The Terror (1963)
If it can be said there is a popular mythology of Roger Corman, perhaps no other movie represents it quite as aptly as The Terror. The legend of The Terror holds that it was filmed incredibly quickly and cheaply for purely mercenary motives with scant regard for life, limb, or aesthetics. Peter Bogdanovich, one of the young filmmakers whose career all but began working on this conjuration, later paid it a backhanded compliment when he used it as the emblematic “high camp” horror movie made by declining horror star Byron Orlok. Orlok was played by Boris Karloff, both lampooning and fondly meditating on his strange career. Karloff had first worked for Corman on The Raven (1963). Corman, after wrapping that film, still had a few days’ rent paid up on the sound studio where that film’s elaborate castle set had been erected. Corman determined to shoot something to take advantage of it, and the promise of a back end pay cheque secured Karloff’s services for a couple of days more. Later, a movie was synthesised to contain that footage, a process that saw Corman, to skirt union rules, exploit the startling array of future names of note at his command. The band earning their spurs included Jack Nicholson in front of the camera and also behind it, along with Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Hill, and Conrad Hall. The script was flung together by Hill and actor Leo Gordon, who had already loaned his familiar, bluntly imperative mug to Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963).
Although not technically an entry in Corman’s string of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, The Terror improvises on a theme incorporating the basic ideas and visual refrains of that series, fleshed out cribbed special effects shots from House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and a story involving compulsive love, maddening hauntings, blurred identities, death, and resurrection. The result is certainly awkward and quite often shows its roots in a confused and occasionally random flow of events, like the film’s pre-title sequence that sees the Baron Von Leppe (Karloff) wandering through the corridors of his castle on some midnight errand and penetrating the vault below the building only for a rotting corpse to thrust its way out at him. And yet The Terror retains a peculiar mystique as a by-product of even Corman’s most incidental and mercenary talents, and those of his battery of collaborators. The opening scenes in particular are a demonstration of what can be accomplished with virtually no resources on hand except for a couple of actors and an interesting location, and simply trusting in an intriguing mood to win over the audience. The setting is somewhere on the Baltic Coast in the early 1800s, during the march of Napoleon’s armies through the Germanic states. French officer Andre Duvalier (Nicholson), separated from his men and on the hunt for fresh water, rides his horse along an eerie, deserted stretch of beach below stretches of rocky cliffs and dark forest.
Andre encounters a solitary young woman gazing out to sea. She calls herself Helene (Sandra Knight), and gives Andre aid by showing him a brook where he can drink fresh water. Helene keeps dashing away when Andre’s back is turned, and he tracks her around the beach and woods, tantalised by her distracted, wistful, barely corporeal presence, until she seems to fall under an unseen influence and strides into a rock arch through which foaming surf pours. Venturing after her to rescue her, Andre is attacked by an eagle, and he finally faints in the waves. He’s rescued by an elderly woman, Katrina (Dorothy Neumann), a secretive witch who owns the marauding eagle and just happens to call it Helene. These strange events see Andre begin an obsessive probing into the identity of the strange girl, and her relationship with Katrina and the Baron, whose ancient citadel hovers dreamily over the coastline. The Baron, who is sheltered and served by loyal manservant Stefan (Dick Miller), claims not to have left the castle in twenty years, not since the death of his wife Ilsa and his brother Eric twenty years earlier in a crime of passion. Andre, trying to understand the enigmas presented to him in his determination to comprehend the ethereal beauty, insistently pesters his host, increasing tensions that strain the bonds of aristocratic courtesy. Meanwhile Katrina’s hoarse-voiced neighbour Gustaf (Jonathan Haze) begs him to stand his ground to help Helene. But Andre himself refuses to contemplate the truth he uncovers, that “Helene” is actually, forcibly possessed by the ghost of the Baron’s dead wife Ilsa, thanks to the necromantic arts of Katrina. The witch happens to be Ilsa’s mother, furthering her plot to drive the Baron to a suicidal act and earn himself eternal damnation.
The rarefied quality The Terror wields in spite of its ramshackle construction, particularly in the marvellous first ten minutes, is that it captures a mood of amniotic mysticism, cordoned off from any sensible world, a space where amour fou and morbid fixation become all-enveloping truths. The tossed-together script is full of holes and weird leaps, like a last-minute twist that sees the Baron revealed to actually be his brother Eric, gone mad from his own fratricide and now totally convinced he is the Baron. But it also has dashes of real intelligence, most particularly in the sideways glance at historic politics, with Andre as the representative of the Revolution who’s actually from an aristocratic background, his father a victim of the Reign of Terror, imposing himself upon the Baron, who represents the fetid devolution of the same dying social force. Gothic horror is a genre built out of the broken remnants of the feudal social order, the psychological idea of an imposing but shattered force haunting us still mediated through its sociological equivalent, and The Terror is particularly interesting in situating itself right in the midst of the Napoleonic era, a time defined by the forced abrogation of one world-view in the face of another. The mirroring of Andre and the Baron, who are linked by their adoration for the numinous female, extends on several levels including a powerfully Oedipal undertow, matched by their suggestive representation of new and old political paradigms. The same mirroring is evinced in the supporting characters, in old witch Katrina and young sylph Helene/Ilsa, and stoic Stefan and anxious Gustaf, both trying to work around the mania of their employers.
