Alice Sweet Alice (1976)
**While this is a repost of my original review I had edited it for the 31 Days of Halloween and included the Fright Meter at the bottom!**
I’ve had Alice Sweet Alice for over three months and I was sick of looking at the red Netflix envelope. Alice Sweet Alice is a weird horror film that tries to tie into religion and duality but never commits. The narrative makes little sense and borrows a pretty heavy plot point from the 1973 film Don’t Look Now so it’s safe to assume there will be spoilers for that film as well.
Alice Spages (Paula Sheppard) can’t seem to do anything right when compared to her younger sister Karen (Brooke Shields). When Karen is viciously murdered during her First Communion suspicion immediately falls upon Alice; but when the bodies continue to pile up can Alice still be blamed?
A little background info, you might have seen this movie under a previous title. The film was first released in 1976 under the title Communion before being released in 1978 with the above title, and again in 1981 as Holy Terror. I guess director Alfred Sole couldn’t figure out which one conveyed the plot of the movie more and I have to say all and none (which is kind of how I felt about the movie). Director Alfred Soul directed two other films in the early 80s that I’ve never heard of, leaving this as his only film that’s gained any type of acclaim (he’s now working regularly as a production designer). Sole also co-wrote the script with Rosemary Ritvo whose only credit is this film. What’s head-scratching is the script is labeled “original screenplay” making me wonder if there were some heavy rewrites IMDB hasn’t included credits for?
Alice Sweet Alice is an odd little film as all horror films from the 1970s tended to be. In light of the 1973 release of The Exorcist it was considered “cool” to make horror films devoted to demons and the Catholic Church. Thus where director Sole’s film falls as it’s obsessed with Catholicism. If the First Communion plot didn’t tell you something the camera enjoys lingering on crucifixes and crosses. In fact one could get pretty soused drinking every time there’s a religious icon or a two-headed doll. The problem is these elements are never explained or integrated properly into the narrative. Aside from Karen being murdered, in a church, during her First Communion, there’s never any further discussion about Catholicism or why it’s so important to the plot? Sure the motive for the murder is meant to be “children pay for the sins of their parents” but that’s never revealed until the last third and taking into account how much of the middle of the film is away from the church you never reconcile the first half with the third. The same can be said about the dual nature that’s hinted at throughout. Karen has a two-headed doll and the adults, Karen and Alice’s mother Catherine and Katherine’s sister Annie (played by Linda Miller and Jane Lowry respectively) look so much alike I kept confusing them. I kept wondering if the grand reveal was that Alice had a split personality but the film doesn’t end that way nor is that sufficiently explained. It left me, again, wondering if this script had been revised and certain points removed.
If anything the film sets up the Catholic Church as the center of the creepiness in the opening scenes. We’re introduced to Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) who gets all giddy when Karen arrives. He’s praising her and even gives her his mother’s cross as a Communion gift. I know this is with hindsight but no one found this weird in 1976? A priest is giving family heirlooms to a lone female parishioner. What about all the other kids having their Communion, we see about 15 children go through the ceremony, did they all get presents from the priest? In fact Brooke Shields only has about five minutes in this film (her big screen début) and aside from being a cute girl there’s never any sufficient reason why everyone is in love with her. The priest gives her gifts, her mother gives her whatever she wants and for what? Is it because she’s the youngest (if that’s the case I totally feel for Alice).
The film introduces the family dynamic of Alice being mistreated and Karen being the golden child and yet everyone in this family is fairly despicable. You have Catherine who obviously favors one daughter over the other and then expects Alice to believe she loves her when she’s accused of murder. Karen is a whiny, spoiled child and Alice is psychotic. There’s never any good reason explained for why Alice’s family has such vitriol towards her, except for Aunt Annie’s supposed issue with the fact she was born from premarital sex between Catherine and her ex-husband Dom (Niles McMaster). That’s not to say Alice doesn’t make it hard for the audience to side with her either. She continuously calls her neighbor/landlord (who did I mention is a child molester…yeah this movie piles on the gross traits) by calling him “fatso” or some other derivative. When Alice actually murders a kitten by slamming it into the ground I was pretty much hoping she died by the end. I pretty much wanted all of them to die in various ways which I doubt was the intent.
