Alfred Sole, 1976
Starring: Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, Brooke Shields
Karen, an adorable nine year old, is about to receive her First Communion. She is a favorite of the local community and the priest, Father Tom, gives her his mother’s crucifix as a present. Her older sister, the disturbed Alice, is jealous and menaces Karen by stealing one of her dolls and threatening her in an abandoned building. Alice often wears a strange, translucent mask that she uses to scare people. Not long after, on the day of the Communion service, Karen is murdered in the church by someone wearing Alice’s mask and a yellow raincoat. She is set on fire and the murderer steals her crucifix. Alice’s estranged father and aunt that she hates move in to help out her distraught mother. More people surrounding Alice are murdered and her mother is horrified to learn that Alice is the primary suspect.
Initially released as Communion, the film was renamed Alice Sweet Alice and is also known as Holy Terror. One of the most underrated horror films of the ‘70s, this is something of an American giallo with a number of the visual and thematic tropes typically used in Italian horror of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I can see how it reminds critics of Dario Argento’s Deep Red with its abundance of childhood imagery mixed in with scenes of graphic murder, but this actually reminded me a lot of Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? (1972). That film shares much more in common with Alice Sweet Alice, including religious themes and the central location of a church, as well as sexually aggressive or repressed characters, and child victims. The latter were relatively rare in giallo films, but in Alice Sweet Alice the additional twist is that the killer might just be a child.
Alice Sweet Alice would also make an interesting companion piece to Carrie, which was actually released the same year. Both films are concerned with a troubled central girl, female rites of passage, repressed sexuality, religion, and a dysfunctional home life. Though Carrie is a telekinetic and Alice is a potential psychopath, both girls were conceived during illicit sexual encounters between their parents, a shame that lingers into the present realities of both films. And like Carrie, Alice Sweet Alice has few likable or sympathetic characters.
The characters are all unpleasant, including Alice herself, who is presented as a budding young psychopath when she tortures her sister and kills a cat. The film is certain a nasty piece of work and the general air of distaste makes it easier to believe that any of the characters are capable of murder, which certainly helps out the overall mystery. Alice’s family is unlikable, one of the neighbors is a child molester (Alphonso DeNoble from Bloodsucking Freaks) whose advances Alice barely escapes, and a number of other characters are undeniably sleazy.
In addition to the central murder mystery, there are many domestic drama elements that surround Alice’s dysfunctional family. To a certain extent, Alice Sweet Alice has a few too many characters and subplots, which can make things confusing, but also lends itself to the numerous red herrings and giallo-like sequences. The body count is relatively low, but the killer in the yellow raincoat with a terrifying children’s mask is very effective. Karen’s murder in particular is quite chilling, as it essentially happens in front of a church full of people, they just happen to be looking the other way.
Shot and set in Paterson, New Jersey, the film takes place in the early ‘60s. Director Alfred Sole primarily made his career as a producer or art director and this is one of his few films. It’s really a shame, because he managed to make the best of a confused script and low budget, as well as get some good performances out of largely inexperienced or unknown actors. This was the film debuts for both Brooke Shields and Paula Sheppard. Shields would go on to have a long career and Sheppard went to to star in the cult film Liquid Sky. Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, Jane Lowry, and Niles McMaster also appear as the arguably less memorable adults.
Alice Sweet Alice is available on DVD, though I would love to see a Blu-ray. It comes with the highest possible recommendation and is particularly suggested for fans of early slasher flicks or giallo films.