Alice, Sweet Alice
directed by Alfred Sole
starring; Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, and Brooke Shields
Alice, Sweet Alice aka Communion aka Holy Terror is a horror thriller that was resurrected from obscurity by the early 1980s home video market. Due to some legal issues the film was treated as public domain and released by any number of fledgling and sometimes shady video tape distributors. The fact that a young Brooke Shields had a small role in the movie and her assent into superstardom coinciding the beginnings of the home video rental industry led to a myriad of VHS and Betamax tapes of the movie in every video store in the nation. Shields’ name and face were prominently displayed on cassette cases as the star, although she is only in the film for a few minutes in the beginning. Alice, Sweet Alice also received the Video Nasty badge of honor in the UK. The film is essentially an American made giallo film with all the requisite tropes of the genre including masked killers, bizarre supporting characters, a ton of red herrings, and some surprising twists along the way.
Alice, played with hysterical pubescent gusto by Paula E. Sheppard (whose only other acting credit is in the 1982 cult masterpiece Liquid Sky), is an all time great creepy kid. Her more famous co-star Brooke Shields is absolutely nails on a chalkboard as Karen, the whiny princess of a little sister to Paula Sheppard’s Alice. Her performance has a lot of truth in it and you can certainly understand why someone would to murder her. Someone does murder her, in the church as she awaits her first communion ceremony. Alice, who is already the difficult, weird older sister, is silently suspected of the killing. When her Aunt Annie (Jane Lowry) is attacked by a girl in a yellow raincoat she says was Alice, the whispers turn into her becoming accused of the crimes by the cops. In true giallo fashion, the police are ineffectual and Alice and Karen’s divorced father comes home and launches his own investigation. By this time the audience knows who the real killer is and the race is on to stop them before they kill again.
This is one of the great Catholic horror movies. The trappings of parochial school and the tight, small, New Jersey parish are vital to the effectiveness of the movie. The same plot involving Presbyterians just isn’t going to have the same punch. The iconography of the crucifixion, the stigmata, the Virgin Mary, and Saint Michael, complete with his spear figure prominently in the visuals. As a kid of Catholic elementary school I can attest to the power of the macabre attraction of the art and accutramand of the church. The killer’s motivation lies in the desire to punish the sinful and idea of the generational curse of Exodus 34:7 “Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” looms large as the killer is motivated to kill Karen and frame Alice as retribution for their mother being pregnant with Alice before they were married, not to mention the couple’s subsequent divorce. Alice is desperate to find agency for herself in a world that fears her. She is repelled by the church that she so desperately wants to.be a part of. Being communion, and therefore salvation, she is forced into a religious community and education with the knowledge that she is damned. When divine retribution isn’t swift enough, original sin begets Old Testament style retribution, and her life is torn apart by a zealot who believes that the murder and destruction of innocents is the only appropriate punishment for Alice’s mother for non-consecrated sex.
Director Alfred Sole gets good performances from his largely unremarkable cast especially considering the balancing act of making pre-teen girls sufficiently annoying without alienating the audience. Paula Sheppard as Alice and Linda Miller as her mother, Catherine have the weight of the picture on their shoulders. Linda Miller who in addition to being Jackie Gleason’s daughter, but also the wife of actor Jason Miller (The Exorcist) and mother of actor Jason Patric (The Lost Boys), has a face that barely contains Catherine’s hysteria at being a single mother with one child dead and the other one the verge of being lost as well. Sheppard was 18 and 19 years old during production although convincingly playing a 12 year old girl. Niles McMaster (TV soap Edge of Night) as Alice’s well-intentioned father turned sleuth is charming enough to have resprised this sort of role in other films. There is also a quick cameo from pre-code Hollywood star Lillian Roth as a pathologist, which is a far cry from cavorting with the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers (1930). People may not recall the specifics of the plot, but the image of the killer clad in a child’s yellow rain slicker with a translucent plastic face mask is iconic as well as a nod to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Though not as visually striking, the grotesque, obese, pedophile landlord, Mr Alphonso is truly one of the most revolting characters in the history of cinema. No one is going to watch this film and not remember Alphonso. His squalid apartment and urine-stained pants are even more disgusting on Blu-ray. Ultimately the real star is the brick and iron setting of the film. Shot on location in Paterson, New Jersey, architect/designer turned film director Sole milks every stairwell, alleyway, and abandoned building for optimum atmosphere as the girls in the yellow raincoats drift through the decaying husks of the city on endlessly overcast days. Sole’s directing career would not amount to a great deal, apart from making the criminally underseen surreal horror spoof Pandemonium, but Sole would but his design skills to work as a very successful television production designer working on numerous shows including Castle and Veronica Mars.
Alice, Sweet Alice gets the full boutique treatment with an amazing transfer of the movie from the original negative, with the original Communion title card. Among the extras is also the Holy Terror version of the film with the Holy Terror title card and Brooke Shields getting top billing. There is a terrific interview “First Communion” with director Alfred Sole where he recounts not only the issues making Communion but also having to deal with the legal fallout from his porn feature, Deep Sleep. Actor Niles McMaster provides a new interview and author Michael Gingold gives a tour of filming locations on the featurette Lost Childhood: The Locations of Alice, Sweet Alice. The disc also includes two audio commentaries. One by film writer Richard Harland Smith and another by Director Sole and editor Edward Salier. Richard Harland Smith’s commentary examines the odds secret spaces and rituals of children and the nods to Alfred Hitchcock as well as getting in great stories about the cast and crew. He also isn’t shy about his opinions defending some over the top acting choices and decrying possible animal cruelty, he also describes the film as a tragedy, as opposed to a simple body count movie. The tracks and the interview all cover some of the same territory, but the legend of Alphonso DeNoble, part time actor, con man, and bouncer in Paterson, New Jersey’s only gay bar never get old.
Alice, Sweet Alice is indeed a quirky little horror that is about to enter its fifth decade and it is way overdue to get the respect it deserves after all those shoddy VHS tapes with Brooke Shields’ name larger that the title on the box and each release somehow looking worse than the one that came before it. This is the disc to make you fall in love with the movie all over again, or for the first time.