Roger Corman‘s The Terror has been in public domain for half of forever. The result, predictably, has been a plethora of DVD prints, ranging from wretched to execrable. It is a legendary film that his its equal share of fans and detractors. The Terror marks the only time Boris Karloff actually “starred” in a film directed by Corman (1963’s The Raven does not really count, as Karloff was secondary to Vincent Price). How much of the movie Corman directed is debatable. Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller are all reported to have directed parts of The Terror, although only Corman is credited.
The story behind the film is well known. Corman had finished shooting The Raven ahead of schedule and still had Karloff on contract for four days. Not one to waste money, Corman whipped up a second movie starring the actor. Part of the myth regarding this film is that it was made in its entirety in 48 hours. Actually, Karloff’s scenes were shot in three to four days. Corman utilized the castle set from the first film, later scenes were added, and the entire movie was produced over a nine month period, which is something like an epic for Corman. Corman, of course, masterfully sculpts his own mythology, but filming commenced without a finished script, and that is probably why it took so long to pull something halfway salable out of it. It’s not really an advisable filmmaking method.
The Terror has finally been released in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and has rightfully received accolades for the remastering on the Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the DVD part of the combo has had a high number of reported defects. Regardless, the film looks beautiful in the Blu-ray transfer, rich with 1960s colors. It finally looks nearly as good here as the excerpts we see of it in the Corman produced Targets (1968-dir. Peter Bogdanovich). The transfer made me long to see The Terror on a drive-in cinema screen.
Seeing this film in a watchable print does reveal some merits. Besides the vibrant Gothic milieu, the film has an energetic score by Ronald Stein. Jack Nicholson, while not the actor he would become, is better as an arrogant soldier than he was as the whiny son of the equally whiny Vincent Price in The Raven. Another high point here is the very good performance by Boris Karloff. It is unfortunate that Corman did not get to work with Karloff more than he did, because the actor might have been better suited to this director than was Price. In the Poe-cycle Corman films, Price often projects a grating self-pity. While Karloff was also a screen personality that audiences sympathized with, he was able to convey pathos in a less hand-wringing way.
As far as the script, it is surprisingly somewhat coherent for something that was slapped together. Nicholson is Lt. Andre Duvalier, a soldier in Napoleon’s army. Inexplicably, he gets separated from his regiment. He sees a mysterious, beautiful woman (Sandra Knight). He is told her name is Helene, and he attempts to follows her into the sea. Duvalier believes that she has committed suicide. He is attacked by a large bird and wakes up in the home of the old witch Katrina (Dorothy Neumann) and her mute henchman Gustaf ( Jonathan Haze). Duvalier’s search for Helene leads him to the castle of Baron Victor Von Leppe (Karloff) who lives alone there with his servant Stefan (Dick Miller). The Baron has a painting of Ilsa, his wife, dead now twenty years. Shockingly (?), Ilsa looks exactly like Helene. The nobleman has a black secret and a predictable revelation is in store, along with an unpredictable twist.
The opening sequence of Karloff descending down the castle stairs in the night is stylistically shot. He opens a door and a skeleton pops out. Animated birds of dread soar through the credits, enhancing the flavor. Nicely done; except for those who prefer a coherent narrative, because there is no hidden skeleton in the film. In this, The Terror is a bit like the pulp comic book covers which show a potentially exciting scene that never actually occurs in the story. Not being religiously attached to linear yarn spinning, I liked the sequence. Sandra Knight (Nicholson’s wife at the time) as the ghost of Ilsa, is beautiful, obviously pregnant in several scenes, and a distractingly bad actress. Neumann and Haze have contagious fun with their roles.
A so-called spoiler alert (although it’s a bit nonsensical to have a spoiler alert for a fifty year old film, but in that in that I am keeping with the nonsensical spirit of The Terror): twenty years ago the Baron murdered Ilsa when he caught her bedding down the peasant Eric. That’s a big no surprise. Stefan disposed of Eric. The ghost of Ilsa is exacting revenge via Katrina, who is Eric’s mother. Stefan unloads the one genuine twist: actually, he killed the Baron and Eric has taken the nobleman’s place for the last twenty years. That narrative bit will doubtfully sit well with the unimaginative reality-check geeks who will be quick to point out that Karloff’s Eric is at least thirty years older than his “mother,” portrayed by Neumann.
Karloff excels in the confrontation finale. Ilsa is coercing Eric into suicide (so they can be joined together in the abode of the damned). Eric resists, fearing eternal damnation, but finally consents with thinly veiled resignation masking glee. Karloff does the scene justice. Earlier, he is as good at menacingly evading Duvalier’s inquiries.
The finale is everything you would expect in this kind of product: a flooded castle (with a really bad double for Karloff) and a corpse which melts after a kiss (Sandra Knight, after Jack plants one on his wife’s lips). The special effects add up to what looks like a gallon of butterscotch syrup poured onto her face.
Still, the legend behind this film is just plain fun, even if it’s more myth than fact, even it’s more product than art, even if it’s more entrepreneur Corman than craftsman Corman. And, hell there is Karloff! So, if anyone within close vicinity has one of those massive TV screens and a disc of drive-in snack bar commercials, then I have got The Terror and the pizza, and we’ll imagine it’s 1963 all over again.