Friday, 30 October 2009

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Alice, Sweet Alice (originally released in 1976 as Communion) is a kind of Catholic schoolgirl slasher movie with some major giallo influences. It’s a weird mix that often threatens to self-destruct but somehow it works.

We start with a young mother with two daughters, both preparing for their First Communion. Karen (played by Brooke Shields in her first film role) is the good girl, Alice is the bad crazy one. And she’s seriously bad, and seriously crazy. She’s also severely jealous of Karen, whom she suspects (quite correctly as it happens) of being the favoured daughter. Alice’s favourite hobbies are terrorising her sister, and tormenting their rather gross downstairs neighbour. She also causes trouble for Mrs Tredoni, the housekeeper of the local parish priest, Father Tom (who seems to be a close friend of the family as well as their priest).

When Karen is stabbed to death and set on fire in the church just before her First Communion it’s probably not surprising that suspicion falls on Alice. Her aunt was already convinced she was kind of devil in human form, and she’s only too happy to encourage the police to suspect Alice. The girls’ parents are divorced but after the murder the father turns up and decides to play amateur detective. He’s convinced of Alice’s innocence.

I can’t say too much more about the plot without revealing spoilers, except that there is more murder and mayhem to come and more plot twists.

The Catholic imagery is laid on very thick indeed, but this is not a movie in the Exorcist tradition. While The Exorcist told us that the Devil was real and the Church was our only protection, this movie tells us that evil is human and that the Church serves to encourage the kind of self-hatred, self-torment and obsession with sin that encourages human evil. This is not a movie that would have found much favour with the Vatican.

The murders are shocking not so much because of the gore (there really isn’t that much gore) but because of the hatred behind them, and the horror of knowing that the murderer of the child may be another child. The murderer in the translucent mask and yellow raincoat adds a very creepy touch, reminiscent of Don't Look Now and also giving the movie a definite giallo flavour.

The acting is outrageously over-the-top. These people believe you should never speak a line if you can shout it, and you should never shout a line if you can scream it. The totally overdone hysteria of the acting should have sunk the movie but it actually works. The movie is filled with grotesque imagery, but all this grotesquerie serves a purpose and contributes to the overall atmosphere of dangerous and out-of-control madness. Try to imagine John Waters and David Lynch collaborating on a remake of The Exorcist.

It seems to be set in the early 60s, for no obvious reason except perhaps that the atmosphere of extreme religious obsession seemed more likely to be convincing in that time period.

The Region 4 DVD looks good but this is a movie that really would have benefited from some extras such as a commentary track.

This is a movie that really has lost none of its shock value in the past 30-odd years, but it’s more than just a cheap shockfest. It’s a strange but effective horror flick, and although it won’t appeal to all tastes it’s definitely worth a look.

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