Alice, Sweet Alice Blu-ray
Blu-ray Release: August 6, 2019
Audio: English LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 107 minutes
Director: Alfred Sole
On the day of her first communion, young Karen (Brooke Shields) is savagely murdered by an unknown assailant in a yellow rain mac and creepy translucent mask. But the nightmare is far from over – as the knife-wielding maniac strikes again and again, Karen’s bereaved parents are forced to confront the possibility that Karen’s wayward sister Alice (Paula E. Sheppard) might be the one behind the mask. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice is a quintessential late stage proto-slasher (one Patrick and I briefly covered during the prototype episode of Genre Grinder) and it draws upon the same influences as Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1972), Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), and the first proper slasher, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1977), which it predated by less than a year. Sole has claimed that he was inspired by multiple Hitchcock movies and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973 – the most obvious nod is the fact that his movie’s killer and red herring both wear a yellow rain slicker, similar to the red rain slicker worn by the dead child and crazed killer in Roeg’s film), but he also drew upon Italy’s gialli which were developing alongside the proto-slashers, sometimes overlapping. Approached simply as a murder mystery thriller, it is one of the greatest of its decade, brimming with dynamic set pieces, frightening suspense, and clever story twists. It’s also interesting when viewed through the lens of a nearly camp-level family melodrama, punctuated by bloody mayhem. But, for this review, I wanted to discuss Alice, Sweet Alice’s place in the small canon of Catholic guilt horror, as well as the ways that it inverts the cinematic trope of the evil child.
Despite being a non-religious person raised in a largely agnostic environment (I went to Jewish summer camp and celebrated Passover, assuming you care), I am nonetheless interested in the horror that coincides with deeply held religious beliefs. Not the horror that is tied to religious mythology, as seen in exorcism movies, vampire movies, and Taoist or Buddhist wuxia fantasy (though they’re also neat), but the horror tied to the belief itself. From the outside looking in, Catholicism appears to be particularly intense in this regard and there is a collection of films based around the horrors of being Catholic, including (but not limited to) Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (Italian: Non Si Sevizia un Paperino, 1972), Anthony Page’s Absolution (1978), and, of course, Alice, Sweet Alice. Rather than threatening non-believers with fire and brimstone, these films expose the reality of excruciating guilt, as well as the existential and emotional damage that fervent dogma can instill.
Spoiler warning from here until the Video section.
During various interviews (including those on this disc, one conducted for Matthew Edwards’ Twisted Visions: Interviews with Cult Filmmakers [McFarland & Company, 2017], and one with Bill Ackerman, linked below), Sole refers to himself as an ex-Catholic who remained obsessed with the ritual of the religion. Co-writer Rosemary Ritvo’s was also, apparently, a lapsed Catholic. For much of the film, Catholicism appears to be only a backdrop for the story. Eventually, it’s clear that the church backdrop isn’t simply used for flavor, but to highlight the film’s anti-religious – or at least anti-zealot – theme. This theme is subtly represented in the comparisons between the church ritual and Alice’s playtime activities (it is implied that she wants communion and that it is being withheld from her for misbehaving), as well as religious iconography and cluttered consumer decorations. But the key statement on religion is tied to the killer’s motivation. Mrs. Tredoni’s (Mildred Clinton) motivations aren’t unlike those of Seven’s (David Fincher, 1995) unnamed deadly sin killer. She’s driven to kill as a way to punish sinners; though, unlike the Seven killer, she begins her murderous journey by punishing the child of a sinner, rather than the sinners themselves. The slasher movies that Alice, Sweet Alice helped inspire would cling to the idea of the morally improper as victims, eventually becoming a parody of itself, so it’s interesting to note that Sole was using the opposite assumption against filmgoers in 1977.
