If you stop and think about it, for all the countless horror films that have been made with religious themes, can you come up with any that involved Lutherans or Presbyterians? Quakers, maybe, but no, the lion’s share are about Catholics. Catholics got it all wrapped up on the horror front: the costumes, the Latin, the rituals, the blood and cannibalism imagery, a long history of torture and abuse. Lutherans just aren’t that colorful. Catholicism is a creepier religion by nature, and it’s something filmmakers have been banking on for decades.
These days 1976’s Alice, Sweet Alice is remembered primarily for being the film debut of a very young Brooke Shields, but it’s even creepier than that.. The film’s tagline was, “If you survive this night, nothing will scare you again,” and even if that was pushing things a little the film made a bit of a splash at the time for its use of Catholic imagery and for being a different (and unusually bloody) kind of mystery. Even if it wasn’t terribly original, it was still new to mainstream American audiences.
It was one of only a small handful of films directed by Alfred Sole, who’s spent most of his career as an art director and production designer, and was the only film ever written by screenwriter Rosemary Ritvo. The cast was made up of mostly unknowns who turned in some wonderfully believable performances, and for working with as small a budget as they had the film as a whole has a richly detailed but still off-balance look and feel about it.
After an opening credits sequence featuring some standardly eerie mid-’70s horror film music and a young girl reciting the rosary, we’re introduced to the Spages sisters, 12 year-old Alice (Paula Sheppard) and 10-year-old Karen (Shields). While visiting their young and handsome priest Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) with their mother, it becomes immediately clear that Karen is the favorite. She’s kind, polite, sweet, and as a result everyone fawns over her and gives her gifts. Alice, as might be expected in a horror movie about sisters, is the weird and withdrawn one who doesn’t smile much and likes to play nasty tricks on people. Adults either ignore her, snap at her, or tell her to go someplace else. When Karen is found brutally murdered outside the church on the morning of her first communion, people begin whispering that Alice was responsible. After all, all the evidence points to her—she came into the church late, she was carrying Karen’s veil in her pocket, and school officials had repeatedly urged her parents to take her to a shrink, as she clearly wasn’t right in the head. Not even her own mother will come to her defense.
In the weeks that follow more people who were somehow connected to Alice are found stabbed to death and the circumstantial evidence piles up. But at the same time other likely suspects reveal themselves, and the cops don’t know what the hell to do. Things take an odd turn when Alice insists that her sister Karen is responsible for the murders. By the time the closing credits roll, things haven’t turned out quite as neat and clear cut as they seemed through much of the film. In fact it’s safe to say that no one saw that one coming.
The ironic thing is that there are no likeable characters to be found in Alice, Sweet Alice. Every one of them is shrill, self-absorbed, obnoxious, and mean. It’s easy to see any one of them as a potential child killer, and at the same time you wouldn’t much mind seeing any of them stabbed to death. Of them all, the most fascinating and weirdly charismatic is Mr. Alfonso, the sleazy, filthy, grossly obese pederast of a landlord who has a tendency to make calmly crass remarks to Alice whenever she delivers the rent check. Mr. Alfonso was played by a wonderful character actor named Alphonso DeNoble, who only appeared in three films (Bloodsucking Freaks, Night of the Zombies, and this) while spending the rest of his time working as a bouncer at a gay bar in Patterson, New Jersey. Unfortunately he ends up as one of the film’s many victims, and the only one I mourned.
Commenting on the film, a number of people have pointed out that it was clearly inspired by Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, citing the important role played by hooded yellow raincoats. Well, yes, I guess there’s something to that, but a much more significant influence – an inescapable influence, even – can be found in the Italian giallo films which, if not exactly respected, were still an incredibly popular genre among European audiences from the late ‘60s through the ‘80s, but particularly in the ‘70s. Like this, giallos (or gialli, if you want to be all snooty about it) in general concerned a string of brutal and bloody murders, often with a sexual element and often with some connection to the Catholic Church, an obvious suspect and a gaggle of secondary suspects, and a twist ending. In fact giallos (which were only seen in the States by grindhouse audiences on the coasts) became so formulaic that once you’d seen enough of them it became easy to pick out the real killer early on in the film.
I’m not giving anything away here, just saying that if you’ve seen your share of giallos, Alice, Sweet Alice may not offer many surprises (though it’s done quite well), but if you haven’t seen many, well, it’s a neat little shocker. And if you were a weird kid who was raised Catholic, all the better.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars