Alice, Sweet Alice
|Alice, Sweet Alice|
Poster for the 1978 release
|Directed by||Alfred Sole|
|Music by||Stephen J. Lawrence|
|Edited by||Edward Salier|
|Distributed by||Allied Artists|
Alice, Sweet Alice is a 1976 American horror film co-written and directed by Alfred Sole, and starring Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, and Brooke Shields in her film debut. The narrative focuses on a troubled adolescent girl who becomes a suspect in the brutal murder of her popular younger sister at her first communion.
Inspired by Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) and several Alfred Hitchcock films, writer-director Sole devised the screenplay with Rosemary Ritvo, an English professor who was his neighbor. At the time, Sole had been working as an architect restoring historic buildings in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and several properties he had worked on were used as shooting locations. Filming took place throughout the summer of 1975 in Paterson.
The film premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival under its original title, Communion, in November 1976, and was released under this title in London in September 1977. After being acquired by Allied Artists, it was re-titled Alice, Sweet Alice, and released in the United States on November 18, 1977. Another theatrical re-release occurred in 1981 under the title Holy Terror, which marketed the popularity of Shields after her performance in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978). While not prosecuted for obscenity, the film was seized and confiscated in the UK under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 during the video nasty panic. In the years since its release, the film has accrued a cult following and is considered a classic of the slasher subgenre in critical circles.
In 1961 Paterson, New Jersey, Catherine Spages visits Father Tom with her two daughters, nine-year-old Karen and 12-year-old Alice, who both attend St. Michael's Parish Girls' School. Karen is preparing for her first communion, and Father Tom gives her his mother's crucifix as a gift. A jealous Alice puts on a translucent mask, frightening Father Tom's housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni. Later, Alice steals Karen's porcelain doll and lures her into an abandoned building. She scares Karen before and locking her in a room, and threatens her if she tells on her.
On the day of her first communion, Karen is attacked and strangled in the church transept by a person wearing a translucent mask and a yellow raincoat. Her body is dumped into a bench compartment near the confessionals, which is set on fire with a candle, but not before her crucifix is ripped from her neck. Meanwhile, Alice enters the church, carrying Karen's veil; she kneels in place to receive communion, which Father Tom denies her as she was born out of wedlock. Simultaneously, a nun who has noticed smoke coming from the transept locates Karen's body. She screams in horror, disrupting the communion ceremony and causing a melee.
After Karen's funeral, Catherine's ex-husband Dominick begins independently investigating her murder, while Detective Spina formally handles the case. Catherine's sister Annie moves in to help her through her grief, though Alice and Annie despise each other. Catherine sends Alice to deliver a rent check to their obese, lecherous landlord, Mr. Alphonso, and he attempts to fondle and molest her. Shortly after, while descending the stairs to go shopping, Annie is attacked by a rain-coated figure in a mask who stabs her in the legs and feet. At the hospital, Annie claims that Alice tried to kill her, after which Alice is sent to a psychiatric institution for evaluation.
Later, Dominick receives a hysterical phone call from someone claiming to be Annie's daughter, Angela, saying that she has Karen's crucifix. Dominick agree to meet her at an abandoned building. There, he spots the raincoated figure, and follows it into the building. On a staircase landing, the figure stabs him before beating him with a brick and binding him with rope. Dominick regains consciousness and sees that the killer is in fact Mrs. Tredoni, a St. Michael's parishioner. She chastises Dominick and Catherine as sinners over their premarital sex and divorce. After Dominick bites Karen's crucifix off her neck, Mrs. Tredoni beats him with her shoe and pushes him out a window to his death.
During Dominick's autopsy, the pathologist finds Karen's crucifix in his mouth, and Alice is formally eliminated as a suspect. After hearing of Dominick's death, Catherine goes to visit Father Tom. He is not home, but Mrs. Tredoni invites Catherine in. While preparing the night's dinner for Father Tom and the monsignor, Mrs. Tredoni explains to Catherine that when her own daughter died on the day of her first communion, she realized children are punished for the sins of their parents. In her grief and madness she devotes herself to the church. Father Tom arrives in the midst of the conversation, and he and Catherine leave to get Alice from the institution.