The repressed sexuality that goes hand-in-hand with most forms of classic Catholicism is obviously key to the killer’s motivation, but there’s another side to the anti-Catholic sentiment that I’m not sure Sole or Ritvo intended. Today, the Church’s biggest controversies surround child molestation accusations. Many of these date back to the early ‘70s, but they weren’t openly spoken about in the news. So the fact that Sole includes one explicitly pedophilic character – Catherine (Linda Miller) and Alice’s landlord, Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble) – and other adult men who talk about Alice in a sexual manner would seem to be a coincidence. The threat of pedophelia and open discussion of Alice’s sexual maturity are certainly part of the larger theme, however, to the point that the audience’s ingrained sexist prejudices contribute to her status as a red herring. She does play at adulthood, especially when she fearlessly rebukes Mr. Alphonso’s threats (the real implication being that she’s simply gotten used to it over time), but she’s still a child and her motivations are childish – she’s not a femme fatale with grand machinations (note that Paula E. Sheppard was actually 19 at the time of filming and that the movie doesn’t overstep any actual ethical boundaries, unlike, say Randal Kleiser’s The Blue Lagoon , which featured a 14-year-old Brooke Shields in implied nude scenes using body doubles). Even her choice in mask – a translucent face with pronounced lipstick and eyeshadow – represents her make-believe version of adulthood.
Alice, Sweet Alice is often categorized alongside other killer kid movies, probably because Sole allows the audience to assume the worst about Alice for so much of its runtime. There are plenty of clues as to the killer’s true identity, but the movie deftly maneuvers around the possibility by focusing on Alice’s volatile emotional state and supposed sexual maturity. This is essentially the opposite of what happens in most evil kid movies, like Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956) or Joseph Ruben’s The Good Son (1993), where murderous children get away with their crimes, because they can hide behind their perceived innocence. In this regard, it’s comparable to Jennifer Kent’s Babadook (2014). Both feature children who appear to be irrational antagonists from the point of view of (some) protagonists. In each, the child leads (Alice and Babadook’s young boy Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman) are emotionally erratic, due to a mix of normal and abnormal developmental influences. Both feature children that may have undiagnosed mental health issues, but their behavior isn’t particularly abnormal, especially considering each is dealing with the death of a loved one and an absent parent. The difference is that Babadook doesn’t switch perspectives on the audience; rather, Kent leaves the lesson to the subtext and lets the audience figure it out. It’s also worth noting that Alice and Mrs. Tredoni are doppelgängers in more ways than their rain slickers and masks – they have similar motivations for their behavior. Alice is jealous of her sibling and craves her parents’ attention, while Mrs. Tredoni is jealous of Alice’s parents and craves the attention of Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich).
Alice, Sweet Alice was easy to find on video in the early days of VHS, having been released by UAV, Vintage Video, King of Video, and Neon Video in the United States alone. I believe (but do not know) that this was because the film was re-issued twice in North America under three titles: Communion (Sole’s preferred title), Alice, Sweet Alice (after Brooke Shields had her breakthrough in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby ), and Holy Terror (after Shields had an even bigger breakthrough with The Blue Lagoon). My assumption is that the copyright on one of these wasn’t filed correctly, so, grey market video companies jumped on the property. Either that or it was just a victim of uncommon bootlegging. The ROAN Group released a letterboxed Laserdisc in 1997, the same year that Anchor Bay released a widescreen, fully uncut version (each release had slight differences) VHS and the first DVD edition in 1999, though the former was non-anamorphic. That edition went out-of-print and the movie fell off the radar, until 88 Films released an anamorphic PAL and all-region Blu-ray in the UK in July of 2018. Let me assure you, that was very exciting news and just about everyone who loves the film imported it. Lo and behold, UK-based Arrow got ahold of the North American release rights and here we are, barely a year later, with a brand new 4K restoration of the (theatrical version) original camera negative. They’ve also included a reconstructed Holy Terror edit, which is a couple of seconds longer, albeit with a lossy soundtrack (see below), alongside the original Communion cut. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is a sizable upgrade on almost every level. I’ve included screen-caps from both discs in the sliders – Arrow on the right, 88 Films on the left – and, even at normal page size, the differences are pretty obvious. According to specs, 88 Films also did a full 2K scan, but they were working from a printed, positive source, which explains just about every one of the Arrow’s camera negative scan’s advantages. The print source limits detail, flattens grain, and wreaks havoc with the color and contrast balance. Arrow is able to squeeze more texture with their 4K scan, but, had then been working from a printed source, it wouldn’t have made this much of a difference – especially considering that the vast majority of the movie was shot on 16mm film. Colors are still raw and naturalistic, as Sole intended (there is no credited cinematographer and Sole claims that at least six different camera operators worked on the film), but definitely richer and warmer. The wider gradient range is perhaps the biggest upgrade of all, revealing oodles of detail and color that was lost in the high contrast, blooming, and crush of the 88 Films disc. There are also minor improvements in framing, revealing slightly more information on the sides, less vertical stretching (I suppose the printed source was a bit warped), and general cleanliness, though the 88 Films disc isn’t particularly dirty, either.
