Saturday, April 7, 2018

ALICE SWEET ALICE (1976) (88 Films Blu-ray Review)


Label: 88 Films
Region Code: All
Rating: Cert. 18
Duration: 107 Minutes
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Dual-Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Director: Alfred Sole
Cast: Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, Mildred Clinton, Tom Signorelli, Brooke Shields

The post-Exorcist Catholic shocker Alice Sweet Alice (aka Holy Terror, aka Communionis set in the early sixties in Patterson, New Jersey, a ten-year old girl named Karen (Brook Shields, The Blue Lagoon) is preparing for her first holy communion, her doting mother Catherine Spages (Linda Miller, Night of the Juggler) dotes on her constantly, much to the chagrin of her twelve-year-old sister Alice (Paula Sheppard, Liquid Sky) who acts out in a brattish sort of way. The older sister steals Karen's beloved doll and lures her to an abandoned warehouse where the older girl dons a translucent plastic mask and a yellow rain slicker and gives her sister a fright, locking her in a room and threatening to make the doll disappear if Karen tattles on her.

The next day at Church during her holy communion Karen is strangled to death by someone wearing the same plastic mask and rain slicker, her body is stuffed inside a pulpit bench compartment and set on fire, the smoke attracting the attention of a nun who discovers the body  - sending out a horrific scream that sets in motion an appropriate wave of hysteria from parishioners and Catherine's mother, though Alice seems nonplussed by everything happening around her. When Alice is found to have her sister's communion veil she becomes the prime suspect, with the film positing the question -  could this twelve year old girl been capable of such a heinous crime? The answer seems to be yes as we witness the deeply troubled girl killing a kitten by grabbing it by the neck and throwing it full force at the ground, but of course there's more to the story than all that, the awful act having been spurred by the advances of her child-molesting landlord. 

The film a great example of a proto-slasher, coming a few years before John Carpenter's genre-defining Halloween (1978) and a few years after Bob Clark's seminal holiday themed sorority proto-slasher Black Christmas (1974), offering up some European styled whodunit thrills, though not as artful as those of Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), this is more along the lines of Massimo Dallamano's equally perverse giallo film What Have You Done To Solange? (1972), in lieu of a black gloved killer in a trench coat we have plastic-masked culprit in a rain yellow slicker, a visual nod to Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) I couldn't help but think of having just re-watched it. 

The film is populated by adults who are are portrayed as faithful, conflicted and dangerously repressed, most of their lives centered around the church, which is represented by the kindly Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich). Then we have Catherine's sister Annie (Jane Lowry) - who loathes Alice - and her poor hen-pecked husband Jimmy (Gary Allen, The Sentinel), plus the priest's over-zealous housemaid Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton, Serpico) and a pervy landlord named Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble, Bloodsucking Freaks), a cat-loving obese man with urine stains on his pants! Also coming into the picture is Alice's absent father Dom (Niles McMaster, another Bloodsucking Freaks alum) who having divorced her mom has moved on with a new wife, but his arrival re-ignites some unresolved romantic feelings between the two which is nicely played out, as is his quest to prove his daughter's innocence. 

The movie has a solid cast, a very young Brook Shields appears in the film for mere minutes but her character's presence looms large in the film. It's Paula Sheppard - who was unbelievably nineteen at the time they made this film - that brings the movie home, she plays the conflicted and deeply disturbed young girl very well, it's surprising she didn't go onto do more in cinema, her only other credit being in the new wave, art-damaged sci-fi film Liquid Sky, which is yet again giving a memorable turn. Miller and McMaster also give good performances as the parents, particularly Miller as the grieving and guilt-ridden mother struggling with the loss of her daughter while trying to connect with the one she still has, who might be a killer. Not all the acting is great though, Jane Lowry as the aunt is just chewing up the scenery, that woman screams a lot and makes some over-wrought faces, but I loved it. Creepy Alphonso DeNoble seems like he's acting in a completely different movie, he comes across overly campy, but his child-molesting ways do sort of help explain Alice's inappropriate behaviors in a way, so that also worked for me. 

The movie is not a bloodbath but the set-ups are good and the execution well-done, the initial strangling of Karen and the image of the smoldering pulpit compartment that conceals her body is nicely staged, we don't see the body right away but the horrified faces of those who see the body tells the story, which is follow-up with a great still image of her corpse's face descending down a dumb waiter, which is a bit of strange perfection. A later scene involves her father being lured to the same warehouse where Alice locked Karen in a room, he's stabbed and tied-up, helpless to stop the culprit from rolling him on the floor towards an open window where he will fall to his death, during which he's being beaten with brick which bloodies his mouth as he desperately clenches onto a crucifix belonging to the murderer, which he believes will prove vital in establishing his daughter's innocence, it's nicely visceral scene.