Later that day, Mrs. Tredoni sneaks into Catherine and Alice's apartment building, unaware they have left for church. Simultaneously, Mr. Alphonso wakes up screaming, as Alice had mischievously placed a jar of cockroaches on him while he slept. Mr. Alphonso encounters Mrs. Tredoni in the staircase and mistakes her for Alice. When he shoves her against a wall, she stabs him to death and flees. However, Detective Spina witnesses her running out of the back entrance without a mask on. Mrs. Tredoni rushes to the church, where the police are stationed outside. Father Tom denies her communion. Mrs. Tredoni points at Catherine, screams that he gave communion to a whore, and violently stabs Father Tom in the throat as the police rush in. Father Tom dies in Mrs. Tredoni's arms. Alice walks out of the church with Mrs. Tredoni's shopping bag and places the bloodstained butcher knife into it.
- Linda Miller as Catherine Spages
- Mildred Clinton as Mrs. Tredoni
- Paula E. Sheppard as Alice Spages †
- Niles McMaster as Dominick 'Dom' Spages
- Jane Lowry as Annie DeLorenze
- Rudolph Willrich as Father Tom
- Michael Hardstark as Detective Spina
- Alphonso DeNoble as Alphonso
- Gary Allen as Jim DeLorenze
- Brooke Shields as Karen Spages
- Louisa Horton as Dr. Whitman
- Tom Signorelli as Detective Brennan
- Antonino Rocca as Funeral Director
- Lillian Roth as Pathologist ‡
- Kathy Rich as Angela DeLorenze
- Patrick Gorman as Father Pat
† credited as Paula Sheppard
‡ credited as Miss Lillian Roth
Film scholars have noted the film's hysterical portrayal of Catholicism and religious institutions to be in direct conversation with the motives of its villain, Mrs. Tredoni, whose ultimate goal is to "punish" the sinning members of her parish; this has resulted in some claiming the film to be overtly "anti-Catholic". Writer/director Sole's own proclaiming of himself as an "ex-Catholic" supports this interpretation of the film's religious themes and undertones. Prior to writing and directing Alice, Sweet Alice, Sole had directed his debut feature, an adult film titled Deep Sleep, in 1972. The release of the film resulted in obscenity charges being brought against him in the state of New Jersey, as well as formal excommunication from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey; this event has been credited as influential to the apparent anti-religious bent of Alice, Sweet Alice.
The murder scenes in the film in particular have been described by genre scholars such as John Kenneth Muir as "stark and shocking," and noted for their use of "powerful imagery" correlating with the film's religious overtones. Muir views the film as a precursor to such films as Seven (1995), which focus on individuals being punished by death for their sins and character flaws. Catholic iconography is featured prominently throughout the film, including votive candles, crucifixes, and rosaries, as well as artistic depictions of the Virgin Mary in sculptures and paintings.
Director Alfred Sole began writing the film in 1974, collaborating with co-writer Rosemary Ritvo on the script. Ritvo, an English professor at a local university, was Sole's neighbor, and the two often talked about films together. "She was a Catholic and we would talk about the Catholic church, religion and stuff like that. Then we started talking about films and theater and I discovered she had a great love of horror films," Sole recalled. The two began meeting during weekends and workshopping the screenplay together. At the time, Sole was working as an architect in New Jersey.
Sole stated that he was inspired to make the film after seeing Nicolas Roeg's 1973 thriller, Don't Look Now, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. As a result, Alice, Sweet Alice makes several visual references to Don't Look Now, namely the usage of the raincoat which is featured on the villains in both films. In developing the character of Alice, Sole and screenwriter Ritvo aspired to create a "child who has been neglected, and who could go either way," dividing the audience in regards to her guilt or innocence in the crimes committed. Sole chose to set the film in 1960s-era Paterson, New Jersey, his hometown, and culled much of the family drama and dynamics from his own Italian-Catholic upbringing. The character of Mrs. Tredoni, the villain, was based on a woman who lived at the Catholic rectory next-door to his grandmother's house and looked after the clergy.
Sole was also influenced by the works of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the 1955 French film Les Diaboliques, while assembling compositions in the film. Although many critics have drawn comparisons to Italian giallo films and the works of Dario Argento in particular, Sole claimed to have not seen Argento's work at the time. Nonethless, the film's incorporation of subtle dark humor and its unsympathetic portrayal of religion— both motifs of giallo thrillers— led to the film's reputation as the most "gialloesque" American film in history.
