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  • nickkarner

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Years ago, I re-watched Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992). If ever there was an example of a filmmaker exercising total creative control, it’s this one. After viewing the bleak and oddly-insular big-budget sequel, I was conflicted. I said to myself, “I honestly don’t know whether this is good or not.” Particularly the sexually-charged dialogue. On the one hand, it was bawdy, hilarious, and frightfully inappropriate. On the other, there’s a campy quality and an overabundance of horniness that’s off-putting. I had a similar response to the acting, mainly from the women, in writer/director Alfred Sole’s Communion (1976), which was also released as Holy Terror, The Mask Murders, and its most famous title, the one with which I was introduced to it: Alice, Sweet Alice. To put a spin on my previous utterance: “I honestly can’t tell if the performances in this film are brilliant or terrible.” This is camp with a capital ‘K.’ Hardly a scene goes by without someone screaming and shouting at another person, who in turn scream and shout their response. Sole’s claustrophobic, closeup-heavy, subjective camera style borders on the grotesque, with actors leaning into hysterical fits full-tilt. Though shot on 35mm, its look is muddy and dreary, as if there’s a cloud constantly hanging over everyone and everything while a layer of grime and decay has been slathered on both the camera lens and all the sets. The road to Alice, Sweet Alice’s completion was paved with road blocks which Sole, who eventually rose from a humble architect with a dream to a prolific production designer, had to fight tooth and nail to overcome.

Alice holds a peculiar place within the horror genre. As a slasher, it’s already at a disadvantage since slashers are amongst the least-respected subgenres in the horror game due to the glut of imitators which came in the wake of Halloween (1978). But Alice was shot prior to John Carpenter’s masterpiece, and while it’s not a better film, an intelligent script and suspenseful kill scenes help Alice stand apart from its fellow horror brethren. Whether it’s the campiness of the performances, the iconic and genuinely creepy mask of the killer, or a deeper meaning behind the seemingly anti-Catholic assault on religion, the film’s power is derived from a filmmaker hellbent on making a movie, come Hell or high water.

Like Maniac and Vigilante director William Lustig, Sole began his career by making an adult film. This was pretty much par for the course with most up-and-coming filmmakers of the time. You make a horror film or an X-rated picture. Ironically, Lustig would help the young director around the production office while Alice was being shot in Sole’s hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. The wannabe filmmaker attended a weekly poker game and although he pushed his wealthy clients (lawyers, a bank president) to help him finance a western, one of them said, “If you make an X-rated movie, I’ll give you the money for it.” He didn’t particularly want to make a porno, but at the time, a movie was a movie. Sole has since stated that although the early 70’s was the time of Deep Throat (1972) and the mainstreaming of triple X-rated features, he also knew that his “financiers” merely wanted to be able to visit the set of a porno. Irregardless, he received $5000 from each of them, raising $25,000, enough to produce his first feature, Deep Sleep (1972); a film which would result in a boatload of problems for the budding filmmaker.

Sole declared that he “got really depressed by all of the X-rated movies I saw.” So, he decided to make an all-out comedy-musical adult film: “the prettiest X-rated movie ever made.” A guerrilla filmmaker to the nth-degree, he roped friends and relatives into his pornographic venture and even shot some of the film in front of an archbishop’s home in The Garden State. His mother-in-law didn’t speak to him for two years and her son-in-law threatened him with a shotgun. Due to an overzealous Paterson prosecutor and the fact that some of the film had been shot near the archbishop’s house, Sole was brought up on carnal indecency charges. He’d gotten the support of the mayor’s wife, which in turn gave him access to the police and fire department, but now the politician’s wife was freaking out about her husband’s career. This situation even made the news, with churchgoers forming a human chain to block traffic in protest of Deep Sleep. The Playboy Foundation got involved and only through a bribe of ten thousand dollars to a chummy, golf-playing judge was Sole able to avoid federal prosecution stemming from a Transporting of Pornographic Material charge after a print of the film was confiscated in Oklahoma. After things settled down, Sole still wanted to make a “real movie,” so through his masterful powers of persuasion, he got his old friend, the mayor, to elicit cooperation between the police and fire department, secure locations, and shoot what would eventually become known as Alice, Sweet Alice.

Along with wannabe screenwriter Rosemary Ritvo, the Communion script came from both Sole’s love of horror movies, “anything bloody,” as he put it, and his own anger over being excommunicated from the Catholic Church for the Deep Sleep fiasco. His excuse? “What can I say? The bishop had a great house!” Catholicism takes center stage and gets raked over the coals something fierce, particularly in the way it portrays a psychotic murderer’s justification for killing people and the belief that said crimes can be forgiven with a few simple Hail Mary’s. The ramifications of divorce during the 1960’s within a highly-religious community is also examined. However, one thematic element permeates the first half of Alice. Child neglect. Inspired both by the work of Alfred Hitchcock (particularly Psycho, whose poster makes an appearance in the film) and Nicolas Roeg’s atmospheric masterpiece Don’t Look Now (1973), Sole utilized the image of a childlike killer in a rain coat floating through the film and a Marion Crane-style switcheroo halfway through the picture. For a great deal of Alice’s runtime, we’re absolutely certain of the killer’s identity, but things are not as they seem.

