Roger Corman is a movie legend. He has famously said that he has never lost money on any of the films he has made. Heck, he even wrote a book about it, How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime. He demonstrates his frugality and resourcefulness with the drive-in favorite The Terror. The movie was shot on leftover sets from other American International Pictures (Corman’s company) features like Haunted Palace and The Raven. The result may have fared well in the drive-in and grindhouse days, but today it waffles between low budget bore and charming example of old school filmmaking. Then there is the matter of the cast, but we will get to that later.
The movie tells the story of a disillusioned French officer named Andre Duvalier who has become separated from his unit. Riding his horse on a beach he happens across a beautiful young woman named Helene. Duvalier follows her and finds himself on the doorstep of the Von Leppe Castle, inhabited by one Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe and his servant, Stefan.
Once inside the castle,he discovers a painting of the Baron’s long dead wife and amazed that she looks just like the woman he followed there in the first place. Surely there must be some connection between the painting and the woman who mysteriously appears and disappears at will. Everyone Andre meets sure does act strangely, from the Baron and Stefan to the weird old woman named Katrina and Gustav, who also seems to be tracking Helene.
As it turns out, there is something strange going on. There is a dark past that surrounds the Baron and is still haunting him to this day. Helene is involved and the ultimate goal points to their death. Andre, along Stefan and Gustav, try to stop the inevitable, but in this sort of movie I think death is inevitable.
The Terror moves along at a glacial pace with long stretches where nothing much happens that is of any consequence. However, once the climax is in sight, the pace picks up as the inevitable comes screaming into view and our characters must all face their fates.
I’d give you more of the plot, but there really isn’t much to it and to tell more would risk giving you everything. Seriously. There is just the barest of threads to be found. There is no real depth or character development to speak of.
What makes this old cheapie worth spending time with is the cast. Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff, Dick Miller, and Sandra Knight all play key roles. You can watch Big Bad Jack in one of his earliest roles go toe to toe with Karloff in one of his last. They both have great screen presence and bring the semblance of emotional depth to the screen. It is just a lot of fun to watch these two, both at career crossroads. Dick Miller is also great to see with his distinctive New York accent in a period piece. Then you have Sandra Knight, who was married to Jack at the time, providing an absolutely lovely vision of eerieness.
Roger Corman is credited as the director, but in fact The Terror features a number of names fulfilling the duties. Aside from Corman, Jack Nicholson spent some time directing as did Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop), Jack Hill (Spider Baby), and Francis Ford Coppola (!). Each shot for a couple of days and then their footage was cut together into this something of a classic you have here.
Great movie? Not by a long shot, but if you have a love for B-movies this is certainly one you will want to see. Granted, you probably already have as the film has long been in the public domain and has appeared on a large number of cheap disks and horror compilation releases. In any case, this is likely the best you have seen it.
Audio/Video. The Terror is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, this is the first time I have seen it this way (bonus). The transfer is not nearly perfect, but what do you expect from a movie that has been in the public domain for so long? It had to be hard to find usable elements for the restoration. In any case, the restoration looks quite good. They cleaned away a lot of print damage (although it is still evident in some stock footage and effects shots) and the colors all look pretty good. The day sky has a nice blue and other colors are nicely saturated, for example Nicholson’s uniform coat. The movie is not perfectly sharp but it is pretty clear that a lot of work put into the restoration. The audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0 and it is decent, although definitely weaker than the image quality. There is crackly and hiss heard in the score (notice during the theme), also you can tell where the audio was dubbed and where it was live. I mean, it does the job, but it does show its age.
Extras. The original trailer and a brief restoration demo is included.
Bottomline. I like this movie. It has a great cast, enough story threads to follow, and there is a certain inescapable charm. It is a movie you are going to like or not. It is not an in between sort of movie. Embrace your B-movie side and jump in!