Sole, at the time an inexperienced filmmaker, did not have a casting director to cast the film, and instead would approach various stage actors about playing the parts. Brooke Shields was the first to be cast in the film after auditioning in New York City in 1975; director Sole had seen her modeling in a Vogue advertisement, and contacted her mother about the film, expressing his interest in her playing the role of young Karen. Sole recalled that Shields's mother "bent over backwards to help me out." Sole cast Paula Sheppard, then a college student, in the film as 12-year-old Alice, the protagonist suspected of her sister's murder. At the time of being cast, Sheppard was 19 years old, and had been discovered by Sole working as a dancer in a local university's stage productions. Linda Miller, an actress and daughter of Jackie Gleason, was cast in the role of Alice and Karen's mother, Catherine.
Of the supporting cast, Alphonso De Noble, a New Jersey native, was cast as the tenacious landlord after director Sole had seen him impersonating a priest in local cemeteries. Sole had originally sought veteran stage actress Geraldine Page for the role of Mrs. Tredoni; Page, however, could not play the character due to obligations in a Broadway production, but recommended fellow stage actress Mildred Clinton, who played the role. Tom Signorelli, who played Detective Brennan, an officer investigating the crimes, was a New York stage actor.
In the years after the film's release, Sole spoke favorably of Shields and Sheppard, though he recalled that much of the cast were "New York actors who were doing me a favor." He also commented that he and Miller clashed significantly, describing her as "really difficult to work with... A real nightmare." Despite this, he conceded: "Linda is an excellent actor; they all are."
The film was primarily shot on location in Paterson, New Jersey in the summer of 1975, with much of the crew being based out of New York City. The budget was approximately $400,000. To help finance the film, Sole refinanced his home and cleared his life savings. "My family was really supportive," he recalled, "and my mother cooked for the crew, my neighbors chipped in; everyone was just so kind and supportive of me that we eventually got it made."
Approximately 90% of the film was shot using a 16 mm camera, as Sole wanted the frames to have "wide" appearance with significant foreground. Sole's occupation as a local restorational architect in Paterson helped him secure several shooting locations, effectively lending the film a modern Gothic aesthetic. Among the Paterson locations was the historic Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works building, where Dom's murder sequence was filmed. Exteriors of the church were shot at St. Michael's Parish in Newark, New Jersey, while the interiors were filmed inside a hospital church. Additional photography took place at the Governor Morris Hotel in Morris Township. The production was periodically postponed during filming, with Sole stating that sometimes two to four week breaks would be taken between filming sessions due to budget issues. On one occasion, the production was temporarily halted after Linda Miller attempted suicide by slitting her wrists. Because of this, the crew had to recurrently hire new cameramen; Sole estimated that a total of six different cameramen worked on the film. The total number of shooting days was around 20, as estimated by Sole.
For the film's special effects, which included multiple murder sequences by bludgeoning and stabbing, Sole hired friend William Lustig, who would later direct the cult horror film Maniac (1980). Lustig also worked as an assistant cameraman on the film. Dick Vorisek, who had previously worked on Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Carrie (1976), was hired onto the film as chief sound engineer after Sole was put in contact with him through Technicolor. The special effects in the film were achieved via practical methods, such as the stabbing sequences, which were shot using a fake retractable knife designed by Sole's friend, an engineer.
The film premiered under the title Communion at the Chicago International Film Festival in the fall of 1976, where it earned a Silver Medal award. According to Sole, Columbia Pictures had signed on to distribute the film in the United States, as well as securing a book tie-in by author Frank Lauria, which was written in conjunction through Bantam Books. The chief stipulation provided to Sole was that he cut three minutes of the film, to which he agreed. However, following a monetary dispute between Columbia and producer Richard Rosenberg, Columbia ultimately dropped the film from their roster. The film had a theatrical release in the United Kingdom through Hemdale Film Corporation, debuting in London on September 8, 1977, under its original Communion title.
Allied Artists subsequently purchased the film for North American distribution, and forced the filmmakers to change the title from Communion to Alice, Sweet Alice, out of fear that the public would perceive it to be a Christian film. Allied Artists' revised title, Alice, Sweet Alice, originated from a quote in Volume 16 of the Publications of the Catholic Truth Society, published in 1898, which reads: "Then there is Alice—sweet Alice—your eldest born, who leans over the back of your chair and sweeps your face with her brown curls." Director Sole reportedly fought Allied Artists on the changing of the title to no avail; the film was ultimately released as Alice, Sweet Alice in the United States on November 18, 1977.[a] The novelization, however, was still published under the original Communion title.