As the movie comes to a close the identity of the murderer has been revealed already and without being to spoilery we get a wonderfully blasphemous end that takes place during communion at the church, the whore-shaming, sinner-killing culprit plunges a butcher's knife into a priest's neck, releasing a torrent of blood which runs down the culprit's yellow rain slicker, it's a nice visual and a sad, down-tuned finale but it's a powerful one indeed. 

Audio/Video: Alice Sweet Alice (1976) makes it's Blu-ray debut from UK distributor 88 Films, the 1080P HD image is framed in the original theatrical exhibition aspect ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen, with the Holy Terror alternate title card. Having only seen the film on TV and a cheapie DVD collection from VCI previously I must say that this viewing was an eye-opener, 88 Films brand new 2K restoration was sourced from a theatrical 35mm film print, which is not ideal for HD restoration, so it won't be HD perfection. The grain structure is not as finely resolved as you'd get from restoration sourced from the original negative or from an interpositive but it does offer decent fine detail in the 70's textured clothing, ornate wallpaper and close-ups of faces. The new color grading looks good, though skin tones are overly cool without any warmth and the whites seem blown, there are also instances when color density is soft and fluctuates, a scene of a bloodied Annie spilling out onto a doorstop after being stabbed on the staircase was the most noticeable to my eyes and even that wasn't problematic for me  I don't want to scare anyone off of this release, far from it, this restoration is mighty impressive but I want to temper collector's expectation with film restoration reality.

Reversible Artwork 

The lone audio option is a remastered lossless LPCM 2.0 Mono audio track, like the image it has some issues such as minor hiss and distortion, including some slight muffling of dialogue, but nothing too problematic.  The creepy and atmospheric score from composer Stephen J. Lawrence (TV's Sesame Street, I kid you not!) complements the attractive lensing, optional English Subtitles are provided. 

Onto the extra we get a few but this is not an extras-heavy release unfortunately, we begin with a vintage audio commentary with by Director Alfred Sole and Editor Edward Salier moderated by a pre-Blue Underground Bill Lustig - who also worked on the film as a crew member. This first appeared on the laserdisc version of the film, it's a good commentary with the trio speaking about the production of the film, and the influence of Don't Look Now and Alfred Hitchcock on the aesthetic. There's also a theatrical trailer for the Holy Terror titled version of the film, which features black and white still of Brooke Shields which are not from this film! We also get a TV spot advertising the film under the Communion title as a double-feature with sharksploitation classic Tintorera (1977), the sound is a bit muffled on this one. Also included is a five-minute restoration demo that shows the condition of the source elements prior and after the restoration, it's a mighty fine restoration indeed considering the quality of the elements they were given. The disc extras are finished up with a five minute Poster and Home Video Artwork Gallery featuring the images of the original novel, posters from various territories under different titles and various home video releases, including a fun double-feature with undead biker classic Psychomania (1972)!

The single-disc Blu-ray release comes housed in a red Blu-ray keepcase with a dual-sided sleeve of artwork, the a-side featuring the familiar Alice Sweet Alice original movie poster and the b-side featuring a Holy Terror variant, the disc itself featuring an excerpt of the same Holy Terror key art. This first pressing includes a numbered spine - this being #32 - the slipcover featuring the original Alice Sweet Alice artwork.    

As stated this is an extras-lite release, as a collector there are a few things I would have liked to see, such as any sort of appreciation or commentary from the horror community talking heads, weather that be an appreciation or commentary from the likes of 88 Films' own Calum Waddell or Stephen Thrower and/or Tim Lucas. I also would have enjoyed alternate title sequences for the Communion and Alice Sweet Alice versions of the film, it's a small thing but it's those small thing we collector's love, right? 

Special Features: 
- NEW (2018) 2K Scan and Restoration from Positive Elements
- Restored LPCM Original Mono Audio
- Optional English Subtitles
- Audio Commentary by Director Alfred Sole and Editor Edward Salier moderated by Bill Lustig 
- Original Trailer (Holy Terror) (2 min) HD 
- "Communion" TV Spot (15 sec) HD
- Poster and Home Video Artwork Gallery (5 min) H D
- Restoration Comparison (5 min) HD 
- Reversible Sleeve
- Matt Finish Cardboard O-Ring

Alice Sweet Alice (1976) is a wonderfully creepy 70's horror entry with lots of atmosphere and European styled whodunit thrills, it continues to shock me even after all these years, the psychological underpinnings and killer-kiddie shock of it all has aged very well, this is a highly recommended release. The new 88 Films is not HD perfection but it is the best the film has ever looked on home video hands down. This particular version with the slipcase was a limited edition website exclusive from 88 Films, it's now sold out but fear not, a general release version (minus the slipcase) will be available July 9th (also region-free), so be sure to grab a copy.