The multiple versions of Alice, Sweet Alice have led to multiple versions of the film’s soundtrack, pertaining mostly to small changes in music and dialogue. I don’t actually know what soundtrack is closest to Sole’s original intent, but I think it’s safe enough to assume that the Communion cut is the closest to what he wanted. That version features a new, uncompressed, LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack. The Holy Terror cut is, as mentioned, presented in lossy Dolby Digital 1.0. Despite the single channel treatment and austere sound design, all of the important elements are crisp and neatly separated. Composer Stephen J. Lawrence’s melancholy score is perhaps the most giallo-esque thing about the entire film, though this might just be a coincidence, because his influences were probably closer to Bernard Herrmann. Still, his strong themes exhibit the same haunting choral and music box aesthetics heard in some of Ennio Morricone and Goblin’s earliest thriller scores. The music is fragile enough that it occasionally distorts at the highest volume levels, but the uncompressed nature of the track leads plenty of room for aural layers.
Commentary with director Alfred Sole and editor Edward Salier (only available for Communion version) – Maniac (1980) director and Blue Underground honcho William Lustig (who worked on the film) moderates this director/editor commentary, which was recorded for release with the Anchor Bay DVD. It’s a fun track, full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and deeper discussion of the movie’s themes.
Commentary with film historian Richard Harland Smith (also only available for Communion version) – The historian, author, critic, and liner note writer extraordinaire offers a very informative, occasionally flowery track that fills in many of the straight up factoids missing from the more personable director/editor track, while providing context and comparisons to other movies.
First Communion (18:42, HD) – The first new interview is with Sole, who recalls getting in trouble shooting his first movie, an X-rated picture called Deep Sleep (1972), in hopes of funding Alice, Sweet Alice, developing the screenplay, casting, struggling with a cavalcade of disrespectful cameramen, various other hardships while filming, and release.
Alice on My Mind (14:59, HD) – Composer Stephen Lawrence walks us through his career and the film’s major musical themes while sitting at a piano.
In the Name of the Father (16:02, HD) – Actor Niles McMaster Skypes-in an interview about being cast and working on the film that launched his career.
Lost Childhood: The Locations of Alice, Sweet Alice (16:02, HD) – A tour/comparison of the original shooting locations hosted by former Fangoria editor-in-chief, critic, and screenwriter of a plethora of B-horror movies, Michael Gingold.
Sweet Memories (11:18, HD) – Sole’s cousin and writer/director of Satan's Playground (2006), Dante Tomaselli, shares memories of Sole as a family member, production designer, mentor, and Alice, Sweet Alice.
Deleted sequences (2:45, HD) – Two short sequences discovered while scanning the original negative, presented without audio.
Alternate Alice, Sweet Alice opening titles (1:13, HD)
Holy Terror re-release trailer
U.K. Communion TV spot
Hey there, you’re not the type of Alice, Sweet Alice fan to be satisfied by only two commentary tracks, right? Have no fear, my friend Patrick Ripoll, who worked with me on the proto-slasher and 1981 slasher podcasts did his own Alice, Sweet Alice commentary with Bill Ackerman, host of the Supporting Characters podcast and commentator in his own right (he can be heard on Arrow’s semi-recent release of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left). It even includes an exclusive audio interview with Alfred Sole. You can check it out right here.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.