Alice, Sweet Alice received generally favorable reviews from critics upon release. Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review, stating: "Director Alfred Sole has a brilliant touch for the macabre and there are some splendidly chilling scenes," while US Magazine called the film a "superior modern Gothic thriller."[b] Leonard Maltin awarded the film a mixed 2 out of 4 stars, calling it "[an] OK murder mystery." Daniel Ruth of The Tampa Tribune praised the screenplay, referring to it as "a tight, well-paced melodrama that keeps its audience guessing who the murderer is until the last possible moment." Bill Brownstein of the Montreal Gazette deemed the film "a gory and effective" surprise, praising its cinematography despite its story having "gaps and inconsistencies." Linda Gross of the Los Angeles Times praised the performances of Sheppard and Shields, but criticized the film for its depiction of violence, noting the film as "foul... Alice, which offers 105 minutes of atrociousness and bloody homicides perpetrated upon children by other children and infirm adults, is an obscenity."
Joe Leydon, writing for the Shreveport Times, lauded the film's "imaginative touches," but ultimately deemed it an "awful movie... It's a pity, because of Alice, Sweet Alice is offbeat enough to rise slightly above the usual run of cheapie chillers." The Boston Globe's Michael Blowen deemed the film a "gross vulgarity of an exploitation picture," adding that the film "begins as a slick, glossy thriller that gradually degenerates into a bloody mess... Sole employs craftsmanlike camerawork and swift editing in an attempt to gloss over the inconsistent script, but this film's complete lack of originality cannot be hidden." William Whitaker of the Abilene Reporter-News similarly criticized the film's violence as "a little too much after awhile," but conceded that the "script has enough imagination and the direction enough insight to make it passable fare as far as these kind of films go." Edward L. Blank of the Pittsburgh Press wrote that the film was "intriguing" but "maddeningly contrived."
Upon the film's 1981 re-release under the title Holy Terror, Vincent Canby of The New York Times gave the film a positive review, writing: "Mr. Sole, whose first feature this is, knows how to direct actors, how to manipulate suspense and when to shift gears: the identity of the killer is revealed at just that point when the audience is about to make the identification, after which the film becomes less of a horror film than an exercise in suspense. He also has a good feeling for the lower middle-class locale and the realities of the lives of the people who live in it." A review published by TV Guide gave the film four out of five stars, calling it "an excellent low-budget horror film from director Sole, whose impressive grasp of filmmaking technique and eye for the grotesque keeps the viewer on edge throughout the movie." Time Out, London also gave the film a positive review, noting: "The plot investigates the murder; the film examines the family's self-destruction; and the film-makers construct a running commentary on the themes of Alfred Hitchcock: against a carefully evoked background of Catholicism emerge twin themes of repression and guilt."
Patrick Legare of AllMovie called the film an "eerie, effective chiller," praising the film's cinematography, and awarding it four-and-a-half out of five stars. Slant Magazine noted in their review of the film: "Possibly the closest American relation to an Italian giallo, the film is head-trippingly hilarious (Jane Lowry, as Aunt Annie, may be the nuttiest screamer in the history of cinema) and features some of the more disquieting set pieces you'll ever see in a horror film."
During the changes in distributors and due to a myriad of legal problems, the film was not properly registered with the United States Copyright Office in 1975 during its production. As a result, the film became widely bootlegged in the following years. Some VHS versions of the film released in the 1980s feature a truncated 98-minute cut of the film, such as a release by Celebrity Home Entertainment in 1987.
In 1997, Anchor Bay Entertainment released the film on VHS in its 108-minute, fully uncut version, with remastering supervised by director Alfred Sole. A DVD edition was subsequently released by Anchor Bay in 1999. After this edition of the film became out of print, it was re-released on DVD by Hen's Tooth Video in 2007. 88 Films, a UK based company, released a region free Blu-ray on July 9, 2018.
In 2007 director Dante Tomaselli announced his intent to direct a remake, confirmed that he had completed a script with Michael Gingold. Tomaselli will also score the film using original pieces and re-mastered and remixed musical compositions from the original film. In 2013 actress Kathryn Morris was confirmed to be performing in the film and will assume the role of Catherine Spages. The film will be set in the 1970s as opposed to setting it in modern times or in its original 1960s setting, as Tomaselli wanted to be "somewhat more recent while not at all losing its retro style". In May 2016, Tomaselli revealed that the film had suffered delays due to lack of funds, but also stated that he had been in recent contact with "solid prospects from European production companies and producers."
Alice, Sweet Alice ranked #89 on Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments for the scene when Alice scares Karen in the warehouse. In 2017, the film was ranked the fourth-best slasher film of all time by Complex magazine.
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