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Alice, Sweet Alice

Arrow Video // R // August 6, 2019
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 19, 2019 | E-mail the Author
Ugh, Karen (Brooke Shields). She got the good looks in the family. Everyone dotes on her seemingly without end. Hell, Karen's even about to receive First Communion – veil, gloves, dress, and all. It's an experience her older sister Alice (Paula Sheppard) was deprived of, thanks to the headaches of their Catholic parents' tumultuous divorce a few years back. On what's supposed to be among the most memorable days in her sister's life, Alice wastes no time seizing the spotlight for herself in front of the entire church, tongue out and waiting for that Eucharist. And Karen...?

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Karen never receives Communion.

The young girl is strangled just out of view of untold hundreds. Mass is interrupted as her lifeless body is lit ablaze. And it doesn't go unnoticed that Alice all of a sudden is wearing her sister's veil. Others who cross Alice are soon attacked as well, but this twelve year old insists that she's not to blame – it's Karen.

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Like The Exorcist and Don't Look Now before it, Catholic rites and imagery are inextricable elements of the film. The debt owed to what is arguably Nicolas Roeg's most enduring film goes further still: a daughter lost at far too young an age, a parent howling with grief, a recurring colorful slicker, the shocking reveal of a withered face (though utilized here to very different effect, and while everyone's still very much alive), and even aspects of the final and most gruesome murder. And this isn't merely a filmmaker latching onto perceived cinematic trends; producer/director/co-writer Alfred Sole was himself Catholic, and the film he intended to be titled Communion was produced shortly after he was reportedly excommunicated from the Church.

Though Halloween wouldn't define the template for the slasher film for another couple of years, it's little wonder that Alice, Sweet Alice would successfully be reissued during the peak of the body count boom. There is an unrepentant serial killer whose unnerving mask hides his or her true identity from the audience. Despite not following the expected rhythm of a slasher, there are still a fair number of attacks, and its camera doesn't flinch at the sight of the gallons of blood spilled here.

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But Alice, Sweet Alice is more fascinating in the ways it disregards the slasher formula that was soon to come. When reissued during the Golden Age of Slashers, it shared screens with movies consumed with murder. Inventive, gleefully gory deaths were the primary selling point, and everything else tended to be uninvolving connective tissue or shameless T&A. Alice, Sweet Alice, meanwhile, is more consumed with those moments in between. Rather than continually build to the next savage attack or a false jolt to fill a scare every five minutes quota, it has a more psychological bent. Its characters and relationships matter. Some do groan at the length of Alice, Sweet Alice, which, at 107 minutes, is considerably longer than the average slasher, but its premise and execution warrant that runtime. As gruesome as the film can be, its violence is less theatrical than the slashers that would follow.

There are no Rube Goldberg kills nor any deliriously over-the-top attempts at one-upping the competition. The attacks – as brutal as they are – are relatable in a way that, say, a limb being lopped off by a machete is not. I can imagine suffering this same fate myself, and that makes the resultant imagery all the more disturbing.

Another critical way in which Alice, Sweet Alice diverges from convention is the way in which it approaches the whodunnit? More traditional body count films wait until the final moments before unmasking the killer. Alice, Sweet Alice takes a different approach. And while I'll step lightly enough around spoilers to avoid revealing precisely when that moment comes, the dramatic irony inherent to the audience knowing who's lurking behind the mask while every other character in the film is blissfully unaware infuses a great deal of tension into later scenes.

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And whatever parallels some may be tempted to draw with The Omen, there's a far greater complexity to Alice than just another evil kid. She's wicked in her own ways, yes, but she wasn't born malevolent. Neglect has molded Alice into what she has become – ignored as a child and disregarded as she takes her first steps towards womanhood. Slashers tend to have such a binary perspective – the virgins and the impure, the living and the dead, the hunter and the hunted – and that Alice, Sweet Alice prefers the gray murk in between is among a great many reasons why the film is so much more substantial than it's often given credit for being.

It's not to be mistaken with a drive-in flick shat out in a week and a half to coast on Friday the 13th's wake. Alice, Sweet Alice was a passion project more than two years in the making, and the thought, care, and craftsmanship invested in it elevate the film to a league all its own. Despite the inspiration drawn from the likes of Psycho and Don't Look Now, Alfred Sole has very much succeeded at ensuring that Alice, Sweet Alice is defiantly unique.

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Paterson, New Jersey isn't merely a backdrop but a character in its own right, capitalizing on Sole's architectual background and intimate familiarity with the town's most visually compelling buildings, regardless of decay. I repeatedly found myself in awe of its audacious and, at times, deliberately disorienting photography. This is such a gorgeously shot film, to great success taking risks that few other would dare. The casting is inspired as well, including Brooke Shields in her first feature film role, 19 year old Paula Sheppard expertly realizing such a layered character some seven years her junior, Jane Lowry's glorious lack of restraint as a gravely wounded aunt, how the nervous breakdown that Linda Miller suffered during production helps her maternal character to more convincingly feel as if she's on the precipice herself, and Bloodsucking Freaks' Alphonso DeNoble as an effortlessly creepy, pedophiliac, cat food-devouring landlord.