Sole loved the rituals of the Catholic Church. “Take my body, take my blood.” But he also found the macabre nature of those words frightening, so it’s through those ritualistic passages did his vision for a little girl being killed during her first Holy Communion take shape. It’s made very clear from the opening scene that everyone loves little 12-year-old Karen, while nobody can stand her grumpy, older sister Alice (Paula E. Shepperd). And who can blame them? After all, Karen is played by adorable moppet and future world-famous actress/model Brooke Shields, whom Sole had seen, like many others, in a magazine. He tracked down her very enthusiastic mother and cast the little tyke in her first role, which would result in Alice being re-released as Holy Terror in the early 80’s to capitalize on Shields’ newfound fame, despite the fact that she’s only in the first 10 minutes of the movie. A cousin of Sole’s was studying acting with Andre Gregory (of My Dinner with Andre fame) and while auditing classes in Connecticut, Sole found his Alice in then-18-year-old Paula Shepperd. The diminutive actress would only make one other screen appearance in 1982’s Liquid Sky, but her unnatural body type allowed her to pass for a 12-year-old and in turn deliver a startlingly nasty performance that may not have been possible coming from an actual child of twelve.

The conflict between Alice and little Karen couldn’t be simpler. Their mother, Catherine (Linda Miller, Too Many Cooks and daughter of Jackie Gleason, but don’t remind her!), dotes on Karen’s every whim and can’t understand Alice’s animosity toward her sweet little sister nor her constant outbursts at school. The anger and frustration Alice feels, along with her very suspicious actions on the morning of Karen’s first communion, leads investigators to suspect Alice of her sister’s brutal murder by strangulation, then burning. I’ve always been a bit dubious of how Karen could’ve gone up in flames so quickly without an accelerant, but maybe that communion dress was super flammable. Should’ve gone with polyester, although the film is set in ‘61, not the mid-70's when it was shot.

In a scene of absolute pandemonium and wildly over-the-top acting, the entire congregation freaks as Karen’s charred remains are discovered in a vestibule bordering the chapel. Catherine’s sister Annie (played with bug-eyed intensity by Jane Lowry) literally screams into the camera “OH MY GOD!” Flailing her arms into the air, Annie rushes at Catherine to tell her “Karen’s dead.” It’s Catherine’s turn to scream and all of this would be high melodrama if it weren’t being pitched toward the back row. Although Alice is exonerated for any wrongdoing much later in the film, the disaffected manner in which she responds to the news of her sister’s death and her mother’s monumental grief is disturbing, to say the least.

Many characters presented here are practically walking ghouls in the way they’re photographed. Catherine is high-strung and on edge for the duration of the film. Annie is abrasive and antagonistic, with a high-and-mighty “I know best” attitude and a domineering personality that she holds over her hen-pecked husband Jimmy (Gary Allen, another camp classic - Mommie Dearest). Alice pouts, whines, antagonizes, and acts like an all-around asshole even as she longs for her mother’s love. She saves her most vicious barbs for the family’s landlord, Mr. Alphonso (Bloodsucking Freaks’ own Alphonso DeNoble). His appearance is what Patton Oswalt once described as “avalanche fat.” Purely by coincidence, Alfred Sole met DeNoble in a cemetery, where he would run a scam that involved him dressing up like a priest and having people pay him to say a prayer or bless them. When he wasn’t bilking dumb bible-thumpers out of cash, he was a bouncer at a gay club.

Listening to old records, surrounded by cats, and referring to himself as “Momma,” DeNoble stomps around his apartment wearing filthy clothes and looking very much like a shut-in. As a matter of fact, it’s very likely that he is one when Alice, who says “my mother thought you could use some cake, fatty,” refuses to pick anything up for him from a store since they don’t deliver on Sundays. It was somewhat rare to see someone of his girth onscreen at the time. A morbidly obese man like DeNoble isn’t naturally repellant, but his performance reeks of sweaty creepiness and his slightly effeminate delivery of lines like “such a pretty girl, too” reveal his not-so-subtle interest. He even resembles DeVito’s bile-spewing Oswald Cobblepot. Alice sees what Alphonso is, even taking a long lick of frosting off her finger when he answers his door, but the sexual danger with which the towering landlord threatens Alice later leads to an uncomfortable scene. This is what you get when you play with fire, Alice, although in this movie, it does indeed turn out that she wasn’t the one who barbecued her sister.

