Everybody’s Into Weirdness: ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976)
The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The twenty-seventh entry into this disreputable canon is the disturbing, deceptively intelligent “slasher,” Alice, Sweet Alice…
Alternate Title: Communion, Holy Terror
“God always takes the pretty ones.”
Labeling Alice, Sweet Alice a “slasher” is misleading. Not only does the movie predate the slice and dice boom that John Carpenter’s Halloween kicked into high gear by a full two years, the simple truth is that the murder contained within Alfred Sole’s first non-pornographic feature (following 1972’s Deep Sleep) is mere window dressing for an otherwise brooding take on familial grief and religious transformation. The fact that these brief, ferocious instances of bloodletting are so suspenseful and gut wrenching speaks more to what a major talent Sole could’ve been, had he continued to dabble in heady horror filmmaking. So while the director’s follow-up – the Vanity-starring “woman fucks an ape” tropical adventure, Tanya’s Island – helped put an end to the filmmaker’s viable career, we at least received one deeply personal gift from Sole that still stands as a somewhat unheralded classic.
Predominantly remembered for being the feature debut of Brooke Shields, Sole does not stall when it comes to doling out the unpleasantness. The Spages sisters – 12-year-old Alice (Paula Sheppard) and 10-year-old Karen (Shields) – are about to partake in their first Holy Communion ceremony. Karen is the favorite; a cute as a button moppet whom everyone wants to spend time with (including the morbidly obese landlord who lives beneath their home). Alice is the “weird one” – reserved, unsmiling, always the bane of the adults’ existence. The divide between the girls is clear, and Alice no doubt resents her younger sibling for attracting all of the positive attention. But when Karen is found brutally strangled inside of the church, the whispers down the lane echo into cacophony: Alice did it. She hated her. Of course, she did it.
The rumors aren’t ill-founded, as all evidence seemingly points toward the girl – she arrived late to church, kept Karen’s veil in her pocket, and school officials repeatedly urged her parents to have her psychologically analyzed due to erratic, disturbing behavior. The troubling murmurs become so overwhelming that even Alice’s pretty, distraught mother, Catherine (Linda Miller), begins to believe them. All the while, the sisters’ estranged father (Niles McMaster) strives to prove his oldest could’ve never carried out such a heinous act. It’s the disintegration of the familial unit, brought on by intense truma and an inability to find a source for blame; the horror film equivalent of raging at the heavens in a haze of grief.
Alfred Sole shot Alice, Sweet Alice in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, during the summer of 1975. Originally titled Communion, the lived-in quality of the numerous ratty apartments undoubtedly comes from the director being inherently familiar with his surroundings. The textures of the kitchen linoleum and old furniture fabrics are tangible, bringing on an almost Proustian wave of sensations for anyone who remembers going to their working class relative’s house for breakfast on a Sunday. The overwhelming must, wafts of bacon cooking in the kitchen, and hanging stench of hairspray are too thick to shake, as Sole is placing us right inside of these people’s miasma. This immersive quality makes their pain and suffering all the more devastating in the wake of Karen’s murder. In turn, when the killer decides that one innocent life is not enough, each stab hits us in the stomach. We cower in fear, waiting for the maniac to strike again.
The masked, yellow slicker-wearing murderer begins to attack individuals close to the Spage family, and Sole is unflinching in his depiction of the savage violence. The second victim is Annie (Jane Lowry) – Alice’s overly hateful aunt, who is jumped on the stairs and stabbed in the knee, foot, and thigh. It’s a gruesome moment; easily the film’s most grotesquely memorable, as the camera catches each penetrating swipe, the large knife drawing fresh, pink gore. Perhaps the most agonizing detail is Annie’s distress; a pained screech as she crawls away into a rain soaked alley, hoping beyond hope that her attacker won’t push on and finish the job. At the hospital, Annie pleads with her husband, Jim (Gary Allen), to understand that Alice is the one who brutalized her, all while Catherine questions where the traumatized woman’s own daughter was at the time of the incident. The finger-pointing continues, and an unstable Alice is sent away to an institution for evaluation.
Though we’re fairly certain early on that Alice is indeed innocent, that doesn’t necessarily mean Sole isn’t convinced she’s not a danger to herself or others. What keeps Alice, Sweet Alice fascinating is how unshakably ambiguous it is, regarding how its creator views his characters. All of the grieving adults spiral out of control, shrilly snapping at one another without the slightest concern for each individual’s grieving process. Meanwhile, Alice mentally deteriorates (or was she broken the whole time?), building her own creepy religious shrine in the basement of their building. She lights candles and dons a grinning, translucent mask identical to the killer’s, and has no problem strangling one of the cats their landlord, Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble), holds so dear after he attempts to molest her in his apartment. Though this constant creepiness could be chalked up to a simple narrative red herring, Sole is much more clever than that. It’s not hard to link Alice’s psychic troubles to the fact that every adult in her life is either neglectful or abusive. Sole’s New Jersey is one of unrelenting cruelty, turning children into demons.
Religion breeds monsters. This isn’t some new or groundbreaking thesis, but Sole and screenwriter Rosemary Ritvo (who sadly never wrote anything else) commit to the theme with every second of the film’s runtime. From the rituals that seem to instill madness instead of bringing comfort, to the friendly neighborhood priest (Rudolph Willrich) being unable to offer any semblance of hope during a family’s time of crisis, it’s no mystery that God’s blind eye is felt by those who look to Him in times of desperation. The ultimate identity of the killer becomes a literalization of this through-line, as the monstrous acts are connected back to someone who sees themselves as a protector of the church’s sanctity. Alice, Sweet Alice is an atheist’s scare picture, backing anyone who doubted God’s existence as being irrefutably correct.
Sole’s picture first premiered in Paterson, New Jersey under the title Communion on November 13, 1976. It then went on to play the Chicago Film Festival, where it earned the top prize and a glowing review from Roger Ebert. Communion then floundered commercially, only to be re-released by Allied Artists in 1978 (under a new title, Alice, Sweet Alice), as an attempt to cash in on the success of Brooke Shields’ Pretty Baby. The movie went on to be the sixth highest grossing film that week, and would receive another shot at theater-goers in 1981, under a third moniker: Holy Terror. Sadly, Alice, Sweet Alice remains something of a legitimate cult classic; slept on by mainstream horror buffs while embraced as canon by bona fide deep cut weirdos. Sole would only direct one other film after Tanya’s Island (the 1982 horror/comedy Pandemonium) before embarking on a lucrative career as a television production designer for shows like Veronica Mars and Castle. This seems fitting, as few horror movies contain as much viable sense of time, place and people as Sole’s classic contribution to the genre. This is a movie that needs to be rediscovered and embraced with the same intense, Criterion-worthy admiration as Rosemary’s Baby or The Brood. It’s that good.
This Week at Weird Wednesday: A Thanksgiving Secret Screening!
Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement; Vampyres; She; Dolls