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An Overlooked Horror Classic
Director: Alfred Sole
Cast: Paula Sheppard, Brooke Shields, Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, Niles McMaster, Rudolph Willrich, Jane Lowry
Release Date: November 13, 1976
Twelve year old Alice Spages (Paula E. Sheppard) has always hated and been jealous of her little sister Karen (Brooke Shields, in her acting debut), so when Karen is found murdered in a Catholic church on the day of her first communion, it seems logical that all eyes point to the young girl.
What's Good About the Movie?:
Let me go ahead and get one thing out of the way: Alice Sweet Alice is a dark, effective, and ultimately haunting horror film, and I am highly recommending it. However, I feel obligated to inform you that while the movie is not as bloody or exploitative as other films in this genre, the scene where 9 year old Karen is murdered is certainly bound to upset many viewers. Anyone who knows me knows that I get squeamish when it comes to child endangerment, and in Alice Sweet Alice, we actually do see a masked killer sneak up behind the young child, strangle her to death with her communion candle, drag her body and stuff it inside a bench compartment, and set it on fire. It is a very upsetting scene, and made all the more disturbing by the way director Alfred Sole approaches it.
Sole inter cuts the murder with a scene in the chapel where a number of children are kneeling before the alter, ready to receive their first communion. A woman in the church choir sings a hymn during the communion. The church hymn is used to score Karen's murder. The sounds of Karen choking are played over the scene in the church. This scene didn't just upset me, it worked its way deep under my skin and struck me to my very soul. It also casts an eerie spell over the remainder of the film. Throughout the rest of the movie, it's almost impossible not to think about Karen. It's almost like she haunts every scene, so that when young Alice claims to have seen her dead sister lurking in the stairway of her apartment complex, terrorizing members of her family, we don't doubt her (although we might ask why, if it is indeed young Karen, she's suddenly turned psychotic, especially since she was seen as such a sweet and innocent, if a little too whiny, little girl in the opening scenes).
Karen's death is a very well directed, very effective scene. It disturbs and works its way under your skin, which is exactly what a horror movie should do. The thing about any movie where a child is victimized is that we in the audience need to know that we're being shown such an unpleasant image for a reason. If a filmmaker decides to show me a scene where an innocent child is strangled to death, then their movie better by God have a reason behind it. Fortunately, Alice Sweet Alice does. This is not just an exploitative shock fest; the film is carried by a surprisingly layered story, and Sole's need to tell it.
To reveal the themes of the film and the way the story supports them would require me to spoil many of the unpredictable story turns, and for those who haven't seen the film, I refuse to do it. One of the many surprises to be had while watching the film is to see the many thoughtful and interesting places the movie chooses to go. What I can do is note what the movie does right in terms of characters and scares. The character of twelve year old Alice is well handled and played convincingly by Paula E. Sheppard (who looked like a 12 year old but was really 19 when the movie was made. According to IMDB, she should be nearing 54, which means she probably looks 27 now). Yet even more compelling than young Alice is her mother Catherine, played by Linda Miller in a performance of convincing inner anguish. We feel her pain over Karen's death, her frustration as it seems everyone is a little too eager to point fingers at her (now) only child, and empathize with her decision to stand by Alice even as the evidence mounts up against her. There is a really strong scene where she tells her sister Annie (Jane Lowry), who was stabbed by a figure in a translucent mask she thinks was Alice, that she would not and could not forgive her if she dares convict Alice of the crime. Some surprisingly strong performances make this scene work.
Then there is the killer. I dare anyone to try and guess the identity of the perpetrator before its revealed. I couldn't do it. What I liked about how the filmmakers work with the killer is how they make his/her motivation seem frighteningly plausible. The killer isn't just butchering people for the sake of entertaining the movie going public; he/she has a personal motivation that seems to stem from deep within his/her damaged psyche. The killer seems to believe in what he/she is doing and why he/she is doing it. In a way, I was reminded of the killer from the 1995 film Se7en. The motivation for that killer was, likewise, very plausible; we could understand why he did what he did, even when we disapproved of what he did. In a rather interesting twist, the killer is revealed thirty minutes before the end (after an effectively disturbing scene where one character is beaten over the head with a brick and is pushed out of a building to his death), leading to a number of scenes where Alice's mother finds herself in situations where she doesn't know she's in danger, which is all the more unnerving because we know the killer is fixing to strike. It follows Hitchcock's rule of suspense: When a bomb goes off under a table, it causes a jolt in the audience; when the audience knows there is a bomb under the table, and the characters don't, it creates suspense.
One thing I remember reading about the film is that the Catholic church was not happy with it at all. I honestly don't understand why. Nearly everyone in the film is of the Catholic faith, so naturally, the killer is also a member of the church. However, none of the other characters are seen in a negative way (save for one other; more on him in the next section), and the teachings of the church are never once questioned or criticized. Maybe it had to do with the fact that Shields, herself a devout Catholic, was murdered in a Catholic church during a Catholic event (a child's first communion)? Yet unlike many modern films about the Catholic church, this one does not exploit the religion for cheap thrills, or attack it for simple button pushing controversy. It is a horror movie with characters who are Catholic, and not an attack on the faith itself (at least, I didn't see it that way).
What's Bad About the Movie?:
There is one character who is so unnecessarily ugly that he could have easily been rewritten or excised from the movie all together. It's the apartment landlord Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble). He is a particularly nasty character who is massively obese, wears urine stained pants, and, in a mercifully short but nevertheless despicable scene, tries to molest young Alice when she stops by to give him a check for rent. Maybe her near rape encounter is meant to add some extra layer to the film's hauntingly ambiguous final shot, but that doesn't make it any easier to endure.
Alfred Sole has been compared to other great filmmakers like Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock (who was obviously an inspiration; note the poster of Psycho in the background of one shot), and Federico Fellini, and after having seen the film for myself, it isn't hard to see why. Sole only made a handful of movies (four all together) before settling in becoming a production designer for mostly television productions. It's a shame he never did more work as a director, because if Alice Sweet Alice is indication of anything, the man had a promising career as a horror movie director. Alice Sweet Alice is a terrific achievement, a horror movie that delivers the goods, works on our emotions, and gives us something to think about after its over.
Final Grade: *** 1/2 (out of ****)