Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Alice, Sweet Alice is an accomplished post- Exorcist horror film about mayhem in a dysfunctional Catholic family. Although the opening image shows a little girl in a First Communion dress holding a dagger, the film is reasonably tasteful. Film critics have found favor with its well-organized themes of sin and repression. Director Alfred Sole knows how to generate suspense while developing interesting, unusual characters.
A horrible murder ruins the First Communion ceremony run by Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) and devastates the unhappy Spages family of Paterson, New Jersey. Catherine Spages (Linda Miller) and her surviving daughter Alice (Paula Sheppard) live in a rotten apartment building run by the obese Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble); in the wake of the killing Alice's horrible Aunt Annie (Jane Lowry) moves in and makes everyone miserable. Catherine's ex-husband Dom (Niles McMaster) comes to town to help straighten things out because the troublesome Alice is suspected of the crime. Annie is attacked on the stairway by someone wearing Alice's scary mask and yellow raincoat, which results in Alice being remanded to psychiatric observation under the caring Dr. Whitman (Louisa Horton). Almost everyone is convinced that Alice is the killer except her mother, who is plagued by prank phone calls ...
Killer kid movies proliferated after The Exorcist, and not just foreign rip-offs of William Friedkin's sensational hit: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, Audrey Rose and The Omen. Alice, Sweet Alice seemingly borrows its central image of a tiny knife-wielding attacker in a plastic raincoat from Don't Look Now but can pride itself on on not being just another exorcism clone. Rosemary Ritvo and Alfred Sole's script instead churns up a sordid tale that would appear to make the Catholic Church responsible for all human ills. The film seems to say that by repressing human sexuality the Church creates and encourages all kinds of fear & frustration-driven psychological problems. This grossly slanted attitude dominates all the characters, who suffer from guilty vices. The parents are divorced, yet still attracted to one another. The mother inadvertently favors one daughter over the other, setting into motion a dangerous female Cain & Abel situation. With the men either missing (father) or emasculated (Uncle Jim; Gary Allen), only the 'sexless' Father Tom remains, and he has become an emotional focus for all of the women. All trust and adore him: Catherine, young Karen (Brooke Shields) and his housekeeper Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton).
The story takes place in the early 1960 when the Jackie Kennedy look is in vogue. The choice of period can only be to emphasize that a Catholic is in the White House, which indicates that the writers of Alice, Sweet Alice are either sincerely bitter about the Church or are amusing themselves with a complex anti-Catholic theme. Director Sole keeps the drama on its feet with sharp characters and situations we care about. Willful rebel Alice keeps a secret hideout in the basement and likes to scare people with her mask. Mother (here comes the repression theme, again) assumes that Alice is still an innocent and later must be told by a psychologist that she's menstruating. Family communication breaks down whenever sex is involved. Catherine also doesn't know that Alice carries on a teasing, insulting discourse with the obese Mr. Alphonso, a potential child molester who lives in the apartment downstairs.
Parental guilt translates into children with deep problems. Catherine was unmarried when she became pregnant with Alice, which has somehow translated into the younger, more obedient Karen receiving the bulk of motherly love. The absent father, Dom, is also gulity, especially when a phone call from his wife catches him kissing Catherine. Alice both needs her parents and resents them. Adding fuel to the fire is the horrible Aunt Annie, an unpleasant harpy who orders everyone about and escalates every issue into a big problem.
(spoilers from here on in; there's no other way)
As it turns out, a super-repressive maniac is responsible for everything. Father Tom's Italian immigrant housekeeper Mrs. Tredoni has gone nuts after losing her own child on the day of her First Communion. Worse, she sees Catherine Spages as an unclean whore who must be punished. Diabolical murders follow when the diminuitive Mrs.Tredoni is able to don raincoat and mask to pretend she's Alice. Even in this odd horror film the blame for the terror is assigned to women. When the police look no further for a culprit after seeing Alice's disturbing school records.The father and the cops watch helplessly from the sidelines.
Director Sole does wonders with his cast and script and his direction never shows haste or undue economizing. Angles are expressive and characters' emotions well-covered. The various murders are stylish but not fetishized; the scary mask and Alice's creepy two-faced doll are well-used. Some unobtrusive Alfred Hitchcock references are present, and Stephen Lawrence's good score approaches a Bernard Herrmann tone, without overdoing it.
Some of the performers' abilities are limited but most of the New York-based cast comes off very well, especially young Paula Sheppard, who looks a bit like an underage Karen Allen. Her only other IMDB credit is 1982's Liquid Sky. The impressive Mildred Clinton played Al Pacino's mother in Serpico, and had a part in the pre- Sound of Music German movie about the Von Trapp Family. The famous Lillian Roth has a small bit as a morgue pathologist.
Hen's Tooth Video's DVD of Alice, Sweet Alice is a real disappointment, an unimpressive older transfer given an indifferent encoding. In the sad fate that befalls many independent films, it's likely that the title was offered for licensing as-is. The flat-letterboxed picture is scratched and colors are not attractive, especially in the many close-ups. Also, the audio needed some work, as a few lines are inaudible. An earlier Anchor Bay release was also flat-letterboxed, but included a number of interesting extras first seen on laserdisc. This title needs and deserves a re-master. 1
Director Alfred Sole eventually turned from directing and is still going strong as a production designer. He provides an audio commentary along with his editor Edward Salier and makes a very positive impression. If Sole cared to get directing again, he might be an excellent choice to helm a Masters of Horror episode.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alice, Sweet Alice (Communion) rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Fair +
Sound: Good --
Supplements: Commentary by director Alfred Sole and Editor Edward Salier
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 9, 2007
1. Watching big studios fail to exploit their libraries is frustrating enough but the fate of oddball independent productions is subject to the luck of the draw. Interesting pictures are frequently beautifully re-mastered and given deluxe treatments by dedicated boutique companies, while other deserving titles are stuck with rights holders that refuse to invest in film preservation or even transfer them properly. Frustrating as it is, we somewhat understand when a couple of heirs get the idea that they should be paid millions for video rights for an obscure film made by a relative or defunct company. What's worse is when old business feuds result in the neglect of important bodies of work, such as big chunks of the old A.I.P. library. The Arkoff-Nicholson split has resulted in films simply disappearing from view, or seeing release in compromised twenty-year old transfers.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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