Where would a slasher movie be without a grisly murder, or at least an attempted murder? “Attempted murder?! Honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel prize for attempted chemistry?” Anyways, after Karen’s smoky death, Auntie Annie (the person, not the pretzel store) receives the business end of an impressively large knife right through her foot. Sole recalls going to see an Italian movie in New York and while a gangster blowing away a row of people garnered little audience response, a moment where a character spat in someone’s face elicited a gasp. This experience inspired Sole to make the kills and stabbings involve relatable injuries. Everybody’s stubbed their toes or had something fall on their foot at one time or another, so when Annie’s foot gets stabbed along with her thigh, you feel it. As rain pours down, Catherine screams for help while Annie sobs. It’s all very dramatic and leads to one of the best scenes in the movie where Annie (loudly) accuses Alice of the attack and Catherine shouts “LIAR!” over and over. It’s ridiculous, very funny, and amazing at the same time.

I tend to get caught up in a movie’s plot, so I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not one of those people who claim to have seen the twist coming a mile away or knew immediately who the villain was. It’s impressive the way Sole sets up Alice so expertly. She’s seen playing with matches, hanging around an abandoned warehouse where a murder will take place, is diagnosed, by Animal Crackers’ own Lillian Roth no less, as a possible “schizoid capable of extremely violent action,” and she owns both the heavily made-up dime store mask and the yellow slicker the killer is seen wearing. All of these touches point the guilty finger squarely at Alice. That said, the introduction of the caustic and even downright hostile Mrs.Tredoni (Mildren Clinton, Serpico, Summer of Sam) sends up several red flags. Since we’ve been programmed to expect the unexpected, particularly in a horror film which appears to have a simple solution, Tredoni’s brash temperament and ultra-orthodox behavior clearly makes her the true culprit behind Karen’s death. The way she dotes on the young and handsome Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich, What’s Love Got to do With It?) while failing to conceal her annoyance of the doddering old archbishop shows her natural inclination toward purity and youth. There’s even an amusing moment where the archbishop moans, “I want my cake!,” a line which would be used later to much more memorable effect in Creepshow (1982). Tredoni’s sudden reveal is an impressive about-face; a Hitchcock-inspired 180-degree turn by Sole which essentially erases Alice from the movie for nearly a half hour.

While Sheppard takes a back seat to Tredoni during the latter half of the movie, she gets enough screen time to deliver a unique performance. In some ways, Sheppard’s lackadaisical, somewhat narcoticized work here could be construed as flat, but somehow, it works. She’s already a mean little girl who doesn’t seem to particularly care about anyone or anything as long her mother lavishes attention upon her, so her lack of emotion comes off as eerily blank. One of the highlights is a polygraph test scene taken at the police station. It’s assumed that she attacked Annie, but Alice claims Karen did it, and the lie detector indicates she’s telling the truth. It gets weird. The technician comments “She is a weird little girl. Did you notice her tits? When I went to put the tube around her, she looked up like she wanted me to feel her up.” Yikes.

The revelation of Tredoni’s homicidal nature arrives during a particularly harrowing sequence. Alice’s father Dom (Niles McMaster, another Bloodsucking Freaks alum) gets a frantic call from Annie’s pudgy daughter Angela and he believes the small figure in a yellow slicker and mask is his overweight niece. He follows her to the same abandoned warehouse that Alice and Karen had gone to in the beginning of the film and we get an impressive series of jump scares as he’s first stabbed in the shoulder while climbing some stairs and then beaten with piece of brick. I’ll admit, he’s pretty calm about being stabbed in the shoulder with a knife. As always, a shoulder injury in the movies can be shrugged off. Still, his willingness to approach his assailant with tenderness is ultimately foolhardy. Unconscious after his beating, he wakes to find he’s not only tied up, but slowly being rolled toward the ledge of the building. The killer yanks off her mask and it’s that old fuddy duddy, Mrs. Tredoni. Her rage over Dom’s sinful act of divorcing Catherine and having the audacity to remarry gives her a twisted sense of purpose and righteousness as she shoves him closer to the edge. McMaster’s panic is quite good here and in his final act of defiance, he refuses to let go of a gift Father Tom gave to Karen before she died: a gold crucifix. “God wants you vanished!” Tredoni shouts as he’s rolled over the side. In one of the most famous shots of the film, a mirror sees Dom’s body fall and then he drops into frame. This was a necessity since Sole could see that the dummy they were using to throw off the building looked phony. It’s surprising to hear that many of the camera operators on the set gave Sole a lot of trouble since he clearly had an eye for filmmaking. The discovery of the necklace in Dom’s mouth, along with the obvious fact that Alice had been sent to a psychiatric institute, prompts her release.

