ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Alice Sweet Alice (1976) dir: Alfred Sole Blu Ray (88 Films)
A girl accused of murder
This horror mystery is set in Paterson, New Jersey. It features Paula E. Sheppard as Alice Spages, a rebellious and mentally disturbed young girl who tends towards such strange habits as dressing up in a yellow raincoat and mask in order to terrorise her angelic sister Karen (Brooke Shields). While most of Alice’s actions amount to nothing more than ghoulish pranks, Karen winds up being strangled to death at the local Roman Catholic church by an assailant wearing the same raincoat and mask. There are no witnesses to the murder itself. However, when Alice is seen wearing her veil at the communion which her sister was due to take part in, the police believe that she was the perpetrator.
Their mother Catherine (Linda Miller) refuses to believe that her disturbed daughter could carry out such an act. Her busybody sister Annie (Jane Lowry), on the other hand, can’t stand the mischievous girl and is more than willing to subscribe to this theory. When the latter gets attacked in the tenement stairwell by the same masked murderer, she tells the police that Alice was responsible - resulting in her being committed to a mental institution. Catherine’s estranged husband Dom (Niles McMaster), meanwhile, tries to get to the bottom of whoever is carrying out these violent acts.
Watch a trailer:
The slasher, Shields and Jim Jarmusch connection
Alice Sweet Alice has gained something of a cult following over the years for two reasons. Firstly, it was the movie debut for child-model-turned-actress Brooke Shields. Secondly, it was both an American variant on the Italian giallo as well as being a prototype for the late 1970s/1980s slasher movie craze. Indeed, it got re-released in 1981 as Holy Terror in order to capitalise on both the post-Halloween/Friday the 13th fad and Shields’ greater fame in the wake of her roles in Pretty Baby (1978) and The Blue Lagoon (1980). Fans of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016) might also be interested to note that it has been both set and shot in the same city upon which that film was based.
While it’s not the horror classic that it has been made out to be in some quarters, it’s certainly an interesting and distinctive effort. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on the close-knit Roman Catholic religious milieu. No, it’s not as one-note negative a picture of the faith as, for instance, Peter Mullen’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002) was. Indeed, it utilises the colourful ceremonial and iconographic aspects as fascinating otherworldly background detail, as well as incorporating a sympathetic priest character in the form of Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich). However, it does certainly point out that things can go horribly wrong in an environment so suffocatingly infused with ritual and unquestioning faith. One telling suspense sequence involves a confession box - a place for a one-to-one conversation with a priest which is meant to be based on honesty and trust. In this case, however, both qualities are severely lacking.
The film avoids directly linking the Catholic priesthood with paedophilia. However, this aspect is still worked into the story via the character of a creepy landlord named Mr. Alphonso (played by Alphonso DeNoble). He’s an obese slob who lives with three kittens and a goldfish in a cramped flat which looks like it has been inherited from his mother - and never redecorated since. His response to Karen’s death is the supremely icky line “God always takes the pretty ones”. Later on in the film, he also makes an unsavoury move on Alice (who understandably torments him for his sins).
Messy scenes of bloodshed
The stalking and slashing sequences are effectively orchestrated here, with inventive use made of POV camerawork, sharp edits and lashings of spurting red fake blood. There’s a realistically messy quality to these scenes that makes them quite shocking, especially the attack on Annie which features a succession of knife blows to her legs and feet. She’s reduced to crawling her way out of the front door of her tenement, leaving a trail of blood for a burgeoning rain shower to wash away.
On the other hand, the acting is rather overwrought and histrionic, tending to tip the film into outright melodrama at times. This is particularly true during the overstretched and talk-heavy midsection where Catherine argues the case of her child’s innocence with one person after another. It isn’t helped by the fact that the dialogue sounds like it has been dubbed in post-production. Surprisingly, arguably the best performance here is that of Paula E. Sheppard as the titular Alice. She plays her bratty, potentially satanic child role with a pleasingly unpleasant relish.
By the time we get to the film’s haunting closing shot, focussed heavily on Alice as a chaotic scene unfolds around her in the church where the first murder took place, it is quite evident that Alfred Sole had some potential as a director. However, he only helmed three feature-length films in total, his last being a little-seen slasher spoof called Pandemonium in 1982. Since then, he has continued to work in various other capacities, mostly on television, including as a writer and production designer. It’s a pity that he remains languishing in semi-obscurity nowadays but Alice Sweet Alice, despite its flaws, is an intriguing tale of terror for him to leave us alone in the dark with.
Runtime: 106 mins
Dir: Alfred Sole
Script: Rosemary Ritvo, Alfred Sole
Starring: Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, Paula E. Sheppard, Niles McMaster, Jane Lowry, Rudolph Willrich, Alfonso DeNoble, Brooke Shields
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Unfortunately, this 2K restoration still suffers from the usual 88 Films blight of sub-par looks and sounds, especially in comparison to cult/retro releases by companies such as Arrow, Indicator, Eureka! and The Criterion Collection. The images mostly look clean and clear but the colours are faded and the audio sounds rather tinny - albeit, the latter probably has more to do with the original recording than anything else.
Audio Commentary with Alfred Sole
The director provides a lively commentary here, alongside editor Ed Salier and assistant special makeup effects artist William Lustig (who became better known as a cult horror/genre film director in his own right thanks to such titles as Maniac and the Maniac Cop trilogy). Alfred Sole reveals that, since he was previously working as an architect restoring old buildings in the city of Paterson, he decided to incorporate some of them into the script.
He also reels off plenty of interesting trivia about the various cast members. Alfonso DeNoble earned his keep as both a nightclub bouncer at a gay bar and via posing as a priest in a graveyard in order to scam donations out of unsuspecting elderly people by offering to say prayers for lost loved ones! Paula E. Sheppard, who played the barely pubescent Alice, was actually 19 years old at the time and smoked between breaks in filming. Linda Miller is the ex-wife of Jason Miller, the daughter of Jackie Gleason and the mother of Jason Patric. Patric pops up very briefly in a scene aboard a bus, as does Linda’s less famous daughter Jennifer.
Sole, while very proud of the film overall, admits that the histrionic acting could have been toned down and that some scenes could have been cut in order to tighten it up. However, since it was his first feature-length film he was scared to remove anything. The shoot was also very stop-start due to difficulties finding the necessary funding. As a result, they went through nine different cameramen because they kept having to rehire a new one each time shooting recommenced. This made it a challenge to maintain visual continuity.
The other extras here are a trailer, TV spot, poster/stills gallery and restoration showreel.
Yet another cult curiosity gets a so-so release courtesy of 88 Films. Still, the film and its commentary aren’t bad, so if you’re a horror fan then by all means, go ahead.