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At this point, I'm sure the divide separating review from essay is starting to buckle, so perhaps this is as good a place as any to move onto the merits of Arrow Video's Blu-ray release itself. But that there's so much to dissect and discuss is a testament to what an inspired, well-crafted, and unique film this is. Hardly to be mistaken as just another slasher, Alfred Sole's Alice, Sweet Alice has at long last been lavished with the special edition treatment befitting such a remarkable film. DVD Talk Collector Series.

I could drone on and on about how truly revelatory this presentation of Alice, Sweet Alice is, but I'll let the following comparison between Arrow Video's newly-minted Blu-ray release and a ::cough:: high definition stream on Amazon speak for itself first:

SGL Entertainment / Prime VideoArrow Video (2019)
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The provenance of this remaster – under Alfred Sole's preferred title of Communion – is as sterling as could be hoped for: returning to the 35mm camera negative, Warner Bros. MPI scanning these elements in 4K, and Arrow spearheading the restoration from there. The bulk of the remaster was completed in 2K, so don't pass on this dazzling special edition in the hopes of an Ultra HD Blu-ray release anytime soon.

This presentation is, in a word, perfect. I endlessly found myself awestruck by the clarity and detail on display. Its filmic texture has been beautifully reproduced, with the AVC encode showing no signs of strain even with this BD-50 disc filled to capacity. The film's palette is immediately striking, worlds removed from the pale, washed-out hues of 88 Films' British release last year. While sharpness and the weight of the grain can vary somewhat from one scene to the next – perhaps due to cycling through so many cameramen throughout the staggered shoot – such shifts are never distracting to any meaningful extent. And the remaster is, of course, immaculate, with nary a nick nor a stray fleck of dust to be found. No matter how dizzyingly high Arrow Video continually sets the bar, it can still be difficult to believe that Alice, Sweet Alice could ever look as outstanding as it does here. In every way extraordinary.

Remastered from the original optical negative, Alice, Sweet Alice's 24-bit, monaural lossless audio doesn't belie the film's age but generally hits the marks I'd hope to hear. Far and away the best aspect of the soundtrack is Stephen Lawrence's score, and it's rendered beautifully here. Background noise isn't a particular nuisance, and the soundtrack often sounds wonderfully clean and clear. I'd infrequently struggle with a word now and again – I couldn't quite tell which insult Alice was hurling at Mr. Alphonso at one point in the first example below – but otherwise, dialogue is readily discerned throughout, even with strain showing during more loudly shouted lines. And, naturally, such overt flaws as dropouts or loud pops are nowhere to be found. I've recorded a couple of excerpts for anyone interested in a quick sample:

Also included are two audio commentaries. Both Alice, Sweet Alice and the Holy Terror edit elsewhere on this special edition are accompanied by optional English (SDH) subtitles.

  • Audio Commentaries: The first of Alice, Sweet Alice's two commentary tracks – carried over from the twilight of the Laserdisc era – features director/co-writer Alfred Sole, editor Edward Salier, and special makeup effects assistant Bill Lustig. Among the many highlights are Sole and Salier noting how effectively shooting a 1:1 ratio inspired a great deal of creativity in the editing room, ringing up the Paterson Fire Department whenever a scene demanded rain, how much Sole dislikes the film's best-known title, and very different headaches with knives in the two stairwell sequences. This is a wonderfully conversive and exceptionally engaging commentary.

    Richard Harland Smith, meanwhile, has contributed a newly-recorded track, marveling at how a film as widely revered as Alice, Sweet Alice can still be underappreciated and misunderstood. Much of his commentary is oriented around the cast, no matter how fleeting the role. Whether it's noting just how many of these actors would go on to appear in Annie Hall, pointing out a desk sergeant subsequently facing a life sentence in prison for shooting his ex-girlfriend, Brooke Shields farting during her audition, and an unexpected connection between this film and Bill Haley & the Comets, Smith continually unearths details not addressed in the hours of other extras in this special edition. His critical insight is, as ever, equally compelling.
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  • Holy Terror (107 min.; HD): The retitled and slightly modified Holy Terror cut of the film from 1981 is included in its entirety as well. Visually, the presentation is indistinguishable from the feature proper, though capacity constraints prevent it from including lossless audio. (There are optional English subtitles, however!) I don't have a comprehensive list of differences, though the menu notes that the edits are minor. Holy Terror does open with an Allied Artists card which Communion does not, and the opening titles have been redone to give Brooke Shields top billing.

  • Alternate Opening Titles (1 min.; HD): With the film already presented on the disc as Communion and Holy Terror, Arrow Video rounds out the trifecta with the Alice, Sweet Alice opening titles. Better still, these revised titles have been scanned in 4K and presented here in high definition as well.

