Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Alice, Sweet Alice

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Dir. Alfred Sole
Written by Rosemary Ritvo, Alfred Sole
Starring Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, Lillian Roth, Alphonso DeNoble, Brooke Shields

When adorable, church-going 9-year-old Karen (Brooke Shields, MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) is murdered by a mysterious miniature assailant wearing a yellow raincoat and creepy doll mask, everyone immediately leaps to the assumption that the killer was her sister, 12-year-old Alice (Paula Sheppard, LIQUID SKY). And well they should, because the evidence is pretty fuckin’ overwhelming. Alice A) favors the raincoat/creepy doll mask combo in her leisure time B) has a history of violent anger towards her sister C) was found less than a dozen feet away from the corpse with the dead girl’s veil in her pocket, and D) is a combative sociopathic psycho. So yeah, the whole case seems pretty cut-and-dried.

The only thing that gives us pause is that Alice’s likeable parents Catherine (Linda Miller*) and Dom (Niles McMaster) seem to reject the idea that their daughter is a killer, and the people who suggest otherwise are all horrible bastards. Since we’ve seen a movie before, we have to assume that somehow this must not be what it looks like, even though man, it really fuckin looks bad for this chick. Even Alex was shouting “Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with these parents?!” I mean, nobody wants to believe their daughter is a mask-wearing psycho killer, but geez lady, what does it take to convince you?

I speculate that everyone's problems started when the parents bought this fucking creepy three-faced doll in the first place. What where they thinking, giving that to a child?! Of course this was gonna end badly!

Fortunately, this is a wildly improbable and pleasingly unpredictable little slasher, so you’re never quite sure. Slant Magazine’s Ed Gonzalez called this movie, “possibly the closest American relation to the Italian giallo” and it’s pretty hard to argue with that description. The combination of artful filmmaking, excessive violence, Catholic perversity, bizarre and stylized characterizations and ludicrous plot turns all add up to the unmistakable feeling of an Italian film differentiated only by slightly better dubbing than usual. And I mean that in the best possible way; if this were a classic giallo**, it would still be one of the better ones. There’s tons of weird stuff going on in here, a steady stream of bloody murders, and a distinctly queasy sense of degenerate fun. Both Miller and McMasters are better and more likeable than they have any real reason to try for, but a slew of grotesque side characters steal show, including the shrill-bordering-on-hysterical Aunt (Jane Lowry, who pitches every line at an ear-punishing shriek), the morbidly obese pedophile landlord (Alphonso DeNoble), the militant church lady (Mildred Clinton) and 1930’s star Lillian Roth as a cynical pathologist.

This character is so unappealing you gotta almost feel bad for this actor, who apparently was less of an actor and more of a resident of Paterson, New Jersey, where the film was shot. His wikipedia says that he made extra money by dressing up as a priest and hanging around cemeteries, blessing people for tips. Awesome.

Though at its heart it’s a standard, well-structured whodunit mystery, the film is fraught with weird sexual elements and uncomfortable moments. Unpleasant older men keep making wildly inappropriate sexual comments about Alice, from her nauseating (but kitten-loving!) landlord to the police employee who administers her a polygraph. A police psychologist passive-aggressively suggests that Catherine must not be much of a mother because Alice hasn’t told her she’s begun menstruating. Even the Catholic and conspicuously unmarried parents have a highly inappropriate near-sexual encounter for you to wince over. All this plays out with the maximum possible Catholic guilt and repulsion to sexuality, particularly since everything seems to be tied to the church where the nice-seeming Father Tom presides.

By the way, this is a beautiful, expressive little painted poster for the movie (I think Czech?) which nicely teases the film's central icon...


it's hardly surprising that they went with the below image for the DVD. Needless to say, absolutely nothing in that image is in the movie. Nothing. Not the house, not the car, not the dress, not the woman, not that... whatever that thing is that she's wielding, a sharpened police baton or something? Absolutely 0% accurate.

Ordinarily, this is where I would start wondering what these motifs represent, but I don’t know, here I think maybe they’re not explicitly symbolic so much as they’re just part of a generalized campaign to push your buttons and make the whole thing seem debased and repellant. Maybe this is in there to partially explain why Alice is the way she is, maybe it’s even some sort of comment on religious hypocrisy. But either way, the cumulative effect is to make the whole thing engrossing, shocking, and disturbing. This is a film which feels like it was made by someone genuinely unhinged, and you’re never really sure just how far it’s willing to go. Like its namesake, this is a brazen, aggressive movie that you’d rightly be a little wary about. Consequently, surprises and memorable moments abound. America wouldn’t really get bold enough to make too many more movies like this one, but at least in 1976 there were a few people out there willing to give Italy a run for it’s money in the giallo department.

*Linda is not only the daughter of Jackie Gleason, but is married to EXORCIST’s Jason Miller. And mother of Jason Patric, actually; let's hope he was a little nicer kid than Alice is.

** And considering the bright yellow raincoat the killer wears, maybe that didn’t escape the director’s notice either.


  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No, but you know it's coming, don't you.
  • SPAGHETTI NOCTURNE: No, but it feels like one
  • MORE (PETER) CUSHING FOR THE PUSHING? No, I think Mr. Cushing was working on a different movie in 1977....
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: Lots of slashing, I think limbs stay on, though.
  • CULTISTS: Catholics
  • SLASHERS: Yeah, a great one!
  • CURSES: No
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? Actually, a creepy 3-faced doll IS a plot point.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, well-regarded cult favorite
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Yes, in fact I think she sort of loved it.

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