Appellate Judge Tom Becker doesn't weep with delight when you give him a smile, but he occasionally trembles when you frown.
God always takes the pretty ones.
At church on the day of her First Holy Communion, little Karen Spages (Brooke Shields, Pretty Baby) is accosted by a diminutive figure in a yellow slicker and Halloween mask. The fiend strangles the child, hides her body and sets it on fire (using a church candle), and rips a cross from her neck—a cross given to her by Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich, The Number 23), the young and popular priest in this New Jersey parish.
It's an unthinkable crime, and there is only one suspect: Karen's sister, 12-year-old Alice (Paula Sheppard, Liquid Sky), who's been moody and difficult since her parents divorced. Their mother, Catherine (Linda Miller, An Unmarried Woman), reeling from the death of her youngest child, refuses to believe Alice was responsible.
But Catherine can't ignore Alice's bizarre behavior. Then, someone else is attacked and identifies Alice. Now, Catherine and her ex-husband have to try and prove that their daughter is not a killer—and find the person responsible before they become the next victims.
Although it's generally regarded as a slasher film, and remembered for the debut of Brooke Shields (her name is featured prominently on the DVD case, even though she has only a few minutes of screen time), Alice, Sweet Alice is much more than that, a genuinely disturbing and well-made (particularly for its budget) psychological horror film.
Director Alfred Sole does not give us a gratuitous gore fest. The focus here is on story and character. The script, by Sole and Rosemary Ritvo, is a nicely twisted mystery that doesn't become convoluted or derivative. The characters are well developed and played by actors who had a background on the stage. The film is visually dynamic, eschewing that flat, TV look that marked so many low-budget films in the '70s.
Sole sets his story in 1961, halcyon days for American Catholics, with the Kennedy presidency and the Papacy of John XXIII. In the film's working class Paterson, NJ, neighborhood, the church—and the Church—is central to everyone's life. Images of Catholicism—crucifixes, Sacred Hearts, Madonnas—are everywhere, in every room of every home. As we watch the events unfold, these images become increasingly sinister and overwhelming.
There are more references to God and religion here than in any two Bergman films. Naturally, Mother Church is less a place of comfort than a breeding ground of psycho-sexual repression. Father Tom and Catherine share an intimacy that's unsettling, particularly when seen through the eyes of others. The killer—revealed long before the end—gives an almost orgasmic soliloquy in a confessional booth (following a startling juxtaposition of the sacred and profane at the 75-minute mark).
The first murder is particularly shocking: it involves a young child, and it takes place in a church. Surprisingly, the murder does not take place entirely off-screen; there are shots of Karen struggling with her killer cross-cut with Father Tom performing Mass (in Latin) and various bits of business from the congregation. It's a remarkable scene, textured, intense, and horrifying, a real credit to Sole, his cast, and his editor, Edward Salier.
Overall, the body count in Alice, Sweet Alice is comparatively low, but Sole trades on suspense and drama more than gore. The violent scenes of are so well shot, scored, and edited that they seem particularly brutal and distressing.
Incidentally, this masked killer appeared fully two years before Michael Myers showed up in John Carpenter's Halloween. The yellow raincoat is not original, though; Sole himself happily admits to lifting that image from Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now, which was released three years earlier.
For years, Alice, Sweet Alice was in public domain—when the film was originally released, no one had bothered to include a copyright line. During the '80s, cheap copies of this were all over the place on VHS, released under a variety of names, including Holy Terror and Communion (Sole's original, and preferred, name for the film). At some point, it was saddled with the sloppy and generic tag line, "If you survive this night…nothing will scare you again," ironic since the film has no scenes at all that even take place at night.
In the late '90s, Sole made some minor changes to the film so that he could copyright this "new" version. It was released on laserdisc with a commentary by Sole and Salier. That version was later released on DVD by Anchor Bay and has been re-released by Hen's Tooth.
I wish I could report that this is the definitive version of this film; sadly, the release leaves a lot to be desired. The print is, at best, in fair shape, with scratches, streaks, and grain, though some scenes do look fine. The audio is adequate, though subtitles would have been a great addition.
Even though it's 10 years old, the Sole and Salier commentary is a great listen. The editor and director share some fun stories—Sole really did put this together for virtually no money, calling in favors or just getting lucky. It gets a little back-slappy here and there, but for once, the congratulations (and self-congratulations) are earned, particularly Salier's observations on how Alice, Sweet Alice is more like a European film than an American horror movie.
Alice, Sweet Alice is a terrific little indie cult item. Creepy, complex, and thought provoking, it's well worth a look, even if this edition is a bit below par.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Hen's Tooth
• Commentary by Director Alfred Sole and Editor Edward Salier
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