  • First Communion: Alfred Sole Remembers Alice, Sweet Alice (19 min.; HD): For those who can't find the time to listen to Alfred Sole's audio commentary, this conversation with the film's producer, director, and co-writer is easily the next best thing. Sole charts the journey of teaching himself to be a filmmaker, from watching thrillers with the volume down to making the wildly successful and equally controversial X-rated flick Deep Sleep. He addresses virtually everything that went into the making of the film, among them financing, casting, editing, and distribution. It's hardly a dry retelling, though, whether it's the film's lead actress cutting her wrists in front of the cast and crew in a Catholic church or a disinterested cameraman fighting Sole every inch of the way. Essential viewing.
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  • Alice on My Mind (15 min.; HD): Composer Stephen Lawrence doesn't limit himself to speaking in this newly-conducted interview; he plays the piano throughout to aurally illustrate his comments. Along with playing a number of Alice, Sweet Alice's most memorable cues, he speaks about the process of working on this visually inventive film, the debt that one key sequence owes to Bernard Herrmann, why this score couldn't be dropped into any other horror movie, and his other work in film and television.

  • In the Name of the Father (16 min.; HD): As actor Niles McMaster is being interviewed over Skype, the overall quality – in particular, the audio – is decidedly rough. It proves to be a worthwhile listen, if not the most pleasant on the ears, including McMaster's own thoughts on religion, being well-prepared for the physical demands of this role, the chilling reason that the filming of the morgue sequence had to wrap abruptly, and later juggling the soap opera The Edge of Night in the daytime and Joel M. Reed's Bloodsucking Freaks when the sun went down. McMaster also has much to say about Alfred Sole and a number of his co-stars, most memorably his paternal bond with a very young Brooke Shields.

  • Lost Childhood: The Locations of Alice, Sweet Alice (16 min.; HD): Anyone reading through a long list of extras in a Blu-ray review will almost certainly recognize Michael Gingold's name. He's no stranger to Alice, Sweet Alice – between retrospectives in magazines he's edited, his many viewings of the film, and the screenplay for the remake he's co-written – and Gingold puts that encyclopediac knowledge to use with a guided tour of the film's many locations in Paterson, NJ. Many of these buildings are instantly recognizable even after more than four full decades, and while others are long gone, Gingold still takes care to show us what now stands (if anything) in their place. Specific shots from the film are recreated as precisely as possible, and we're even treated to a voice re-enactment of one deleted scene set at Paterson Great Falls.
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  • Sweet Memories: Dante Tomaselli on Alice, Sweet Alice (11 min.; HD): Tomaselli – Alfred Sole's cousin and an accomplished filmmaker in his own right – was all of six when filming on Alice, Sweet Alice was underway. It follows, then, that the movie has been a part of his life for nearly as long as Tomaselli can remember. Among the topics of conversation here are recounting his family's reaction to seeing the film in theaters, his own discovery of Alice, Sweet Alice in the pages of Fangoria and on VHS, Mildred Clinton thinking she was a shoo-in when auditioning for Tomaselli's Desecration, and the remake that he, Sole, and Michael Gingold are developing.

  • Deleted Scenes (3 min.; HD): Audio couldn't be located for these two brief deleted scenes: an extended version of the rain-drenched conversation between father and Father, and a bit more chatter from a hotel desk clerk. Arrow Video has gone to the lengths of framing these scenes with footage from the film proper, and the quality of this excised material is so spectacular that it's a seamless match.

  • Original Trailer (2 min.; HD): This American trailer is under the title of Holy Terror.
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  • UK TV Spot (<1 min.; SD): A rough 4x3 TV spot – promoting a double feature of Communion and Tintorera! – clocks in at 16 seconds.

  • Image Gallery (7 min.; HD): Some forty images strong, this gallery showcases production stills, lobby cards, video releases, multiple novelizations, scans of the press book, newspaper clippings, and poster art the world over.

  • Screenplay: A scan of the original screenplay – under the film's original title of Communion – is included as a PDF for the twelve of us out there who have BD-ROM drives on our computers. So if you're curious what's being said in the silent pavilion deleted scene elsewhere on the disc, you have options!

I can't begin to convey how much I love the artwork gracing Alice, Sweet Alice's cover and slip. I was also pleasantly surprised to see it on a poster inside as well, with a spoof ad for an Alice, Sweet Alice Killer Kit on the flipside. The interior art is similarly reversible, showcasing the iconic butcher knife through a bloodied doll poster art. Rounding out the set's physical extras, the centerpiece of the enclosed booklet is Michael Blyth's essay "Malice, Sweet Malice".

The Final Word
Richard Harland Smith opens his audio commentary by describing Alice, Sweet Alice as a film that viewers are quick to love but slow to fully understand. And indeed, the elements on the surface are readily embraced: its daring photography, pervasive Catholic imagery in a decade of religious horror, the killer's unnerving and iconic mask, psychological thrills in the vein of Hitchcock and Roeg, and visceral attacks presaging the slashers soon to come. And yet there's so much more to discover in Alice, Sweet Alice beyond that. It's a film that rewards repeated viewings. This special edition's many hours of extras offer such insight and analysis that I'm eager to watch Alice, Sweet Alice again with better informed eyes. Between the remarkable film itself and its many hours of compelling extras, Alice, Sweet Alice ranks among the most essential releases in Arrow Video's already extraordinary library. DVD Talk Collector Series.
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