#42: The Terror (1963)
A fascinating spinoff of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle
Initial release: 1963
Director: Roger Corman and several others (uncredited)
Roger Corman is a legend; not only for his reputation for schlocky, low-budget cult classics, but also for his ability to wring every last dollar out of a budget. His 1963 gothic schlock classic The Terror is the ultimate example. While the film is often linked to Corman’s famous Poe cycle of films distributed by American International Pictures, it’s entirely an original creation. That’s not to say there isn’t an element of Poe or even Lovecraftian gothic to this film; Corman has years of experience making movies like this, and he could have made this in his sleep. Hell, he probably did.
The nature of how the film was produced resulted in the film being a little disjointed, at times almost dreamlike. But while an argument can be made for the film’s merits in terms of structure or story, perhaps far more interesting is how the film was actually made, as it’s a perfect example of the kind of cheapskate Corman can be and still crank out a solid movie.
Fresh off shooting The Raven, Corman realized he had a few days before the sets were to be torn down, and Boris Karloff was still hanging around. Not wanting to waste perfectly good sets, he had a script quickly banged out and talked Boris into doing a few scenes, shot over two days.
The basic plot: it’s 1806 (or thereabouts) and Jack Nicholson (returning from his minor role in The Raven) is Andre, a French military officer who has become separated from his unit and washed up alone on a beach, where he is saved by Helene, a gorgeous, but mysterious, woman. He becomes infatuated with her, but while she flirts with him, he eventually passes out. He wakes up in the woods tended to by an old woman and her silent manservant; asking after Helene, he’s introduced to the old woman’s pet falcon, also apparently named Helene. The old woman denies any connection. He eventually winds up at the Castle of Baron von Leppe (played by Karloff) who is suspicious of him but invites him to stay the night anyway. What follows is a weird, disjointed tale of murder, witchcraft, and revenge from beyond the grave.
Corman didn’t actually have the money to finish the film; it took nine months, lots of stock footage and reused sets (including from Corman’s own films), a conga line of guest directors (including a young Francis Ford Coppola, who like many other filmmakers was directly mentored by Corman) and a piecemeal shooting schedule to get it done. With this many people putting their own stamp on the film it’s perhaps inevitable that it can feel disjointed or even incoherent; “incomprehensible” is a common complaint, but to be honest with you I feel like that’s something a film buff who hates genre film came up with. While the film has its twists and turns, there’s nothing particularly labyrinthine about the plot. It’s a pastiche in the best kind of way: a collaborative one. Evoking the likes of M. R. James or, yes, Edgar Allen Poe, it couldn’t be a more traditional ghost story if it tried.
There’s also an element of detective drama. Nicholson’s character is supremely interested in getting to the bottom of the spooky happenings in the castle, and to that end he will kick down doors, punch stewards in the face, and threaten witches with an anachronistic revolver. All this action hero shit is probably the most acting Nicholson does for this film; a lot of his delivery is wooden and detached, which is a bit curious given how much of his later fame hinges on his dynamic acting style.
Of course, this is Jack Nicholson we’re talking about, and there’s a long-standing, perhaps apocryphal story, that Francis Ford Coppola has apparently refused to work with Jack Nicholson ever since the latter (intentionally?) ruined a scene Coppola wanted to do that could only be done once because it involved a ton of yellow butterflies that the crew spent all day capturing. There’s a lot of stories like that surrounding this film, and I think that’s due to the collaborative, ad hoc nature of the film. All these people working on it, adding their own bits to it, with no unifying vision and yet still a kind of common goal. The Terror could thus be considered a sort of zeitgeist, a pure, crystallized symbol of the 1960s schlock horror era. If you fed a computer every horror movie by American International Pictures or Hammer from the 50s through the 70s, the end result might look like this.
Adding to the cult atmosphere around the film is the fact that it went immediately into public domain for the same reason George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead did: lack of a copyright notice. As such, the film has been a regular in the bad 35mm reprint circuit for years. While film restoration group Film Detectives have managed to restore the film to its original glory, the version I watched (on Amazon Prime) was Film Chest’s original grainy, blurry mess, and if I’m being perfectly honest with you, I liked it that way. There’s something comforting about watching old horror movies in all their VHS-rip glory; I know I’m not the only one who feels that way, given how often modern film and video games try to emulate vintage hardware. And The Terror certainly deserves an authentic treatment. It’s up to you which version you watch, of course; I think the Film Detectives’ version is Blu-ray only, but you can still watch the lo-fi mess on amazon prime. At the very least, with a high-definition print, the film won’t be any blurrier than strictly necessary.
The Terror is not a good film. But it’s an interesting film, an intersection of several people in cinema who would go on to be quite important names. Importantly, it’s a fun film; it’s fun to watch Nicholson ramble around the castle, it’s fun to watch Karloff, who’s still got it in spite of his advanced age. Of course it’s fun: it’s Roger Corman!