Blu-ray review: ‘The Terror’

The Terror

If 1963’s The Terror had been on Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show’s movie-mockers would have wryly chimed “The terror!” during its many slow, meandering stretches punctuated by slight frights at best.

But though misnamed and mismanaged (the script is a mess), this nostalgic cheapie from Roger Corman and American International Pictures is satisfying in many ways — especially now, with a beautiful restoration by The Film Detective for reissue May 31 on Blu-ray.

For one thing, it shows where the great Boris Karloff’s career wound down and where the great Jack Nicholson’s career started out.

Horror great Karloff was 76 and ailing, yet gave a robust performance as Baron Von Leppe, a recluse wearing Hugh Hefner-worthy house robes while living in a huge seaside castle with only his servant (Roger Corman stalwart Dick Miller) in early 18th century France. Enter wandering soldier Andre (Nicholson — looking so young!), who seeks an elusive, mysterious, cleavage-brandishing woman he briefly encountered on the craggy, cliff-ringed beach over which the castle looms.

Later revelations suggest she’s the ghost of the baron’s late wife. Or is she flesh and blood? Andre must find out, as he explores (make that, incessantly lurks around) the castle as an uninvited guest.

Again, not much terror ensues in a film that’s far richer in scenic exteriors (shot in Big Sur), handsome interiors and costumes, creepy Ronald Stein music and potent performances by everyone except Nicholson, more droll than dreading. (Well, his career got better, didn’t it?)

If the tale seems disjointed and the film cobbled together, it should, because it was. A bit like Ed Wood using brief footage of Karloff horror rival Bela Lugosi to punch of Plan 9 From Outer Space, director Corman quickly concocted scenes using Karloff on still-standing sets for Poe adaptation The Raven when he had four more days available with the actor after that film wrapped.

Corman then passed the directorial baton to at least four others, including Francis Ford Coppola (also associate producer) and Nicholson himself, to patch together a film with no compelling storyline yet a wealth of atmospheric gloom.

To be sure, the castle exteriors are stock footage, the revolvers are anachronisms and the brief bits of blood look like Heinz 57, but given the overall high quality of this modest movie, I say, “picky, picky.”

Besides, Corman got bang for his meager bucks, Karloff’s brief scenes lent heft and the set had a real-life love affair, in that Nicholson and Sandra Knight, who played the mystery woman, were newly married at the time. (They divorced in 1968.)

You see? There’s a story behind the movie, at least, lending intrigue to a production which never claimed to be classic. Add nostalgic kicks and The Terror is well worth watching — and hearing — especially after its new restoration from 35mm archival film elements in the original 1:78:1 aspect ratio.

Full of terror? No. Full of atmosphere, name-dropping film history and creepy charms on a budget? Oh yes. The Terror!

— Bruce Westbrook






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