Clinton’s performance is the strongest of the film due to her commitment. There’s a difference between actorly commitment and truly embodying a character and injecting the role with believability. While the other actresses go for a screeching, hysterical emotionality, Mildren Clinton is just as crazy, but she modifies and finesses the role into one of tragedy and madness rather than a simple-minded “killer on the loose.” Lowry and Miller’s eyes bulge out of their sockets and they shout ‘til they’re blue in the face, but that’s not commitment, it’s hammy acting. Clinton’s actions stem from her emotions and the look on her face as she’s stabbing and murdering her victims is one of pain and anguish rather than gleeful malevolence. In an extremely tense and surprisingly sad scene, Tredoni allows Catherine to wait for Father Tom and, while cutting up a fish, tells Catherine that her own daughter died during her first communion. “When St. Michael took my little girl, I only thought of how cruel God was. He waited until then to teach me that children pay for the sins of their parents.” This entire scene is played out via Tredoni and Catherine’s POV, so when Tredoni subtly (though still brandishing a knife) accuses Catherine of coming to “take care of Father,” she’s clearly unnerved by this older woman’s aggression. The scene goes a long way toward explaining what Tredoni’s motivations are.

Everything comes to a head as Tredoni goes to Catherine’s apartment, presumably to murder her. In a real dick-move, Alice, now free to do what she likes, places some cockroaches on Mr. Alphonso’s stomach while he sleeps. When he wakes up screaming, Tredoni tries to run, but when Alphonso opens the door, he assumes the little lady in the yellow slicker and mask is Alice, so he grabs her. Bad move. She plunges that knife into fat old Mr. Alphonso like he’s made out of melted cheese, which he may very well be. A detective gets a good look at Mrs. Tredoni, but she manages to escape and make it to the church on time, to borrow an Alan Jay Lerner lyric. Rather than simply sending a couple of officers into the church to escort this small old lady out, Father Tom devises a plan to ask her to come with him during communion. The police even suggest throwing a sniper up into the balcony, but Father Tom’s got this shit on lockdown, so no worries. Holy shit. Nobody’s ever made such a bad judgement call. He refuses to give her communion (you know, those dumb little wafers), and she points at Catherine and shouts: “But you give it to that whore!” You can see the wheels turning in her head, then she reaches a resolution. Yanking out her knife, she stabs Father Tom in the neck and blood gushes forth. Once again, people lose their shit and as Tredoni is finally led out and no one in particular tries to help Father Tom, they’re giving “thoughts and prayers” I guess, Alice picks up the bag with the bloody knife and it seems as though her transition from little bitch to stone-cold killer is complete.

In the best tradition of Black Devil Doll from Hell, Alfred Sole was responsible for a great deal of the behind-the-scenes work but added phony names to the credits in order to give off the illusion of professionalism. His co-producer, an absolute shyster of a lawyer named Richard Rosenberg, essentially pulled a Max Bialystock and raised way more money than was needed for the film. Sole was so busy doing practically everything on the film, including wardrobe, special effects, and going through seven cameramen due to the stop-and-start nature of the filming, that he just signed whatever Rosenberg put in front of him, resulting in Rosenberg pocketing several thousand dollars for himself while supposedly “raising funds.” Rosenberg claimed the film cost five hundred thousand dollars, while Sole insists it was only three hundred thousand, at best. In the end, Sole signed away a great deal of the rights to the film and many members of his crew and family were never able to get their money back.

It’s very possible that the reason Sole was unable to see through Rosenberg’s ruse sooner was due to his on-set clashes with Linda Miller. Although they later became friends, he called her “a nightmare” and “the actress from hell.” Married to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Exorcist actor Jason Miller, her main claim to fame was being Jackie Gleason’s daughter. However, according to Sole, she hated anyone knowing that fact and kept it a secret. While Sole also claims that she’d walk around and tell people about her famous papa, when he casually mentioned to some of the extras who her father was, she came running into the middle of a scene having slashed her wrists. The cuts weren’t deep enough to prove fatal and with the film three-quarters of the way complete, he was able to persuade her to finish and he points out that if viewers look carefully, the sleeves around her wrists are quite tight.

Thanks to the Herculean efforts of editor Edward Salier (The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Roller Boogie), the movie was finished. Sole designed the poster and the film was to be distributed by Columbia Pictures along with a Bantam book tie-in, one of the first of its kind. Unfortunately, due to Rosenberg’s duplicitous nature, the deal was cancelled and the film was in limbo for a while before being picked up by Allied Artists. It’s a picture of many strengths, with a strong visual style and a quietly chilling score by Stephen Lawrence, who described his process as “imagining a cloud of bad karma hovering.” The film can be enjoyed both as a smart thriller or a campy masterclass in over-the-top acting. Either way, it’s a very accomplished and evocative film.