Schlock Value: The Terror
By the early 60s, gothic horror was back in a big bad way, thanks to Hammer Productions, and in true American fashion, schlock god Roger Corman was there to shamelessly rip it off. Starting with House of Usher in 1960, he began a series of films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, each of them brimming with huge castles, crypts and Vincent Price. In 1963, he released The Raven, a fantastic film starring horror legends Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre, plus a young up-and-comer by the name of Jack Nicholson. That same year, he released another film, The Terror, which tends to get lumped in with the Poe stuff despite not being based on any of his work. Probably because it recycled Karloff and Nicholson, as well as the sets from The Raven and The Haunted Palace (Roger Corman was nothing if not economical). Unfortunately, The Raven is not included in Mill Creek Entertainment’s Horror Classics box set, but The Terror is, so that’s what we’re taking a look at in this week's Schlock Value.
The marketing for this film employed pretty much all of the hallmarks of 1960s gothic cinema, but none of it carried more weight than Boris Karloff. Sure, the poster recalls similar horror classics of the past (Dracula, Frankenstein, House of Wax, and Pit and the Pendulum), and it features a castle, beautiful women caught in a spiderweb, and a skull, but it’s difficult to notice that stuff when Karloff’s massive mug takes up two-thirds of it. You could get rid of all that other stuff, and the film would be no less enticing. But when you’re Roger Corman, anything worth doing is worth overdoing, so the poster is crammed with all manner of generic spooky imagery (to match the generic title), plus a disclaimer that reads: “No one will be admitted while the coffin is being opened!” Well, now I need to know what’s in the coffin! The trailer, however, does manage to give us some hint of a plot: an old man, wracked with guilt, is living in a castle haunted by a beautiful woman who may or may not be a figment of his imagination. Alright, now we’re getting somewhere.
In The Terror, Andre Duvalier, played by Jack Nicholson, is an 18th century French lieutenant who has been separated from his regiment, and is traveling up the coast on horseback. When he stops to rest, he meets Helene, a beautiful, mysterious young woman, who helps him recover before vanishing in the rough tide. Duvalier, trying to follow her, is knocked unconscious by the waves and wakes up in the home of an old gypsy woman, who denies any knowledge of the younger girl. He does learn, however, of the existence of the castle of Baron Von Leppe, and perhaps the woman he is looking for could be found there. When he arrives at the castle, he sees the young woman in the window, but he is greeted at the door by the Baron (Karloff), who invites the lieutenant in and shows him a portrait of the woman, explaining that she is the Baroness Ilsa, who died twenty years prior, and has been haunting him for the past two years. Not content to accept this, Duvalier digs even further, and ultimately becomes fully immersed in the castle’s dark history, discovering horrifying secrets including betrayal and murder until the film reaches its legitimately shocking climax, which I won’t spoil here, but will say is actually worth sticking around for.
Look, The Terror was never meant to be high art, but it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s Roger Corman doing what he did best. He had a few actors, some lightly used sets, and a little bit of money, and he stretched it about as far as he could. No one could do more with less than he did. Sure, the script could use some work, and he may have captured the worst performance of Nicholson’s career, but despite it being hastily thrown together, The Terror works way better than it should. It’s loaded with gothic horror staples: terrific castle sets and period costuming, spooky lighting (lots of reds, blues, and greens), and a surprising amount of legitimate gore. And Karloff, who by 1963 could do this stuff in his sleep, is tons of fun to watch as he chews the scenery every chance he gets. As a Joe Dante fan, I even got a kick out of watching a young Dick Miller as the servant, Stefan. There are moments when the film drags a bit too long, or feels a little too uneven (probably due to the SEVEN director credits, including a young Francis Ford Coppola), but if you’re like me, it’s easy to forgive this film’s shortcomings because there’s so much to enjoy in it.
So, if you’re a fan of Roger Corman, Boris Karloff, gothic horror, or a Coppola completist, give The Terror a spin. It’s available on Blu-ray now, which I hear looks pretty great, as well as being included in Mill Creek’s Horror Classics collection. There are certainly worse ways to spend 81 minutes.