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June 10, 2011

Movie Review: The Terror (1963)

Directed by Roger Corman, among several others
The Terror, a one-off feature from director Roger Corman that doesn't really fit in with his Edgar Allen Poe series, makes no sense whatsoever. Starring Boris Karloff and a very young Jack Nicholson, the feature was notoriously flung together in three days in order to take advantage of the sets for The Raven (1963) before they were demolished.

In early 19th century France, Lieutenant Andre Duvalier (Nicholson) has been separated from his regiment in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. He sees a ghostly young woman (Nicholson's then-wife Sandra Knight) wandering by the roaring coastline. Ignoring his request for directions, the mute woman leads him towards the sea, where she vanishes beneath the waves. Andre loses consciousness and awakes in the house of an old woman (Dorothy Neumann) who claims to have never seen the woman.

Nicholson sees the woman again, and is told by a man (Jonathan Haze) that in order to help her, he must go to castle of Baron Von Leppe (Karloff). Upon his arrival, the elderly Leppe is reluctant to let the soldier interrupt his solitude until Nicholson sees a painting on the wall that portrays the spectral beauty – revealed to be the Baron's wife, Ilsa, who died twenty years ago.

Karloff later confesses to having killed his wife when he returned unexpectedly to find her in the arms of another man. Nicholson sets out to uncover the truth, leading to an apocalyptic finale with a flooded castle and Knight doused with butterscotch sauce. Yum!

Unlike Corman's other miracles of production efficiency, A Bucket of Blood (1960) and Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Terror's three-day shooting schedule is painfully evident. The photography by John M. Nickolaus frequently slides out of focus, and the sound recording, recorded on location is frequently muffled. In addition to Corman, Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Hill among others are reputed to have taken turns at directing the film. The script by Hill and Leo Gordon introduces plot points with no follow-up. Quite literally, The Terror is a hasty pudding with far too many chefs.

The Terror's most glaring deficit is the performances by all the principals. Karloff phoned in his performance, the young Nicholson's lack of acting chops is painfully apparent, and Corman regular Dick Miller, as Karloff' faithful European manservant just doesn't cut it with his distinct Brooklyn accent. Sandra Knight is kept largely silent in her role as the vengeful wraith, and for good reason; her voice has a distinct Oklahoma/Texas drawl with more than a dash of San Fernando Valley speak. The absolute worst performance in The Terror belongs to Seymour Krelboin himself, Jonathan Haze. Both eyes plucked out by a hawk, Haze shows no emotion whatsoever as he stumbles around with bloody, empty sockets before plunging off a cliff.

Consigned to countless public domain releases, The Terror does have undeniable cache with performances from a late career Karloff and just-beginning Jack Nicholson. The Terror was reportedly an unpleasant experience for all concerned. Corman's name was not to be uttered in Karloff's presence forever afterwards due to a pay dispute, and Nicholson and Knight divorced shortly after the film was completed. One wonders what Karloff's feelings were when clips from The Terror were used as the film-within-a-film of his valedictorian film performance in Targets (1968)!
The Terror does strike the occasional poetical image every now and then, and features a climactic flood, in lieu of fire to send the castle into oblivion, which was the typical conclusion for the Corman feature of this era. In the climactic scene, Karloff, Knight and Miller are doused with a fire hose as seawater floods the castle, which certainly couldn't have endeared Corman to the 70-plus-year-old Karloff! In addition, eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot the stone bricks used for the castle set floating in the water like rubber duckies.

People that are drawn to view The Terror due to the participation of Karloff, Nicholson and Corman should definitely go in with lowered expectations.

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