‘There’s no rest for the wicked…’
The Terror is a 1963 American horror feature film about a young officer in Napoleon’s Army who pursues a strange woman to the castle of an elderly Baron.
Produced and directed by Roger Corman – plus others discussed below – from a screenplay written by Leo Gordon and Jack Hill (Spider Baby) the movie stars Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight and Dick Miller.
The plot follows a young soldier in the Napoleonic Wars who, lost, pursues visions of an alluring phantom woman and stumbles across a castle inhabited by a menacing baron (working title Lady of the Shadows was a more apt and evocative alternative choice).
The story of the making of The Terror has become B-movie legend (well, one of many B-movie legends) testifying to the brilliant/dreaded low-budget opportunism of producer-director Roger Corman, here in the glory of his financially lucrative 1960s Edgar Allen Poe cycle. Corman had just wrapped photography on a (by his scale) physically lavish comedy-fantasy takeoff on Poe’s solemn poem The Raven, ahead of schedule. American International Productions (AIP) still had about five days’ worth of contractual obligation for Harry Reif’s grandiose castle set and key actors Boris Karloff and young Jack Nicholson were still available.
Instead of giving everyone a rest, Corman plunged right ahead into another Gothic chiller-project without a script and just a vague idea of what the plot was to be about. He filmed Karloff meandering about corridors and dungeons, confronting Jack about buried family skeletons in hastily-written dialogue by Leo Gordon (“What is the meaning of this intrusion?”), and hoped to patch it together into something coherent in post-production, with extra expository footage.
What resulted: Nicholson as French lieutenant Andre Duvalier, gone astray from the wars in 1806, repeatedly sees a bewitching but furtive young lady, Elaine (sensuous Sandra Knight was Mrs Jack Nicholson at the time, and pregnant). Advised by a villager that the girl is “possessed,” Andre heads to a forbidding seacoast castle where answers supposedly await.
Within is a mysterious Baron Victor Von Leppe (Karloff) who assures the soldier that there was no live woman; Elaine was Baroness Ilsa, dead now (murdered by the Baron himself for her infidelity) twenty years ago. Lovestruck Andre doesn’t buy it, and horror movie rules require the small cast stay around, opening doors on mouldering ghosts and uncovering local dark secrets and revenge until the whole thing literally goes to pieces.
Among novice filmmakers on Corman’s payroll to whom the auteur delegated chores of reshoots to shape The Terror into coherency were Jack Hill, associate producer Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hale, Dennis Jakob and even Jack Nicholson himself. Months later, supposedly, Corman had to do still more reshoots to make it releasable.
Results are patchy indeed, and fairly stodgy, and if one sits through to the “surprise” ending and tries to suss out the plot in reverse, it makes no sense. Yet…it could have been worse. As with much of Corman’s early material, one must apply a degree of artistic relativism; if you think getting results even this watchable on such a cheapjack level is easy – you give it a try. On real film, with SAG actors watching the clock, and clattering Moviola flatbeds, not with digital video and your pub buddies and a Macintosh laptop as dilettantes of the 48 Hour Film Project do nowadays.
True, as anything beyond drive-in/late show filler, The Terror lacks the quality of the canonical Corman/Poe cycle, and Jack Nicholson would obviously go on to better roles (and further offscreen love affairs that would make all of us put Rod Stewart’s “Some Guys Have All the Luck” on vinyl and vow to be bitter, hateful movie critics). But it has some jolts (a bird gouging a character’s eyes out is still a brutal piece of business), and maybe fulfils what Jean-Luc Godard almost but didn’t quite say, that all you need for a movie is a guy, a girl and a castle with Boris Karloff in it.
Speaking of, when Corman associate Peter Bogdanovich made his remarkable post-modern shocker Targets in 1968, clips from The Terror were repurposed in it as a film-within-the-film.
In the 1989 Corman produced horror-comedy Transylvania Twist, Karloff’s footage reappears again, giving the grand old trouper a supporting cameo. The footage does not seem happy about it.
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The Terror, like many vintage AIP features, has fallen into the public domain and is available as a “free movie”, on a variety of labels. Beware inferior picture quality and washed-out or muddy hues that do not do justice to the original Pathé colour. A few Blu-ray oriented enterprises, notably Film Chest and The Film Detective, appear to have gone to the trouble of putting the picture on disc with far better colour and sound, plus the 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio of Corman’s original release.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES & MANIA
“The story, with its emphasis on revenge, tombs, jealousy and black magic just might make this the best Edgar Allan Poe film Roger Corman made without being based on an actual Poe text. The opening scenes of Nicholson and Knight on the beach look excellent, as do all of the exteriors in this film.” DVD Drive-In
“In spite of the mawkish dialogue and a plot impersonating Poe’s fiction, Nicholson pulls off a generally good performance, outdoing even the great but melodramatic Karloff in several scenes. Dick Miller (Gremlins) also adds a bit of weight as the Baron’s butler, Stefan, and provides convenient exposition at critical moments.” High-Def Digest
“The script is confusing and the movie is patchy, but Corman does make the castle seem spooky and the constant shots of and waves crashing against the rocky shore during a storm are effective. (They’d later turn up in many a Corman picture.) The foggy crypt is also pretty cool looking too.” The Video Vacuum
Cast and characters:
- Boris Karloff … Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe / Eric
- Jack Nicholson … Lieutenant Andre Duvalier
- Sandra Knight … Helene / Ghost of Ilsa, Baroness Von Leppe
- Dick Miller … Stefan (as Richard Miller)
- Dorothy Neumann … Katrina, Witch / Eric’s Mother
- Jonathan Haze … Gustaf
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1 Spherical (as Vistascope)
In 1990, Roger Corman prepared a new version with about ten minutes of additional footage to copyright the film for his Concorde-New Horizon Corp. Mark Griffiths was the director of this new footage (added at the beginning and the end of the film). It was filmed on video and featured Rick Dean, Wayne Grace and Dick Miller (the only actor from the original cast – now twenty-seven years older).