while watching this movie i thought about how i would or could possibly explain what a roger corman movie is to people who aren’t familiar with his body of work. in particular, i’m thinking about what an audience of people who are becoming bad movie fans should be told to prime them for what they’re going to see. nothing is ever as brain-meltingly incomprehensible as a wiseau or breen vehicle, nor is it as sleazy or morally reprehensible like a troma flick. they are usually only moderately confusing, his actors tend to move and speak like they’re waste deep in water and had a brick dropped on their head 30 minutes ago, and his soundtracks are almost always unremarkable for whatever genre he happened to be producing that day. corman’s a prolific director with millions of feet of film under his belt either from directing or producing and trained at least two dozen directors of major acclaim, so it’s not like the man is a novice who doesn’t know the craft. you know him at least as the director of the original “little shop of horrors” movie (not the musical, the very first one from 1960). his movie production ethos was built on doing what you could on a budget, the problem being “what you could” being limited by one’s imagination and personal tastes. so what you usually got in the end was a completely watchable but recognizably bad movie. a movie that isn’t torturous to watch but also makes you go “man, someone made this?”. it’s a unique entertainment experience. “entertainment”.
i hadn’t heard of this one when my friend (who sponsored this post via patreon) requested it for the review chopping block. the few details he gave to me about it intrigued me (jack nicholson and boris karloff?!) so i started watching it almost immediately. then i bought a house and that took up literally all of my time for like 3 months so i’ve been stewing about how guilty i feel for letting this fall to the wayside while i look at paint swatches for walls i won’t be able to paint for probably years. aaaah!!! anyway.
what is “the terror”? in short: it’s corman’s attempt at replicating edgar allan poe after doing a few movies based on his works. in fact, a vast majority of the sets for this movie are from “the pit and the pendulum” which he wrapped up before starting on “the terror”. one of the little facts that comes up a lot when you start trying to figure out this movie’s fucking deal is that the watery grave ending was settled on because so many gothic novels end with fire so corman just wanted to do the opposite (fool ass idiot doesnt know the opposite of “fire” is “no fire”, not water). a modern attempt at gothic storytelling is kind of a neat idea, but of course this movie fumbles the concept like a buttery football. the problem? well. nothing really comes together to create anything emotionally substantial. it feels like you’re watching a slideshow of someone’s vacation photos.
jack nicholson stars and is one of the five (?!) directors of this movie, including a young francis ford coppola (?!!). jack himself is looking pretty baby-faced in this one but don’t worry: he’s still got that nasally new york intonation despite playing the part of a french general circa 1800. he just sounds like himself which is fine in 99% of all movies he’s ever been in and absolutely hysterical in a period piece. he plays andre, who is lost and disoriented with his horse from the jump and ends the movie lost and disoriented without his horse. 90% of the footage of his co-star, boris karloff, is just scenes of him opening and closing castle doors. they apparently only had karloff on set for two days which is insane but also explains why some of the footage has lousy cuts or edits. gotta work with what you’ve got i guess.
andre, who my notes make sure to point out “has a crease in his forehead so deep that you can use it as a coin slot” encounters a whole gaggle of weirdos in quick succession. for example, a mysterious woman who calls herself helene (played by nicholson’s at the time wife sandra knight) behaves like a badly programmed AI which turns nicholson on for reasons that only he can explain. once she fully short circuits, she walks into the ocean to her apparent death while nicholson gets dive-bombed by a hawk. the hawk is successful in downing nicholson until he too is swept away to sea. thankfully, he wakes up safely in the house of a strange old woman, her pet hawk that’s resting after a busy day of committing assaults on french people, and her “mute” son gustaf (he is revealed to not be mute literally 5 minutes later. it is a secret created and revealed for no reason and to no effect). again, my notes cruelly point out that nicholson “sounds like he sells hot dogs in front of a ferris wheel”.
nicholson leaves the old woman’s house and finds helene again who mysteriously and seductively leads him to a more private and DEADLY location. if not for gustaf’s intervention, nicholson would have tumbled to a quicksandy death. gustaf informs nicholson that helene is POSSESSED!!!! and then bounds off into the woods like an elf while the camera just fades to black.
nicholson returns to the old woman’s house where they share a dinner of potions and methamphetamine. to my annoyance, as noted in my notes, nicholson keeps calling gustaf “gust-av”. he’s either the only one saying it right or the only one saying it wrong in the entire cast. how about some consistency huh!!! after the hot tip from both gustaf and the old lady, nicholson heads out to look for the castle of the baron von leppe, where he believes helene is being kept. people in the old times were so inexplicably horny. the lengths they would go for fucking is unbelievable. if i found out the woman i had been leering at all day went home to her castle i’d be like “well damn, uh. that’s that i guess”. i guess they had less to do back then so they had more time to fuck around in castles.
the baron von leppe is, of course, boris karloff, who is looking sooo cozy in his little robes in this movie. he must have been sooo comfy. he looks like dark universe hugh hefner. nicholson is let into the castle and spies what truly must be the most busted portrait in a mainstream movie i’ve seen in a while. i don’t know who was churning out all those awful paintings for movies in the 70s but i’d like to shake their hand.