I mentioned above that the gross factor is prevalent here and it continues for no reason. The landlord/neighbor Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble) is a gross child molester who hordes cats. At one point he actually tries to molest Alice. In another scene where Alice is being given a lie detector the man conducting it actually talks to a cop about her breasts (in crasser terms than I’m willing to use here) and mentions that she wanted him to feel her up! My skin crawled throughout this entire film. Keep in mind Alice is supposed to be 12 despite the fact that actress Paula Sheppard was 19 at the time. Sheppard looks 12 no matter what. How can the motive for these murders be that children pay for the sins of their parents and yet these children are constantly surrounded by pigs?
There’s no smooth way to transition from that so let’s talk about transitions (see what I did there?). The transitions make little sense in the film, abruptly cutting from scene to scene and introducing characters with no names or characters. The father Dom shows up and it takes about 10 minutes for the characters to say “hey that’s the dad!” I still can’t tell you the name of the main cop because I don’t think anyone mentions it. Hell it takes 25 minutes for this movie to reveal it’s not even set in 1976 but 1961! Why is 1961 important to the plot, it’s not but thanks for telling me anyway.
I assumed this was a horror movie due to its inclusion on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments series where I first heard of it. If you’re expecting scares you won’t get it. Sure it’s got gore, including a brutal head bashing scene with a brick, but the kills are few and far between. The initial death of Karen is done early on but after that the film goes 40 minutes at least before Aunt Annie is attacked and she’s not actually killed. If you’re looking for an actual murder that happens about an hour. I think that says a lot for the pacing of the film. The actual investigation is hackneyed as well, Benson and Stabler these cops are not! No member of Karen’s family makes an attempt to answer the cops question of why would Aunt Annie implicate Alice to get back at her father? Hell the parents initially refuse to let Alice talk to the cops; Nancy Grace would call that suspicious! It’s well-known to Catherine that Annie is meddlesome and has it out for her daughter so why is she credible? There’s also a big deal made about where Annie’s own daughter Angela (Kathy Rich) was during Karen’s murder which is never sufficiently answered.
When Aunt Annie is attacked you actually see Mr. Alphonso and Catherine come out and from the way it’s filmed it’s apparent they saw the killer! Nope, they didn’t they say and it’s never explained! Hell we never actually know who killed Karen (sorry if that’s important) and while I did like the ambiguous note that murders left on by actually pointing the finger at someone the directors deflate the questioning that the audience could have had over Karen’s murder. In my prologue I mentioned how this film was “inspired” by Don’t Look Now, another film from 1973. In that film a couple is grieving over their daughter and hear of violent murders happening around them while at the same time the husband of the couple keeps seeing a girl in a red raincoat. The ending has been mocked in numerous pop culture items but it’s revealed in that film that a tiny old lady is the murderer. Well in Alice Sweet Alice you discover the old housekeeper Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton) is the murderer! See she believes children pay for the sins of their parents and Catherine had premarital sex once upon a time so she waited 12 some odd years before she actually decided to take revenge (you can see I don’t buy this twist). I mean did Catherine and Dom take an ad out in the paper “Had sex before marriage….sorry!” Yes she also mentions her daughter died during her First Communion but that line’s buried in a monologue that’s so muffled (due to the sound quality on this awful DVD transfer) you can easily miss it.
Alice Sweet Alice does have a pretty creepy mask that’s good but it’s never used in murdering enough. The plot is confusing to say the least, the best way I can sum it up is to quote Rugrats (cause I’m cool like that) “How did it happen. Why did it happen? No one knows!” It’s unsure whether it wants to be a slasher film or a religious horror film and the disjointed nature makes it feel like the writers made it up as they went along. If this is a horror film it’s not scary. If it’s a murder mystery it’s not thought out well enough.
