The Bad Movie Report

The Terror

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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:

The Terror posterAndre 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 Karloff and Nicholson share a moment.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.

"Blast you, Stefan!  Where is my script?!!"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.

That responsibility went to Francis Ford Coppola for a couple of days, then was handed over to Man, Miller just CANNOT catch a break....Jack 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.



You there! Fetch me more Boris Karloff movies!

- October 4, 1998