somehow, nicholson recognizes this portrait as 1. a person 2. the woman he’s been chasing after all day. but it turns out the portrait is of the baroness von leppe and she’s been dead for over 20 years. this only deters nicholson a little bit and when the baron allows him to stay the night, nicholson makes awooga noises when he spots the woman from his window. he is stopped only by the horrific noise outside his door that sounds like 18 cats having sex while falling down a flight of stairs. nicholson bravely and smartly grabs his extremely tiny 19th century gun with the apparent intent of using it through an iron door. this story might make more sense if we assume nicholson is playing a common dullard.
okay, things start to get hinky here because this is where the story falls into a messy tangle of plot thread spaghetti that’s only mostly figured out by the final parts of the film. nicholson is exposed to a series of spooky sights: the von leppe crypt is devoid of any holy markings, helen’s face leers at him though a crack in a door, a terrible drawing he made of her for…reasons? anyway it’s torn in two when he returns from his little midnight stroll. after squeezing the baron for information, nicholson learns that “helene” is actually named ilsa and that she cheated on the baron while he was deployed. upon returning and finding ilsa in bed with another man, the baron killed her and then left his servant, stefan, to handle the man. none of this answers nicholson’s original question “who is eric” (how he found out about eric i can’t understand). but it’s fair to assume, due to him being the only unnamed character, that the man caught with ilsa was eric. the baron now confines himself to the castle out of guilt.
the audience learns that ilsa is under the thrall of the old woman, who is caught using black magic by stefan to in order to control and possess her. the old woman’s ultimate goal is to drive the baron bugfuck insane in revenge for some currently unspoken grudge. the old woman reveals that the house she has taken residence in once belonged…to ERIC!!! my goodness….what a revelation (?).
another shocking reveal: eric is indeed the man who was caught with the baroness and its dropped like its an earth shattering revelation. it’s like, obvious though right? again, he was the only unnamed character. who else would it be lol. gust-av is punished for his meddling with a hawk attack. the effects for the gouged out eyes are hysterical: it almost looks like they used candy red acrylic paint due to how the “fresh wound” looks caked and dry in the footage they used. adding insult to injury, they throw a gustaf shaped dummy down a cliff which bounces off every rock piteously. nicholson also continues his bastardly actions by making a move on the baronesses’ ghost-wife when he gets alone with her in the crypt. unfortunately for him, she’s not interested in what he’s selling. she simply craves the grave.
if this all sounds like plot salad, that’s good; it means i’ve really captured the spirit of what watching the movie feels like.
okay for this next part i’m just going to copy and paste my notes. usually i just use these as the basis for what i want to remember to talk about when i write the review but this time all my notes are just a mad dash to try to keep up with all the working parts of this stupid fucking movie. the end result was a stream of consciousness that perfectly captured my emotional state while watching it, especially the highs and lows of both delight at what little i could recognize as classifiable human behavior and boredom when the plot started to try to muscle its way on screen.
lol another night of creepin on the baron, this time he uses a secret mechanism in a wall sconce to go in a secret room. jack, naturally, follows. its another coffin?? the baron is promising to flood the crypt and die with ilsa but where da fuck is she?? just kidding she’s there…or her voice is. she’s trying to suicide bait him and is making great progress but man he’s like 8000 years old. just wait like 2 minutes. the baron flips out and seizes when jack asks what the fuck these two are talking about. anyway the baron is bitching out bc god hates suicide. whatever.
there’s a scene where nicholson and stefan and the old woman all finally wind up in the same place together and collect all the information they have to come to a very annoying conclusion for everyone involved: this old lady’s revenge was for nothing. eric is not only the woman’s son but, as it turns out, he is the baron. in the struggle, the real baron was killed and eric took his place. eventually he came to believe he really was the baron and stefan was just cool with this i guess. a paycheck’s a paycheck no matter whose name is on the line. now the thing that really gets me is that karloff seems way older than this lady which raises some question here. maybe guilt really ages a person.
after walking on consecrated ground, the old woman turns into a dummy that bursts into flames. nicholson and stefan enter the crypt where the baron and the ilsa ghost are beating the shit out of each other. the baron has realized he’s been bamboozled into damning his IMMORTAL SOUL!! by the sexy ghost who is now doing everything she can to make sure he doesn’t turn the water off. why is this crypt designed to fill with water and drown everything? unclear.
the final 5 minutes of this movie are so unbelievably noisy, between the brass on the soundtrack and the rushing water, my eardrums are getting pulverized by sound wave attacks. when its over only nicholson and ilsa are left standing. they share a weirdly unconvincing kiss for a married couple and perhaps in response to his tepid efforts she melts into a skeleton. she kind of looks like she was made of chocolate, honestly. like not as a joke. very strange editorial decision.
what can we learn from “the terror”? well, mostly that if you’re trying to make a movie on a budget and a short timeframe, you should probably go in with more of a plot than “poe but with water”. we learned that its difficult to take an actor’s role in a period piece seriously if their natural speaking voice has an accent that is particular to a specific modern time and place, since that seemed to really piss me off in my notes. and, most of all, we learned that you just can’t trust ANY women ever. the end.