.
The film is set in 1961 Paterson, New Jersey, the hometown of the director, and as such much of it was based on his childhood. In fact, Mrs. Tredoni is directly based on a woman who lived next door to his grandmother who would look after the priests.
While Sole claims he had never seen any giallo before he made this, Alice, Sweet Alice is perhaps the most giallo of all American films before DePalma would make Dressed to Kill.
The film begins with Catherine Spages (Linda Miller, the daughter of Jackie Gleason and the mother of Jason Patric) visits Father Tom with her two daughters, nine-year-old Karen (Shields) and twelve-year-old Alice, who are students of St. Michael’s Parish Girls’ School. Father Tom gives Karen his mother’s crucifix as a gift for her first communion, making Alice jealous.
Alice is a wild child, her hair barely tied back, constantly in trouble for all manner of mischief. Is she a bad girl or just a misunderstood little girl dealing with the specter of her parents’ divorce in 1961, a time when this rarely happened and in a heavily Catholic neighborhood where this would surely be judged? Her antics include wearing a clear mask and repeatedly frightening and threatening her sister.
This all ends on the day of Karen’s first communion, when someone in the same school raincoat and mask as Alice kidnaps the young girl, strangles her, rips the crucifix from her neck and then sets her body on fire inside a church pew. This is insanely brutal and allows the viewer to know that this is not a movie prepared to take it easy on you.
At the same time, Alice enters the room and attempts to get communion while wearing her sister’s veil. It’s never really established as to where she found it and whether or not she knew it belonged to her sister. There are no easy answers here.
Catherine’s ex-husband Dominick comes back for the funeral and fulfills the giallo role of stranger pushed into becoming the detective. Detective Spina takes over the case, pursuing the lead that Alice is the killer thanks to the suspicions of Catherine’s sister Annie. This lead is helped when the killer attacks Annie and Alice is found at the scene, wearing the same clothes.
Alice is sent to a psychiatric institution where it’s revealed that she’s been in trouble numerous times in school, a fact that Father Tom has concealed as he believed he could solve her problems.
The killer tightens her noose around Alice’s neck by luring her father to an abandoned building where she gets the jump on him, beating him with a brick, binding his body and pushing him off a ledge. Before he dies, he’s able to swallow the crucifix that the killer had stolen from his daughter. That’s also when we learn who the killer is, way before the film is over: it’s Tredoni, who sees Dominick and Catherine — and by extension their children — as sinners due to their premarital sex and divorce.
Alice may have been eliminated as a person of interest, but the danger remains. On a visit to Father Tom, Catherine learns that Tredoni lost a daughter on the day of her first communion, which taught her that children pay for the sins of their parents. In her grief, she gave herself over to the church. Her feelings about her calling are confirmed when Father Tom misunderstands her confession.
Finally, Alice’s scheme to leave cockroaches all over frightening landlord Mr. Alphonso neatly ties into Tredoni sneaking in to kill either her, Catherine or both of them. Alphonso is stabbed and the mad older woman runs to the church. Father Todd assures the police he can handle her, but even his mercy and the teachings of the church fail in the face of mania.
The end of this movie shocked me out of my theater seat. It’s visceral in its intensity and the end — where Alice walks away — is even more harrowing.
In these post-#metoo times, Alice takes on a whole new light. Nearly every male in the movie treats her blossoming womanhood as an invitation, from the lie detector operator who says that when he bound her breasts with the machine it looked like she wanted it to the guard at the children’s home who silently watches her as she meets with her parents. Perhaps even more disquieting is that Paula E. Sheppard, who plays Alice, was 19 when this was made. Her only other film appearance is in the equally bizarre Liquid Sky.
Alphonso DeNoble, who plays the grotesque Mr. Alphonso would also appear in a film that tested every teen in my small hometown, Blood Sucking Freaks. While his main career was a bouncer at a gay bar, his side hustle Alphonso was to dress up as a priest and hang around cemeteries, where widows would ask for a blessing and he’d indulge them for a monetary donation
This film truly lives up to the ninth Satanic Statement: Satan has been the best friend the Church has ever had, as He has kept it in business all these years! And the Satanic Sin of Herd Mentality is obvious. To quote from the actual Chruch, “…only fools follow along with the herd, letting an impersonal entity dictate to you.”
Also, Alice posits that even the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church of 1961 was finding itself ill-equipped to understand the modern world and that people — from the old like Tredoni to the young like Alice — would suffer. Mostly, in the Church, it’s women that do most of that suffering, constantly propping up the male members yet never able to ascend to the power of the clergy, unless they want to be second best sisters.
Even 43 years after its debut, Alice Sweet Alice has the power to destroy. It’s a near perfect film that demands introspection and multiple viewings.