Type of Horror: Creepy kids, Religious, Weird
Fright Meter: 2
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1970s, Horror, Kristen's Netflix Top 10, Mystery, Netflix Top 10, Thriller
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
Actually, I rather enjoyed the picture’s unique (albeit admittedly ridiculously Catholic-guilt-ridden) perspective, it’s strange assortment of characters, Paula E. Shepherd’s fuckin’ creepy-as-fuck-ness, the murder scenes, which I personally did find shocking and upsetting and a little more than sufficiently scary, a lot of the piece’s (I believe, rather intentional) ambiguity… you know, just to see to it that you’re securely kept right upon the precipice, ready to teeter right off the cliff and fall into the perilously dark, unknown abyss far beneath you, at any moment! Also, I took particular um-bridge with your complaining about the tempo of the film’s precarious pacing, which I really would have to argue was far more carefully plotted and almost meritorious in it’s patience, which seemed to me almost certainly right in line with the film-makers over-all intent in portraying the ominous, uncomfortable and constantly at-odds, adversarial psychic beatings and lashing-out’s and arguments and all of this disharmony existing just perfectly within the context of such a dreary, antiseptic, colorless and religion-sick environment.. to me the pacing of ALICE was all about the selling and reality-base of the odd, disjointed, disquieting and confusing ‘children’s-logic’ which I strongly noted as governing the entire film. The aforementioned `uneven pacing’ you noted here, reminds me in a way of SUSPIRIA, in which that notoriously lovely, intense, colourful and bloody-as-hell opening dual-murder scene from Argento’s classic film also was not immediately followed by any other shocking scene of grotesque murder and mutilation, until another forty minutes into the story… like that otherwise completely dissimilar horror film, ALICE SWEET ALICE was simply never intended to operate as nor satisfy anyone’s longing to experience a `body-count’ horror movie, which literally offers it’s audience a `nasty killing every five minutes, guaranteed!’, FRIDAY THE 13th-type of tempo. I originally saw this picture in a grindhouse drive-in theatre in Azusa, Ca. with my late father in 1978, and have watched probably another five times between then and now, and I just had to take note here that I myself personally continue to be of the opinion that this remains an above-average, intrinsically over-the-top, gruesome, unexpected and refreshingly out-of-left-field little slice of movie-going, Catholic-church-guilt-ridden, moribund entertainment, and I actually scoffed when I took note of your sour-grapes D+ grade which you awarded(?!?) this film… SO, (with my tongue pressed tight between my spitting lips, I leave you with a resounding response of “Thsspspspsptthssspth!!”
I can definitely see the film’s appeal and, in all honesty, I probably owe it a second look. I recently rewatched Suspiria, another film I didn’t immediately fall in love with, and I’ve appreciated it a lot more as I’ve aged. Thanks for the insights. When I rewatch the film I’ll be taking note of these things and, hopefully, it’ll lead to a different perspective. Thanks for reading!
boring, the only thing startling was how loud the music got when the dialogue was so low
annie in the hospital is the most overracting i’ve seen in years
the thing they never explain is how the lady got the idea to steal Alice’s entire outfit including mask. she never saw it, but when the lady is attacking Karen in the church in the beginning, the only person we know of who has that mask is Alice
Alice did scare her in the kitchen in the beginning of the movie wearing the mask but I can’t remember if she had on the raincoat or not. Either way, it’s not hard to believe she would have seen Alice’s raincoat at some point.
But I agree, I love Karen’s death and I enjoyed it more this time than when I watched it in my twenties but it’s still a lot of wasted potential.
The mother and the priest clearly have some sort of relationship that is way beyond priest and parishioner; I would even go so far as to say that Alice is likely Father Tom’s daughter (it makes sense since the mother and “father” still love each other, and something other than lack of love may have caused their marriage, like finding out your wife was pregnant from someone else when you married her. Father Tom seems to be trying to keep attention off the fact that Alice is his by giving Karen gifts and doting on her. It would not take much observation to see that if you were a quiet old woman who listened in the background- they may have discussed it on the phone (we see the old woman eavesdropping on the other line), or she listened to gossip. The police and Alice’s mother theorize that the killer wasn’t even trying to kill Karen at all, but thought it was Alice (they looked the same in those white dresses and long hair). The old woman was in love with Father Tom, and called the mother a whore in church at the end, and I think she was trying to erase the sin of that father in particular. It doesn’t help that her daughter, who she considered pure and good and from a good Catholic mother, dies on the day of her Communion, while the bastard of this whore who takes Tom’s attention is allowed to live, and I think that drives her to kill Karen (thinking it’s Alice). Just my opinion. And I cannot find anything on if that kitten actually got hurt- I don’t see how it couldn’t have been hurt when she grabbed it by the head (that was one shot and you could see the kitten squirming). Anyone know?
This movie is great in some ways. But, I think it’s more of an American Giallo style or even a noir movie than a horror. If you are looking for a by the numbers horror this isn’t it. If you are looking for a surreal story about people living in a dirty depressing world this might be a good choice.
Well, the film does show the movie’s year in the first establishing church shot in one of the versions I’ve seen. XD
I don’t believe Karen’s murderer is left ambiguous. Mrs. Tredoni has Karen’s cross when she kills Dom, so I think we’re supposed to know at that point that she killed Karen.