Alice, Sweet Alice Review
Former architect-turned-filmmaker Alfred Sole only directed a few movies between the mid-seventies and early eighties, before settling into a successful career in TV production design. Of those early shoestring endeavours, Sole’s triumphant second feature would later be regarded as a minor horror classic, whereas the other misfires have long been consigned to B-movie oblivion. His film that is best remembered underwent several name changes over time, though is probably best known as Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) – a title the director hated yet was forced upon him by an anxious distributor.
The story is set in Paterson, New Jersey during 1961 and focusses on a close-knit Catholic community. Devout Catherine Spages (Linda Miller) has two daughters: 12-year-old Alice (Paula E. Sheppard) and 10-year-old Karen (Brooke Shields in her big screen debut). Unruly Alice has grown deeply resentful of all the attention bestowed on her spoilt younger sister. In fact she seems to like nothing more than playing pranks on her gullible sibling - or anyone else living nearby for that matter. One such lark has Alice disguised in a translucent fright mask with the hood of her yellow raincoat pulled up, ready to terrify the poor unsuspecting Karen.
Tragedy later strikes on the morning of Karen’s first communion, when she is brutally murdered by an assailant whose identity is concealed by the exact same get-up worn by Alice. Naturally suspicion falls on the youngster, with both the police and her hysterical Aunt Annie (a hammy Jane Lowry) convinced that she must be responsible for this and other subsequent vicious attacks in the area. Alice is undeniably a troubled soul with a malicious streak, who frequently hides in the cellar and keeps cockroaches in a jar, but is she capable of murder? Catherine’s ex-husband Dom (Nile McMaster) doesn’t think so, returning to the fold and determined to prove his daughter’s innocence – even if that means implicating other family members.
Alice, Sweet Alice is more akin to the Italian giallo mysteries of that era, than the surge of derivative slashers that would emerge from the US. There are some familiar tropes of that genre, such as a character who feels compelled to become an amateur sleuth when the police are seemingly ineffective – reminiscent of David Hemming’s musician in Deep Red (1975).
Sole demonstrates undeniable skill behind the camera – a tense sequence in an abandoned building in particular is staged with panache. He delivers some effective scares and grisly murders along the way. The film is packed full of religious symbolism in almost every scene and maintains a disturbing anti-Catholic undercurrent, often drawing comparisons with another giallo – Lucio Fulci’s controversial Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). Other obvious influences include Nic Roeg’s haunting classic Don’t Look Now (1973), by featuring a brightly coloured raincoat that would have great significance in the narrative. There is even a cursory nod to Hitchcock in the wonderfully eerie score by Stephen Lawrence, which every so often evokes memories of Bernard Herrmann’s classic work.
The film’s production design is particularly impressive given the meagre $350,000 budget, making excellent use of locations around Paterson, credibly recreating the period setting by way of vintage cars, costumes and other 1960s paraphernalia. However, it is the eclectic casting and many offbeat moments that stick most in the mind. Most of the characters are not particularly likeable, least of all the Spages’ deeply unsavoury cat loving landlord Mr Alphonso (played by Alphonso DeNoble), who has a liking of vintage records and an appetite so insatiable that he will even devour his pet’s food. The obese fellow has an unsettling confrontation with Alice early on - and the innocuous Kay Kyser song 'Three Little Fishies' has probably never played over a more sinister moment than it does later in the film. There’s also an earnest performance from Miller, daughter of comedian Jackie Gleason and whose former husband Jason became a huge international star following his role as Father Karras in The Exorcist. Watch closely too for a cameo from 1930s songstress Lillian Roth playing a pathologist who condemns Alice.
The real star of the show is decidedly not Brooke Shields. Despite what the ads may have wanted punters to believe back in 1981 when the film was hastily reissued to cash in on her rising popularity. She has, in fact, only a handful of scenes – and is insufferable in most of them. The real standout without a doubt is Sheppard, who was 19 years old when the film was shot, but convincingly plays a much younger part. Her creepy blank stare and oddball behaviour lends an ambiguity to many of the scenes to cleverly keep us guessing. Sheppard is so memorable here that it’s a great shame she quit acting after making only two movies – the other being a bizarre Russian made sci-fi opus called Liquid Sky (1982). Despite there having been a plethora of films released over the past few decades featuring a crazed mask wearing killer – many completely forgettable - Alice, Sweet Alice has managed to stand the test of time as being an above average little shocker.
Warner Bros. owned the rights to the film in the US and an HD release was mooted for some time. This has yet to materialise, much to the disappointment of fans. Finally, the movie makes its UK debut on Blu-ray from 88 Films in a new (2018) 2K scan from positive elements – it’s region free too. London based company The Ark have carried out restoration work for this HD premiere, removing extensive damage that was present on the source material. Intermittent vertical lines that were quite apparent on some previous DVD editions are thankfully no longer present, with the image noticeably sharper than before and correctly framed at 1.85:1. Colours are still not particularly vibrant – a sequence in the Spages’ residence suffers from blown-out whites, though compared to how washed out the image has looked in the past, this is still a marked improvement overall.
Alice, Sweet Alice has been issued with several alternate titles over the years, including Communion – director Sole’s preference, and Holy Terror (the onscreen title for this BD release). There have also been two variations of the film in circulation: the original 108 min version and a slightly abridged re-issue that first surfaced in 1981 to capitalise on the success of Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon. 88 Films have sourced the original full-length cut for this restoration. Furthermore, eight seconds of BBFC cuts that were imposed on very early UK releases have also been waived.
The soundtrack is presented in the original mono. I did detect some brief distortion affecting a single line of dialogue, but there are no significant issues to report. Dialogue is otherwise well-defined, with no background crackle, and English subtitles have been included. It’s worth mentioning that no sound plays over the end credits, which is correct for this version of the film and therefore not a production fault. By comparison, the DVD from 88 Films does have music over the end credits, though this is derived from a different source - and bears the film’s original title of Alice, Sweet Alice.
This new Blu-ray may not hold a candle to some of those dazzling 4K restorations of other films on the market but, given the poor quality of what was available, this should still be considered a noble effort from 88 Films.
The supplementary material is a little underwhelming, with most of it having previously appeared on earlier DVD editions, including: Audio commentary with director Alfred Sole and Editor Edward Salier - An insightful and entertaining commentary moderated by filmmaker William Lustig, which was originally recorded for the 1999 US Anchor Bay DVD. Original Trailer and Communion TV spot. Poster and Home Video Artwork gallery. Restoration Comparison - A brief visual comparison of how damaged the source material looked against the lovingly spruced up restored image. This short feature does contain a major spoiler, therefore is best viewed after the main film. Lastly, reversible sleeve with alternate Holy Terror poster art.
Alice, Sweet Alice is available now on Blu-ray exclusively from the 88 Films website, then all other retailers from 9th July 2018.