Appellate Judge Tom Becker's a little terror.
Our review of Roger Corman Horror Classics: Volume 1, published November 29th, 2013, is also available.
Trapped in a haunted castle…there is no escape from THE TERROR!
At the turn of the 19th Century, French cavalry officer Andre Duvalier (Jack Nicholson, The Cry Baby Killer) finds himself lost in a deserted coastal area. While wandering, he spies a beautiful girl, Helene (Sandra Knight, Frankenstein's Daughter). He falls instantly in love, but when she goes into the water and he pursues her, he is nearly drowned.
He wakes up at the cottage of an old woman who uses potions and speaks mysteriously. The old woman has a pet hawk, named—Helene! Andre asks her about a castle he'd seen, and she mentions that it belongs to a Baron who is no longer in residence. Andre determines to go anyway, thinking the girl might be there.
He goes to the castle and, sure enough, sees Helene in a window. He's admitted by a servant (Richard Miller, Crazy Mama) and then meets the Baron (Boris Karloff, Targets). The Baron denies that there's a girl in the castle, but eventually admits to Andre that there was once a young woman as he's described. She was the Baron's wife, and she suffered a terrible fate many years before.
And now, it seems, she might be back.
Even though it's atmospheric and features a fun pairing of young Nicholson and old Karloff, The Terror is a less-than-compelling watch. It moves along at a languid pace, and while it offers a few low-budget chills, there's nothing especially memorable about it. The film rambles and relies on long explanations to keep us up with the plot. Characters say and do things that make little sense, and the heart of the story—a vengeance tale—is so convoluted that it seems like it was written on the spot. Actually, it seems like the whole film was just made up as they went along.
Which, from what I understand, isn't too far off from the way it actually happened. Corman had finished shooting The Raven with Karloff and, having a few days free, decided to start a new film with Karloff and Nicholson. Evidently, Corman didn't have a completely clear idea exactly what the finished film would be, so he was just kinda winging it.
He shot all of Karloff's scenes in four days and then took off, leaving a crew to finish up. In total, five directors contributed to this: Corman, Jack Hill, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Dennis Jakob, and Nicholson. Production dragged on for an unprecedented (by Corman standards) nine months, which is something like 135 times longer than the standard Corman production.
This could explain the disjointed feel of the project. All the elements are there for a great, gothic spooker: a haunted castle, a nobleman with a terrible secret, a love-struck young man pursuing a ghostly heroine, black magic, and a slowly unfolding tale horror. But it just doesn't seem that anyone involved in the production had actually thought the story through. Ideas are introduced and then abandoned, and the ending gives us a series of reveals that, even in the logically elastic horror genre, are just head scratching. It also doesn't help that Nicholson's performance goes from 19th Century soldier to 20th Century rebel and back again, or that Knight's beauty is almost overshadowed by her unfocused acting.
But, it has Karloff, who's always fun to watch, and Miller as his resilient footman. Character actress Dorothy Neumann (The Snake Pit) seems to be having a good time as the old woman—she certainly gets a memorable send-off—and Jonathan Haze (The Little Shop of Horrors) is solid as a talking mute who knows where all the bodies are buried. There's a double climax, one involving sea water and a double for Karloff who looks as much like Karloff as the guy who doubled for Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space looked like Lugosi, and another that untidily wraps everything up.
This release is from HD Cinema, which is turning out Blu-rays of titles that have been in public domain. As with their previous release I reviewed, Dementia 13, they've done a pretty heavy DNR job on The Terror.
But since The Terror has been in public domain for so long, pretty much every other copy out there looks dreadful. While HD Cinema hasn't exactly provided a sharp, film-like transfer, it's miles better than what's previously been available.
So, instead of this:
We get this:
Note: The above captures were taken from the HD Cinema set's DVD; the Blu-ray image is a bit better.
The difference is pretty startling in terms of clarity and texture, though the HD Cinema print does seem to lose some information at the top and bottom of the frame. The PD versions I've seen are full frame, the HD Cinema is 1.78, and the film was originally 1.85. Detail is less-than razor sharp, and there's barely any noticeable film grain, but overall, I find this transfer satisfying and far preferable to any I've seen of this film.
Like the previous set, this one was created from "original 35MM elements" and includes a DVD copy of the film, a brief restoration demonstration, a trailer, and a card with the poster art. It's a shame they didn't go all out and get an interview with someone like Jack Hill or Dick Miller; I suspect the story of the film is more interesting than the film itself.
Audio is DVD-bound: a Dolby surround track or a Dolby stereo track. It's also competitively priced at around ten bucks—about what you'd pay for an inferior PD copy.
Corman's slap-it-together style can be intriguing and it can be frustrating; The Terror, at least for me, falls into the latter category. But the film has its champions, and it certainly has its moments. If you haven't seen The Terror—and you probably should, just from a cultural reference standpoint—this Blu-ray is the way to go.
Five guilty directors, a no-contest plea from Nicholson, and a good-looking, inexpensive disc.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: HD Cinema Classics
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