HCF REWIND 149: THE TERROR 
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 81 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
France, 18th century. Lieutenant Andre Duvalier has been accidentally separated from his regiment. Wandering near the coast, he sees and begins to follow a mysterious woman who never answers him. Attacked by a raven, he awakes in the house of an old woman who claims never to have seen the woman, but a man who lives in her house tells him to enquire at the castle of Baron Von Leppe. This he does, but when inside the castle, he is told again that the woman doesn’t exist. Then he sees a picture of Von Leppe’s deceased wife on the wall. She looks just like the strange woman Duvalier has been seeing….
Roger Corman’s marvellous Edgar Allan Poe adaptations are wonderful exercises in Gothic horror and were responsible for making me fall in love with the great writer’s work when I saw them on TV as a teenager [such films rarely get shown now, presumably it’s considered that less people want to watch old movies, but I reckon this is in part due to the former…..but I digress]. The 1963 flick The Haunted Palace is sometimes considered part of the series, but is actually based the work of H.P.Lovecraft. I’m very surprised that The Terror isn’t more often linked with the Corman Poe films, because it has a very Poe-like feel about it as well as borrowing somewhat from The Fall Of The House Of Usher and containing a distinct whiff of Lenore. Then again, it’s a hard film to see in a decent print, and I don’t remember it ever been shown on UK TV at all – it probably was, but can’t have been very often. Due to Corman never registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office, The Terror lapsed into the public domain and various video and DVD companies have been able to release it, always in a bad print. By all accounts a recent R1 Blu-ray release isn’t much better, though a good version has apparently been shown on US TV. I picked my DVD copy up for a quid, and despite the weak picture, it was worth every penny. It’s not quite a horror classic and is at times both clumsy and confusing, but it has great things in it.
The story behind the making of this film is fascinating. Corman was making The Raven when he realized that he was running ahead of his production schedule so, rather than waste the film’s sets and cast, he got writer Leo Gordon to write part of a script that could be shot in three days immediately after on them, for a production that would then be stopped and finished later when the rest of the script was written. He also made a deal with Boris Karloff to be available for three days filming for a small amount of money plus a deferred payment when the film made a certain amount amount of money. Over the following nine months, Corman, plus star Jack Nicholson [in his first leading role for Corman] and three future directing notables Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman and Jack Hill, finished the rest of what was largely an improvised production and which also used sets from The Haunted Palace. The Terror did make money but it was three years before Karloff saw the money he was promised. In 1989, Corman, in an effort to regain copyright of the film, shot new beginning and ending footage featuring cast member Dick Miller, but this version wasn’t circulated much. Miller says the money he received for a day’s work was the most he ever received from Corman.
So, knowing its history, you would expect The Terror to be a total hodgepodge. For God’s sake, this a film where Karloff’s scenes were shot so quickly that they didn’t even bother to use slates to mark the beginnings of shots, where Nicholson’s costume is exactly the one worn by Marlon Brando nine years before in Desiree, and where one quicksand scene was shot in one of the director’s gardens after being thought up on the spot. And at times the film does show evidence of its production. Exteriors often don’t match. One outdoor scene cuts randomly from the middle of the day to the evening. What seems like the sound stage lights come on in one funny moment and the camera has to adjust to the new light. Nicholson’s character survives a rockslide but in the next shot all the rocks are gone. Sets wobble. Bricks float. The plot is easy to understand for the first half, but then becomes almost unintelligible because they were making much of it up as they went along.
Set against this though is much that is good, and I personally am happy to accept more flaws, some of which might be unavoidable, in a low budget production like this, then in your average expensive blockbuster. The film absolutely oozes with Gothic atmosphere and, despite being credited to two cinemagographers [John Nicholaus and Floyd Crosby] is at times so visually striking that it matches not only the great look of Corman’s Poe pictures but the even more beautiful Mario Bava films like The Whip And The Body. Scenes in a forest paint web-like patterns with black. A graveyard is shrouded in fog and disappears into a dreamlike nothingness, the lack of a full set actually being a good thing. An eerie blue often pervades, especially inside the castle. The early scenes of Duvalier pursuing ‘Helene’ , which have an almost painfully dark romantic quality about them, get closer to the essence of Poe then perhaps any of Corman’s official adaptations. These, and the many scenes of Duvalier alone in the castle, benefit from superb scoring by Ronald Stein, the composer fully understanding the feel and tone which were being attempted with his eerie, often subtly unnerving music [though some of it resembles passages from the score to The Curse Of Frankenstein].
The story does get very confusing, a real feat in a film with just six cast members. The pacing is just right though, nice and leisurely for the first two thirds and then very fast from then on. The gore is mostly restricted to a raven attack and a woman’s face rotting away [both of which were cut by the BBFC on its cinema release], and the bird scene only shows the blood after the attack, but the face-rotting scene is fascinating to watch. Perhaps it doesn’t look realistic, but I simply adore this kind of cheap special effect, where somebody worked against time and money, with no computer help, to realise something required by the script, and does it look any less realistic than some of the CGI stuff you see in big films today? It all climaxes in a big flood, which disappointed the crew-members who were looking forward to ‘fire day’, Corman’s films often ending in a conflagration. Nicholson nearly drowned and the elderly Karloff hated being in the water, but Karloff, despite being uncomfortable at the amount of physical activity Corman asked him to do, is excellent in his last decent role except for Targets [which used footage from The Terror]. When he speaks of how his dead wife came to be dead, and when he appears to be visited by her ghost, he is very moving. Enjoy it or not, the actor put his all into the film and shows how good and perhaps underused [he never turned his back on the horror genre which he loved, but would have been so good in other types of movies and roles] he was.
Nicholson seems lost, as perhaps he was. He was never that good in his Corman roles and, if you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t imagine he would become the great actor and star he soon became. The Terror is a difficult film to entirely judge overall. Its flaws, whether or not they were unavoidable, are probably as numerous as its good points, but there is true genius in places, whether entirely intended or not, and it’s absolutely essential viewing for fans of the Gothic, which is why my rating is higher than many other people’s might be. Its incredible atmosphere and poetic quality will stick with me for quite a while. But please, somebody properly restore it.