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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.