Film #81: The Terror (1963)

film 81 the terror

Rating: 2.5/5

“The crypt! It must be destroyed, and with it the dead.”

Anyone familiar with Roger Corman will know he’s much more than “king of the Bs.” In fact, he hates that term, arguing that he wasn’t (just) a B-movie director, because he always made the accompanying A pictures too. Despite his extensive catalogue – as either director or producer – of mostly schlock, gore, exploitation and drive-in pictures, the low budget filmmaker is hugely important. He had two particular talents: one, his ability to tap into the trends of a predominantly youth market (from his monster movies to his counter-culture pictures, he always gave his audience what they wanted); and two, his willingness to give budding filmmakers a chance to practice their craft. While his movies can be dismissed (by those unwilling to look further) as generic, silly, low-budget, few can deny his influence on some of the most important people in the film industry today: this is the man who gave Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese, Joe Dante, and Ron Howard – among others – their big break.

I mention this because The Terror, a gothic ghost story, boasts the involvement of a number of these names. Having just filmed The Raven, starring legendary horror icon Boris Karloff and young newcomer Jack Nicholson, Corman saw an opportunity to make/save some money, and shot some scenes using the same sets. Sometimes mistaken as one of the director-producer’s shortest filming schedules (Karloff’s scenes took only four days), The Terror was eventually shot over a period of nine months, making it one of his longest productions. It’s a bit of a jumble: after Karloff’s scenes were filmed, with a script still non-existent, several directors came on board. Nicholson himself took the helm for a while; so too did Coppola, Monte Hellman, and Jack Hill. The result is, as one might expect, a messy film, yet I was surprised at just how coherent it actually was. By expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised.

Clearly influenced not only by the existing sets, but by Corman’s own interests at the time, The Terror is obviously rooted in gothic horror and the works of classic authors like Edgar Allen Poe and MR James. Nicholson is Lt. Andre Duvalier, a cavalier separated from his regiment in 18th Century France who encounters a mysterious, beautiful woman (an obviously pregnant Sandra Knight, Nicholson’s then-wife) on a desolate beach. Intrigued, Duvalier follows the silent woman into the turbulent seas, and is rescued by a haggard old lady who dabbles in witchcraft. Having returned to health, Duvalier is determined to help the strange woman on the beach, and learns of Baron Victor Von Leppe (Karloff), a reclusive old man living in a vast castle on the cliffs, who apparently is the key to solving the mystery. It’s all fairly straight forward – a tale of lost love, tragedy, and restless spirits – straight forward, that is, until a particularly jumbled, garbled conclusion. It’s such a shame, because until this point, it’s actually not that bad.

There are problems, however. Visually, the film is excessively dark and poorly exposed: with most of the action taking place at night or in the darkness of the candle-lit castle, characters are frequently reduced to pale faces and brief flashes of colour from clothing. While the narrative isn’t as confused as it could be, it lacks direction and, despite being effectively atmospheric is too long and starts to drag. At several points it appears as though scenes were shot without a sense of purpose – which, evidently, is precisely the case. Yet, despite these problems, it’s really not as much of a shambles as it could have been. While Karloff easily steals the film, it’s a great pleasure to see such a young Jack Nicholson; the role doesn’t exert him and it’s a rather understated performance (in contrast to his better known, later parts), but his presence is undeniable, and both he and Karloff bring both charisma and intensity to the meagre, frequently improvised story.

Putting some of the strange narrative quirks to one side, The Terror is hardly the mess it could have been. It’s a testament to Corman that he managed to salvage the film; with so many people at the helm, the most basic of scripts, and recycled sets, it is a good example of why the director-producer has not only endured, but is finally now being recognised as more than just a B-movie maker – in recent years Corman has not only been the focus of a special retrospective at Edinburgh Film Festival and several books, but has finally received an Oscar for his achievements and his influence on some of the finest filmmakers in the business. The Terror is hardly his best work (as much as I love his monster movies, The Intruder remains his most powerful, important film in my eyes), but in the hands of someone less resourceful, it could have been a lot worse.

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