Once again we find ourselves
in the presence of a movie that has a rep - The Terror's reputation
is that it is "the movie without a plot". That distinction,
actually, more rightfully goes to Starship Troopers. The Terror
actually has a plot - it just takes a tortuous route to it, and
the tale of the movie's making is far more entertaining than the film's
actual story. First, our Official Movie Plot:
Andre Duvalier (an intensely young
Jack Nicholson), an officer in Napoleon's army, is lost, wandering around
the Baltic coast. Actually, judging from the familiar rock formations,
it's the Pacific Palisades, but never mind. Near dead of thirst, he
falls from his horse and is revived not only by the ocean spray, but
also a beautiful woman (Sandra Knight) emerging from the sea. She leads
him to a fresh water spring, introduces herself as Helene, and walks
back into the raging surf. Andre tries to follow, but is attacked by
a hawk, and passes out.
He comes to in the cabin
of the forest hag (Dorothy Neuman), apparently the owner of the offending
hawk. The Hag poo-poos the idea of the beautiful woman, especially since
the hawk's name is Helene. Andre sees the human Helene in the
woods again that night, however, but is halted in his pursuit of her
by the Hag's mute servant, Gustaf (Corman icon Jonathan Haze).... it
seems Helene was trying to lead Andre over some quicksand. Gustaf turns
out to be not as mute as everyone thinks, either, as he tells the officer
that Helene's will is not her own, and she may be found in the nearby
castle of Baron Von Leppe.
Riding on the beach some
more, Andre finds the castle, which appears to be a matte painting Corman
had hanging around in his sock drawer. Within, Andre imposes himself
on the reclusive Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff) and his faithful manservant
Stefan (Dick Miller, the other Corman icon). The Baron has a painting
of Helene, but the aging noble tells Andre it is a portrait of Ilsa,
the Baroness Von Leppe, who died 20 years before.
After that obligatory
Gothic setup, there's a lot of walking back and forth in creepy corridors
and rendezvous' in fog-shrouded graveyards. The Baron eventually admits
that when he came back from The Wars 20 years previous, he found Ilsa
in bed with another man and killed them both, and now he fears Ilsa
has returned to haunt him. Stefan, however, finds that the Hag is, for
some reason, hypnotizing a young woman with an uncanny resemblance to
Ilsa to coax the Baron into killing himself in guilt.
Andre pries a bit too
much and gets booted from the castle. Gustaf tries to flag him down,
and the hawk pecks out his eyes for his trouble. The blinded servant
walks off a cliff (surprisingly, for a no-budget flick, one of the best
dummy falls I've ever seen), and when Andre reaches the dying snitch,
Gustaf implores him to return to the castle and save the girl. Having
nothing else better to do, Andre does.
In the underground crypt where Ilsa
lies in repose, Helene/Ilsa finally convinces the Baron to open a secret
tunnel that will flood the crypt. Andre, the Hag and Stefan have a good
ol' breast-beating rough-housing bit of exposition revealing the Hag's
plan, and her motivation: the man who was sleeping with Ilsa that fateful
night was her son, Erik. Stefan then lays blockbuster #2 on everybody:
Ilsa was killed, yes, but Erik killed the Baron. All these years,
Erik has pretended to be the Baron Von Leppe, and his sanity has deteriorated
to the point where he actually believes the story. Stefan tries to break
through the Baron's secret passageway to the crypt, while Andre will
try to force the door from the castle's chapel to the same crypt, a
door the "Baron" had sealed 20 years before. Andre tries to
force the Hag to come with him, but she shrieks she may not enter a
house of God; turns out she was right, as she is struck by lightning
and bursts into flames.
Once the crypt starts
flooding, Helene/Ilsa reveals her true motives, and she and the Baron
struggle. Stefan manages to break in, and then the three of them struggle
as the ancient masonry begins to collapse around them. Andre arrives
just in time to pluck Helene from the water and carry her outside, to
the graveyard. He informs her she is free, and kisses her; he jerks
away in repulsion as the girl turns into a rotting corpse. The end.
While filming The
Raven, Roger Corman realized he was going to have a nifty set standing
unused for a couple of days before it got torn down, and being Roger
Corman, decided to make a movie on those few leftover days. He convinced
Karloff to stay on, and Nicholson, and recruited character actor Leo
Gordon to churn out the script. The real epiphany came, apparently,
when they realized they didn't have to write an entire script
in a few days, just the parts that were to be filmed on the castle sets;
these were shot and directed by Corman, with the same union crews still
under contract for The Raven. Then came the problem of actually
finishing the damn thing.
went to Francis Ford Coppola for a couple of days, then was handed over
Hill, Monte Hellman, and perhaps a couple of others whose names are
lost to the sands of time. It was up to those worthies to attempt to
justify, and even motivate the results of those first few days'
shooting, i.e., the parts of the script that had not been written. According
to Corman himself, the scene where Stefan reveals that Everything You
Know Is Wrong was the last scene shot, and done in about an hour after
the day's filming had wrapped on Corman's then-current Poe film.
This explains the patchwork
quality of the film nicely; there is a game that's used in improvisation
classes, where everyone sits on a circle on the floor, and each person
says one word, going around the circle. The trick is, the words
must add up to a story. Usually, the result is quite berserk and nonsensical,
even if the idea is to retell, say, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
This typifies much of the experience of watching The Terror,
and it's amazing that the flick evidences as much cohesion as it does.
The actors on hand for
this bizarre exercise are, at least, a good lot. Haze and Miller always
did quite well by Corman, and vice versa (even if Miller does seem to
spend the last fifteen minutes of the movie getting beaten up more than
Elisha Cook, Jr.); Young Jack, although just starting to flex his acting
chops, exudes a certain amount of charisma, and every now and then you
can detect the trademark Jack sneer in the lines (and he's also better
in this than he was in The Raven). Boris Karloff, frail and ailing,
still imbues the proceedings with a certain dignity and grace.
Looking over the landscape
of the horror film of the last ten, fifteen years or so- hell, maybe
even twenty- one really, really misses good old Boris. Corman said of
Karloff, "He had an amazing spirit, an amazing heart." With
the loss of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee staying
the hell away from the genre, we have lost that precious touch of class
that kept everything from becoming too tawdry. These days, it seems,
about the best we have is Robert Englund, and he has truly enormous
shoes to fill.
If there is a tragedy
in The Terror, it's that those three days of filming on the castle
set would have yielded a reasonably good episode of an hour-long TV
anthology series, say, Thriller. Those scenes, in particular,
are quite good, even atmospheric - it's just unfortunate that they're
trapped in a crazy-quilt framework of what looks like, of necessity,
student film work.