Undoubtedly, The Terror’s midsection is scrappy and repetitious, with Andre tracking the enigma around the Von Leppe castle and clashing with the Baron in heated exchanges for an acceptable amount of footage to fill out the running time. But there’s also a certain level of wit apparent, particularly when the Baron gets so fed up with Andre’s intrusions that he hands Stefan a gun and has him forcibly eject his guest, all gentlemanly forbearance exhausted. “Surely I made enough noise to waken the dead,” Andre barks in irritation after his knock is ignored for a time, unaware that the dead are lurching around all about him. Young Nicholson, with his sly, artfully sluggish vocal style already developed whilst trying to suppress his Midwestern honk, is both a touch awkward in his role but also brings his nascent star quality to Andre’s air of smouldering frustration and callow arrogance, as the man convinced he can overcome all shadows and shades of history with his reason used like a cavalry sabre. He plays well against Karloff, whose Baron makes a monument of his own grief but often lets slip fatalistic humour as he alternates shows of grievous offence and challenging invitation to Andre, as if partly compelled by the temptation to let Andre keep driving on just to enjoy the spectacle of him crashing into the same forces of irrationality that have ruined him. “Perhaps we’re both mad,” he notes with sardonic delight at Andre’s gathering confusion before the fact both of them have seen the same spectre. It’s a testimony to Karloff’s unshakeable professionalism that when he might have walked through the film he brings both sour comedy to his performance alongside flashes of substantial pathos, his bogus Baron speaking desperately with the voice emanating from his castle walls in hope of sustaining the finest thread of connection with his old love. Nicholson might well have remembered something of his performance when the time came to play a devilish figure himself in The Witches of Eastwick (1987).
It’s fun to see a partial dream team of Corman’s familiar alumni, Miller, Haze, and Neumann, all obviously quickly called to service and given a stature they didn’t always get one Corman shifted into his relatively higher-budgeted colour works. Miller in particular enjoys playing the stalwart Stefan, who tries to guard his master’s interests with stiff-necked resoluteness and nobly pathetic loyalty. Corman utilised several standing sets from his various movies, making it incidentally like a visual compendium of his greatest hits and an index of his Poe films' narrative essences. One of the more original aspects is the utilisation of daylight and oceanic expanse to help create its sequestered mood. The Big Sur beachfront used to mimic the Baltic coast is hardly convincing and yet it’s shot in a way that aids the plunge into an oneiric state, particularly when Helene hovers on the rocks of the shoreline listening to the call of the ocean and its whispers of embracing fate, with the totemic words, "Not until the sea enters the crypt," spoken as soothsayer's promise. Andre’s compass goes mad and the sun glares down from above in a delirious blur like something strayed in out of the previous year’s Lawrence of Arabia. Fragments of visual delight and sepulchral frisson recur throughout, like a scene of suggestive perversity as Stefan spies on Katrina as she utilises a multi-coloured mesmeric device on Helene to ensure Ilsa’s grip on her, his voyeurism and Katrina's creepy brand of magical-maternal enslavement occurring both charged as they stand at the frontiers of the forbidden, the subjugation of a body and to foster a grand consummation laced with strange eroticism.
An attack by Katrina's pet raptor on Gustaf that sees the bird rip out his eyes, a motif Corman would revisit in The Masque of the Red Death (1964), before he plunges down a jagged cliff face. Ilsa appears to the Baron in her crypt under a film of Vaseline, and the laborious functions of a pulley system opening a gate that connects the crypt to the sea, like a visual signature for the film’s general, hand-cranked charm. It’s also tantalising to try and guess which parts of the film were made by its various subcontracting auteurs. Hall’s touch seem plain in the shots of the corrugated ocean with its seams of sparkling sunlight. Something of Hellman’s spacious, suggestive detachment is apparent in the beach sequences, whilst Bogdanovich and Coppola would go on to playfully regard their roots in this sort of fare in ways both overt (Targets) and inferred (Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1992; Twixt, 2011). The anticipations of Nicholson’s later role in The Shining (1981) include, on top of the many scenes of him hunting the enigmatic presences in the castle, a climax that involves in him receiving a rude shock whilst kissing a woman. Corman’s intriguing portrait of revenant fury made corporeal in the image of a woman overpowering a man, depicted in House of Usher, recurs here in a final sequence as Ilsa drags the Baron down to his death in the flooding crypt. Stefan also perishing trying to save them, in a sequence that’s jarringly spectacular given how necessarily minimalist the rest of the film is, and induces a bit of cringing as Karloff, who was in his seventies and looked like he was in his nineties by this time, is battered by surging water with game trouper’s grit nonetheless.
Knight, who was Nicholson’s wife at the time, never had a vehicle as good: the green hue of her eyes connects subliminally with the crashing ocean waves, drawing in the camera for epic regard, and she inhabits the role of schizoid being, betraying hints of passion for Andre before her programming kicks back in. The famous ending sees Helene is at last released from Ilsa’s influence after Andre drags her from the flooding crypt only to disintegrate into an instantly putrefying mess. But it also certainly arrives as the bitterly perfect punch-line to all the mischievous clues, malicious in deflowering the theme of pursuing illusory beauty, and sees Corman embracing the floridly morbid reaches of Poe’s imagination in a way he generally bracketed more carefully and commercially in more generic fashion in his other, proper adaptations. Bogdanovich would use this in Targets to bury the gothic genre in the face of a new age of gunmen and psychos, and yet its genetic material lurks in the array of grinning, mummified familial corpses of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the melting visages of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the latter similarity substantiated by Neumann’s death, delivered from lightning as a punishment for straying into sanctified ground, her body disintegrating in a fiery mess. No, The Terror is not exactly a classic. And yet it summarises something grand about Corman’s oeuvre in general regardless.