Thursday, July 18, 2019

ALICE SWEET ALICE (1976) (Arrow Video Blu-ray Review)


Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: A
Rating: R
Duration: 107 Minutes
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 1.0 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 Communion) is set in the early sixties in Patterson, New Jersey, a ten-year old girl named Karen (Brooke 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 creepy, translucent plastic mask and a yellow rain slicker and gives her sister a good 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 a similar plastic mask and yellow rain slicker, her body is stuffed inside a pulpit bench compartment and set on fire. The smoke ends up 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 a bit nonplussed by everything happening around her. When Alice is found to have her sister's communion veil she becomes a suspect in the murder, with the film positing the question - could this twelve year old girl been capable of such a heinous crime? The answer seems to be a resounding 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. There's more to the story than all that though, the awful kitten-killing act having been spurned by the creepy advances of her child-molesting landlord. 

The film a great example of a 70's proto-slasher, coming a few years before John Carpenter's slasher-defining Halloween (1978) and a few years after Bob Clark's seminal holiday themed sorority proto-slasher Black Christmas (1974), as well as 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 yellow rain slicker, which itself is a visual nod to Nicolas Roeg's surreal shocker Don't Look Now (1973). 

The film is populated by adults who are are portrayed as faithful, conflicted and dangerously repressed Catholics, most of their lives centered around the community 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 the pervy landlord named Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble, Bloodsucking Freaks), a cat-loving obese man with urine stains on his pants and a budding pedophile! 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 unresolved intimate feelings, while his quest to prove his daughter's innocence also dooming him in the process.

The movie has a solid cast, a very young Brooke 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, where she yet again gives 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 a bit 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 is 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 macabre story, which is followed-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 the scene he's being beaten with brick which bloodies his mouth as he desperately clenches onto a crucifix belonging to the murderer, which 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 too spoilery we get a wonderfully blasphemous end that takes place, appropriately enough, during communion at the church, with the sinner-killing culprit plunging 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 but powerful finale to the film.

Audio/Video: Previously issues on region-free Blu-ray from 88 Films in the UK this new release from Arrow Video offers a new 2K scan of the original camera negative, as where 88 Films used a theatrical print for the film, with this new Arrow scan look absolutely superior with more clarity and detail, colors are more vibrant. Grain is more natural looking and finely resolved, giving is some excellent close-up detail and textures throughout, the 88 Films release was a solid release at the time, but Arrow's release really wipes the floor with it. 

Audio comes by way of English DTS-HD MA Mono 1.0 with optional English subtitles. This is a cleaner presentation than the 88 Films release, dialogue is well-balanced, and the atmospheric score from composer Stephen J. Lawrence (TV's Sesame Street, I kid you not!) complements the attractive lensing. 

Arrow improve upon the 88 Films release again with a plethora of new extras, beginning with a 17-min interview with director Alfred Sole who begins by speaking about shooting his first film, inspired by Francis Ford Coppola, the x-rated film 'Deep Sleep', thinking it would be his big break, and while it grossed well at the box office, which it did, but is also landed him in court and he served some probation. He then goes into writing the script for this film, reading screenplay books, being influenced by Hitchcock and Nicholas Roeg's 'Don't Look Now', raising the capital for the film, and casting the roles in the film including Brook Shields and Paula Sheppard, and meeting Alfonso Denobe in a graveyard in New Jersey and keeping him in mind for a role in a film. Then going into shooting the film, the trouble with holding down a cameraman for the film, saying that the credited cameraman was a 'real dick'.

Composer Stephen Lawrence gets a 15-min interview, he goes into how he came to score the film, his process of creating certain themes in the movie, even playing selections from a few of them on piano during the interview. Lawrence gives director Alfred Sole a lot of credit for crafting such a stylish film, saying it's not just a slasher film, it's a well-made movie. 

Author Michael Gingold gives us a 16-min locations tour of the places used in the film, including the various churches, many of which have been since torn down or burned down, as is the case with the funeral home in the film. Filmmaker Dante Tomaselli, cousin of Alfred Sole, shows u for an 11-min interview, discussing his longtime connection to the film. He speaks of hearing about his uncle's x-rated film and how that made him queasy at a young age, and being invited to hang on on the set of a Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary) music video that Sole was working on at the time. He also discusses finally seeing the film on home video, and later reading about Alice Sweet Alice in Fangoria and learning that the film had a fan base. Apparently hes been working on a remake of this one for awhile now, so that might be coming along one day. 

Actor Niles McMaster who played the father of Alice speaks for 6-min about his role in the film, balancing shooting this film with his work on a soap opera, also speaking of how a shoot at the morgue was cut short with the arrival of five fresh corpses burned in a fire showed up, and briefly mentioning Sole's porno film, and his own work on Blood Sucking Freaks. The interview was conducted over Skype so the audio is a bit poor on this one, but listenable. 

There's also a pair of audio commentaries, the first is a vintage commentary with 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, in addition to the 88 Films Blu-ray, and 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 of it. There's also a new commentary from Richard Harland Smith who deep-dives into the film, making the case that the film is misunderstood and a bit underrated, getting into the themes of the film, the locations and the various actors in the film, its an excellent track. 

A very cool extras is the 'Holy Terror' TC cut of the film sourced from the same 2K restoration and presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, conformed to the TV cut based on archival tape found at a Warners Bros. facilty, this one having the alternate 'Holy Terror' title card in addition to some minor editing differences. 

We also get 3-min of deleted scenes that were discovered during the scan of the original negative, but no sound elements exist for it so they are presented mute with score from the film. Additionally we get an alternate opening credit sequence with the 'Alice Sweet Alive' title card, a very brief UK 'Communion' TV spot plus an image gallery of posters images and lobby cards.  

Special Features: 
- Brand new 2K restoration of the theatrical version from the original camera negative
- Brand new audio commentary with Richard Harland Smith
- Archival audio commentary with co-writer/director Alfred Sole and editor Edward Salier 
- First Communion: Alfred Sole Remembers Alice, Sweet Alice (17 min)
- Alice On My Mind: Composer Stephen Lawrence on Alice Sweet Alive (16 min) 
- In the Name of the Father – brand new interview with actor Niles McMaster (16 min)
- Sweet Memories: Dante Tomaselli on Alice, Sweet Alice – filmmaker Dante Tomaselli, cousin of Alfred Sole, discusses his longtime connection to the film (11 min) 
- Lost Childhood: The Locations of Alice, Sweet Alice – a tour of the original Alice Sweet Alice shooting locations hosted by author Michael Gingold (16 min) 
- Alternate Holy Terror Television Cut (107 min) 
- Deleted Scene (3 min)
- Alternate Opening Titles (1 min) 
- Trailer (2 min) 
- TV Spot (1 min) 
- Original screenplay (BD-ROM)
- Image gallery (7 min) 

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 new 2K restoration from Arrow Video looks and sounds fantastic, it's a significant leap in quality over the 88 Films release from last year and loaded with extras!