Title: The Terror
Year of Release: 1963
Director: Roger Corman
Length: 82 mins
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff, Sandra Knight, Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze
The story goes that when production wrapped on The Raven, eager to capitalize on the burgeoning horror genre, director and producer Roger Corman (who achieved fame adapting the stories of Edgar Allan Poe for cinema) wanted to utilize some leftover sets before they were destroyed. Star Boris Karloff was still contracted for a further three days, so Corman struck a deal which amounted to a paying him a small sum of money along with a deferred payment of $15,000 should the new project go on to make more than $150,000. He then enlisted the help of a young Jack Nicholson, who had also just finished working on The Raven and was busy climbing the rungs of the Hollywood ladder, commissioned Leo Gordon to write a very basic script, and a movie was born.
The Terror was filmed on such a shoe-string budget and incorporated such a liberal attitude that Corman often looked to enroll ‘guest’ directors while he was doing other things. Francis Ford Coppola lent his hand to some scenes, and a 26-year old Jack Nicholson virtually directed himself. He plays Andre Duvalier, a French soldier who, in 1806, becomes lost in the Confederation of the Rhine (an amalgamation of client states belonging to the First French Empire created after the Battle of Austerlitz). On the brink of exhaustion, he is saved by a beautiful maiden by the name of Helene (Knight) who shows him where he can find fresh drinking water. Duvalier then has a fight with a bird and almost drowns in the sea. When he comes around, he finds himself in a cabin in the forest being tended to by a weird old lady who might very well be a witch. Helene isn’t there, but the feisty bird he rumbled with earlier is, which is probably all the guy needed. Thoroughly freaked, he sneaks out in the dead of night and heads off into the forest where he meets up with Helene again. This time, in a roundabout way, she leads him to a creepy old castle where he runs into Baron Von Leppe (Karloff) and his henchman, Stefan (Miller). Seeing her portrait on the wall, Duvalier asks about the girl, only to be told the portrait isn’t anyone called Helene at all, but his wife, Ilsa, who he had murdered some years previously when he caught her cheating with a yokel. Even that doesn’t phase Duvalier who loudly proclaims, “With all due respect Baron, for a ghost she’s a very active young woman!” That night, he looks out of the window to see Helene/Ilsa walking in the grounds, and goes out to find her. By this time, I couldn’t help wondering if there was anything a French soldier wouldn’t do to get his end away. He flat-out refuses to leave the castle, and sets about trying to solve the mystery, which only deepens when a disembodied voice leads him to the crypt. Nothing good ever happens in crypts in films. Or in real life, I imagine. Don’t go in the crypt. Does he go in the crypt? I think you know the answer to that. He can’t fucking wait to get in that crypt.
Though much-maligned, and often completely overlooked, for me the Terror stands out for many reasons. Firstly, the ingenuity and sheer resourcefulness of Corman, who pulled out every stop to get the thing done. He saw an opportunity and followed it through, and deserves bucket loads of credit for that. It was a very DIY punk thing to do. Apparently, he never did pay Karloff that promised $15,000, because, he claims, the movie never made the stipulated $150,000. Despite the weak script, much of which was probably written on the hoof or at least partially improvised, the dovetailing performances of Karloff and Nicholson, two screen legends, are remarkable. Finally, the gothic setting is absolutely gorgeous. That castle is straight out of a dream, or a nightmare, the numerous neglected rooms full of dusty trinkets and secret passages act as fitting visual metaphors for the Baron’s moral decay and worsening mental state.
Since someone forgot to include a copyright notice in the credits, today, the original version of the film is in the public domain. To navigate this problem, in the early 1990’s, Corman enlisted Dick Miller to reprise his role and shoot new scenes to frame the action from the original movie, which is then presented in flashback. This extended the running time to 91 minutes. To make matters even more confusing, depending on where it was released, the Terror was alternatively known as The Haunting, The Castle of Terror, and Lady of the Shadows. Given the options, The Terror is probably the most uninspired title they could have gone with. If this film was an object, it would be one of those weird little dusty ornaments you find in an elderly relatives house after they die. Totally worthless in a practical sense, but never-the-less curious, bizarre and not without charm.
The uniform worn by Jack Nicholson was previously worn by Marlon Brando when he played Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1954 epic Desiree.