On ALICE SWEET ALICE

Discussing Alfred Sole’s 1976 American giallo masterpiece

I’ve been writing about and discussing co-writer/director Alfred Sole’s dark, effectively upsetting 1976 psychodrama Alice Sweet Alice for some time now. I first learned of the film when sifting through an early ’80’s edition of FANGORIA magazine, wherein there was a small, black and white still from the film of what looked like a charred human head.

It looked real. At least to me.

And I needed to know what this film was.

Leonard Maltin’s video book, a once indispensable pre-internet reference tool for young, burgeoning cinephiles, gave it a shrug review and two pithy stars. But then again, the book did the same for Taxi Driver, so that did not deter me.

Later, I would see the film appear on VHS via a myriad of labels and for rock-bottom prices (due to a copyright snafu many think the movie is in the public domain; it’s not) , in dump-bins at Kmart’s and Woolco’s everywhere and elsewhere.

I kept thinking about the film. But because of that damned still, that charred head, I was almost afraid to watch it.

One night, the movie was scheduled to play at 1am on Buffalo-based channel WGRZ-TV’s “The Cat’s Pyjamas” and I indeed mustered the courage to watch it.

Alone.

And from its first moments, from its whispering theme music and its right-of-title-card image of a veiled girl with a knife, I was in a state of dread.

That dread did not let up.

And it still hasn’t.

Sole’s film is a major work of psychological horror; grim, grisly and decidedly offbeat, it has elements that echo Italian giallo films, The Exorcist and most potently, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. It was originally released under the title Communion, then re-issued as Holy Terror before getting stuck with the moniker it now bears. The film is intense, emotionally draining and thoroughly fascinating and it needs fare more affection than it currently commands.

The prickly, favorably melodramatic masterpiece tells the tale of New Jersey divorcee Catherine Spages (Linda Miller) and her two daughters, sweet little Karen (played by a pre-Pretty Baby and The Blue Lagoon Brooke Shields in her movie debut) and the slightly older (and more than slightly emotionally disturbed) sister Alice (Paula Sheppard, who would grow up to star in the counterculture punk rock / Sci-Fi classic Liquid Sky).

Seems young Alice is none too pleased by the fact that her cherub-faced sibling gets most of the attention from not only their mother, but also from her shrill, overbearing aunt, her morbidly obese and pedophile landlord and even the far-too attentive parish priest. She displays this displeasure physically, with an endless array of histrionic tantrums, meltdowns and sister-baiting torments that further marginalize her into the realms of the less loved.

The fact that the doted on Karen is all set to receive her very first communion – something that had always been denied to Alice because she was born out of wedlock, thus being deemed illegitimate by the Catholic church – is the final straw and almost pushes the jealous, perpetually slighted girl over the proverbial edge.

Then, on the very day she is designated to ritualistically eat the body of Christ, Karen is murdered (a brutal, shocking, yet effectively bloodless sequence in which Shields is choked with a candle, stuffed in a drawer and set on fire). Almost immediately, suspicion universally falls upon the sloped shoulders of the gloomy, unstable Alice whose increasingly bizarre behavior appears to implicate her beyond a shadow of a doubt.

But as more and more members of the Spages family (and those that surround them) fall prey to a diminutive, plastic masked, butcher knife wielding, yellow rain slicker wearing homicidal lunatic (again, shades of Don’t Look Now), we quickly learn that the ties that bind are tenuous at best and that the church’s guilt-ridden stranglehold on its flock runs deep… and runs red.

Alice Sweet Alice is often dismissed as a “slasher” movie, but that’s a cosmetic observation. The picture is much closer to Hitchcock than Halloween.

Director Sole (who incidentally is the uncle of indie horror filmmaker and composer Dante Tomaseli, himself planning a long-in-gestation remake) displays a sure hand at weaving obsessive imagery and boasts an almost Polanski-esque ability to milk queasy, sinister unease out of the working class urban lifestyle, creating an ever present aura of on-screen, everyday dread and a sense that the world these people inhabit is irrevocably bent and forever off its axis.

The film has a unique narrative rhythm as well, with the central mystery resolving itself almost half way through only to evolve from a “who-dunit” to “why-dunnit”. Though this tonal shift is initially jarring, it’s a testament to the picture’s power (and Sole’s ace direction) that it manages to keep you completely hooked – sometimes reluctantly so – right up until the final, chilling shot.

Credit must also go to composer Stephen Lawrence’s rich Bernard Herrmann-esque neo-classical score that’s subtly effective when it needs to be and more aggressive during the frequent shock scenes. But what truly gives the remarkable Alice Sweet Alice it’s frightening fingerprint is the amazing rogues gallery of offbeat characters that slither around the picture’s claustrophobic corners. Sheppard was actually nineteen when she was asked to play the role of the titular, possibly murderous preteen and this visibly wizened, physical maturity gives Alice an effectively world weary, tragically grotesque presence, especially when she’s nicking her baby sister’s dollies or choking Mr. Alphonso’s kittens.

Now, let’s talk about Mr. Alphonso.

The pasty-faced, obscenely overweight landlord and filthy, cat cradling shut-in has to be seen to be believed.

Played by the long MIA character actor Alphonso DeNoble (Joel M. Reed’s indefensible exploitation classic Bloodsucking Freaks), Mr. Alphonso is one of sick cinema’s most stomach churning pseudo-villains. Whether fanning his sweaty self in an easy chair while listening to opera, feeding his horde of mangy, mewling felines or lecherously pawing at Alice, he is a creation of brilliant slobbery and is just one of the many morally repellent adults in the film.

And perhaps it’s that lack of a clearly defined protagonist that has kept Alice Sweet Alice at an arms distance to many a film lover: there’s nobody to really root for in this movie, just a joyless bunch of terrified, damaged, working class hypocrites who offer up their children to the alter of Christ without conscience…and suffer gravely for it.

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