The Terror (1963)
When Roger Corman completed filming The Raven in 1963, it turned out that star Boris Karloff still had two days left to go on his contract for the picture. Not wishing to waste those two days, Corman, and four other uncredited directors, improvised a script and filmed a new film; thus was born The Terror. Corman used sets, crewmembers, and cast members from The Raven. The film itself is an interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying, trip through the familiar ideas of Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films, with the tried and true motifs of the lonely traveler and the man with repressed guilt manifesting itself. Although it is well acted and directed, The Terror does not offer enough shocks to justify its name.
Lt. Andre Duvalier (Jack Nicholson) is a French officer separated from his regiment during the Napoleonic Wars. Alone on horseback, he encounters a mysterious woman (Sandra Knight) who gives him drink, but keeps vanishing. Duvalier traces her to the castle of Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe (Boris Karloff) and his servant Stefan (Dick Miller). There Andre discovers the secret of the mysterious woman, bound up in an old tale of murder and vengeance which now haunts Von Leppe, and which may threaten his own existence as well.
While the script is solid, if unremarkable, the story of an old man ridden with guilt and is nothing new for a Corman film, nor is the idea of a dead spirit seeking vengeance. Screenwriters Leo Gordon and Jack Hill use the same basic outline as Corman’s Poe adaptations, such as Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. Karloff’s character is consumed with guilt for murders twenty years in the past, and Nicholson’s character echoes the lonely travelers of Corman’s earlier films. The script, which was largely improvised, is to be commended for maintaining a fair sense of mystery for the first two-thirds. Corman and his collaborators had been making this type of film for several years, and their familiarity with the basic plot and characters is very evident.
Unfortunately, The Terror unravels in its last act. The first part of the film creates an effective mystery about who Helene/Ilsa is, and also why everyone seems to be so frightened of the old castle. Duvalier receives several different stories about the nature of the castle and Von Leppe himself. The air of mystery and dread is somewhat deflated when, when confronted by Duvalier, Von Leppe meekly explains everything to him. Nevertheless, the story holds its own until the end when it tries to have one twist too many. A flood destroys the castle and kills Von Leppe. Helene/Ilsa’s spirit is freed while her face melts away (in a very unconvincing effect). It is a very routine and dull ending, almost exactly the same as most of Corman’s Poe adaptations, and it is a very unsatisfying resolution to the story’s ideas. This bland and un-frightening ending derails an interesting, if unoriginal, set-up and substantially weakens the film.
Strong acting somewhat salvages the spotty script, with performances that range from solid to outstanding. It is no surprise that Boris Karloff delivers a wonderful performance as the tortured and guilt-ridden Baron Von Leppe. It seems impossible for Karloff to give a bad performance, no matter the quality of the film. With his large, mournful eyes continually staring at the portrait of Helene, Karloff effectively demonstrates the guilt and sadness that Von Leppe harbors. He also uses a haughty, aristocratic manner of speaking, showing his character’s arrogance and power. The only weakness in his performance is during the final fight scene, in which he barely seems as if he is struggling at all with Helene. Perhaps considering that he was 76 years old at the time, this is to be expected. Karloff commands the screen when he is present, and he lends a forceful gravitas to the role.
The 26-year-old Jack Nicholson offers a performance that is adequate and believable while at the same time almost anonymous. He delivers his lines well and looks strong, but there is absolutely no evidence that this young actor possesses any of the talent for which he will later be known. In The Terror, Andre is more of a plot device than a character, and Nicholson’s performance invests him with almost no emotional involvement. His words of comfort to Helene/Ilsa are almost robotically delivered, and when he gets angry with Von Leppe, one would not be surprised if Von Leppe yawned. Sadly, Nicholson only gives us the barest minimum of what his character requires, and nothing more.
Corman’s direction of the film, like its cast, is solid but not inspiring. The opening scenes are the most effective, providing a satisfying mystery in Helene/Ilsa’s appearance, and then disappearance, in the water. He also makes effective use of The Raven’s sets, convincingly using the castle’s many rooms and secret passages as visual metaphors for Von Leppe’s moral decay. The outdoor scenes are not as effective; they were obviously filmed in Southern California, not France. The final destruction scenes are also handled capably, but there is not much inspiration or excitement in them. Overall, Corman presents his tale effectively but not memorably.
The Terror is a decent horror film that, unfortunately, makes one wish they were watching one of Corman’s earlier Poe movies. Boris Karloff offers a standout performance, and the film is professionally made, but in the end it is a film that feels that is just going through the motions of a Corman-Poe film. The Terror is definitely not a stand-out in the illustrious career of Roger Corman.
This review is part of Roger Corman Week, the first of four celebrations of master horror directors done for our Shocktober 2007 event.