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1963's The Terror is a bottomless pit of great stories about Roger Corman and his entourage of wanna-be directors and actors. Corman was determined to make his own Edgar Allan Poe-type attraction separate from the series of hits he was directing in partnership with Arkoff and Nicholson at American-International. He attempted to make an earlier film for a different company, only to have the A.I.P. boys show up on the set to announce that they'd bought the project from the other outfit. With The Terror Corman found a new and creative way to utilize his non-Union Filmgroup Company. Corman was a guild signator director when the Screen Actor's Guild pushed through a residuals clause for their standard contract. Before that change, the producer-director had been accustomed to "buying out" most of his actors and keeping a minimal file of records. The residuals clause meant that nobody could be hired under the table, Union minimums would have to be observed, and Corman would have to establish an accounting department to take care of the paperwork. Since that wasn't how Roger made movies, he instead invented Filmgroup to shoot his pictures in places like Puerto Rico and Ireland, anywhere outside the reach of the Unions.
It's fairly well known that after one of the official Poe series movies (The Raven), Corman was owed a couple of day's work from Boris Karloff, and cooked up a story to capitalize on the star's availability. Corman directed all the scenes required of Karloff very quickly, and then ended the official shooting phase for what would become The Terror. Over the course of a few months, he then dispatched several of his most talented acolytes to distant locations up the California coast, with full instructions on what to film. That's where the other four uncredited directors listed above came from. Coppola, Hellman, Hill and Nicholson, future directing notables all, took turns shooting material that would become The Terror.
This unique production system has always been described as Corman giving a terrific break to deserving up 'n' coming talent. That's certainly true, but the producer was also getting a big chunk of his film made on a non-Union guerrilla basis. He couldn't afford to be caught directing because of his own guild affiliation; perhaps when Jack Hill or Monte Hellman was up in Big Sur filming Sandra Knight and Jack Nicholson in the surf, or a trained hawk attacking Jonathan Haze, they were pretending to be making some other movie of their own. Note that each uncredited director receives a credit line for some other contribution to the production: "I'm not directing, I'm the location manager!"
The Terror has an undeserved reputation as a loser, possibly because of all the awful Public Domain copies that have circulated. But it has qualities that the films in the official Corman-Poe series do not. Fellow UCLA film studies scholar James Ursini felt that The Terror was not an ersatz Poe entry but a superior riff on the whole Poe ethos. Jim's approach was structural and literary in basis; his idea of a profound Corman film was The Undead. I agree with Jim on the whole. As the star Boris Karloff can only carry about a quarter of the storyline, actor-writer Leo Gordon and actor-writer Jack Hill came up with a rather good Gothic concept. Not only does The Terror feature a horrible curse, it also incorporates a vengeance-driven witch, a beautiful but menacing phantom lover, a shape-shifting mystery woman and a sordid back story about a horrible crime in the castle. Corman packs the transition montages with his familiar non-matching stock shots of castles, lightning bolts and crashing waves, but he foregoes the obligatory fiery finale in favor of a fairly impressive flood scene. We look at the thousands of gallons of water rushing into the crypt set and think, "I can't believe Roger Corman paid for this."
For a movie made piecemeal, The Terror holds together quite well. During the Napoleonic Wars, a French Lieutenant named Andre Duvalier (Jack Nicholson) stumbles into a strange seaside landscape and finds Helene (Sandra Knight, married to Jack Nicholson at the time), a mysterious, somewhat mesmerizing woman. Helene disappears, and Andre learns from Katrina, a local hermit woman (Dorothy Neumann) and Gustaf (Jonathan Haze) that he'll have to inquire at the castle of Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe (Boris Karloff) to learn more about her. Baron Von Leppe and his uncooperative valet Stefan (Dick Miller) want Andre to leave immediately. But the young soldier sees Helene again, only this new phantom calls herself Ilsa. To free her, he must uncover the castle's horrible secret.
The Terror is definitely in the vein of '60s Gothic horrors about characters that wander dank corridors. Every disturbance in the castle requires Andre or Stefan to walk for thirty seconds, usually arriving in time to hear only a disembodied voice. The Baron takes at least four separate strolls down to the crypt, opening the same gates and secret passageways with each trip. Ronald Stein's effective music and the eerie sound effects convert this narrative padding into core content ... that's just what people do in Gothic horror movies. Except for a couple of fistfights and some mayhem on a seaside cliff the movie is decidedly short on action. But the involved back story about illicit lovers and a murderous curse remains interesting. We become very curious to discover the truth about the Baron's murderous past, and whether the spectral Helene / Ilsa will free herself from her curse and ride off with the handsome soldier.
Jack Nicholson must have been a very frustrated actor during this phase of his career. He's unfortunately the weak link in the acting chain. He plays everything method-neutral and as naturalistically as possible: no overstated reactions or big emotions. He recites his lines with a curious no-contractions storybook cadence, purposely flattened out. Nicholson is much better than he was in The Raven, in an awkward role more suited to a comedian. But only toward the end do we begin to believe that he belongs in his vintage military costume. Boris Karloff lends his full energy to his abbreviated role; this man clearly loved to act. Knowing that he was in failing physical condition and was having especially bad back problems, we tend to worry about him as he climbs stairs and struggles with various cast members. Karloff even takes part in the first few shots of the flooding scenes, which look pretty rough. We hope that Sandra Knight had lifeguard training!
HD Cinema Classics' Blu-ray + DVD release of The Terror is another quality disc of a Public Domain standby. The "original 35mm elements" touted on the package copy appear to be a release print in very good condition. The restoration demo on the disc shows comparisons of scenes before & after heavy digital processing has been applied. The process effectively reduces grain, steadies the image, and eradicates frame-to-frame damage and other schmutz. Overall it softens the picture, but by less than you'd think. One odd effect is that heavily scratched and dirty stock shots sourced from The Pit and the Pendulum are cleaner than they ever were. Color values are okay, and the contrast issues of working from a positive print show up only in minor ways, as when highlights on faces seem too bright. The stage lighting of cameraman John Nicholaus is quite good. He might have not have been present for the multiple filming excursions on the California coastline, which also look classy and artful. Corman's stealth second units clearly wanted to impress the boss.
The HD image makes some details very clear, such as a zipper in the back of the siren Helene's dress. We also notice that Nicholson's pistol contains a manufactured bullet cartridge, quite an anachronism if the show is indeed meant to take place in Napoleonic times. The flooding rains bricks onto the cast, building stones that float like Styrofoam as the crypt fills with water. A single corridor set outside of the haunted bedchamber is redressed to serve as multiple locations, a Daniel Haller art direction trick that fails when we realize that plaster patterns in the walls aren't changing. Jack Nicholson is supposed to be moving in one direction, but it's obvious that he's really walking past the same corner, three times in a row!
Original materials do exist for The Terror and are held by MGM, which is currently showing a beautiful 1080i transfer on the MGMHD cable channel that looks far better than this Blu-ray. On my TV the picture is stunning, but Time-Warner often broadcasts MGMHD out of sync -- for days at a time! This only makes HD Cinema Classics' disc seem more attractive. It's far better than any of the seemingly hundreds of wretched-quality Public Domain DVDs floating about.
The disc contains Spanish subtitles only, a postcard of the film's poster art and a video promo masquerading as an original trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Terror Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.