Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ante Meridiem Theatre: “Alice, Sweet Alice”

Ante Meridiem Theatre is a new feature at the Cafe to focus on those movies that, years ago, would crop up on TV in the wee hours of the morning, when you were only partially awake, and right before the network turned to snow.
Twelve-year-old Alice (Paula Sheppard) resents her younger sister, Karen (Brooke Shields), envious of the attention she receives surrounding her First Communion: her new white dress and veil, and a crucifix given to her from their priest. On the day of Karen’s First Communion, it is Alice who kneels at the altar with the other girls, and a nun finds Karen’s body. Not surprisingly, the police suspect Alice of her sister’s murder, but her mother, Catherine (Linda Miller), and estranged father, Dom (Niles McMaster), refuse to believe that she is responsible. However, when Catherine’s sister, Annie (Jane Lowry), is ferociously stabbed on the stairwell in Catherine’s apartment building, she insists that the assailant, dressed in a yellow raincoat often sported by Alice and a smiling face mask that the girl would use to scare people, is her 12-year-old niece. And if the culprit isn’t Alice, then someone has blood on their mind and hands, and a giant knife for spilling more.

Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) is an extraordinary film, but also unnerving. In spite of its mediocre budget, Sole shrouds the movie in a brooding atmosphere. Inside the apartment building are the dark cellar, the claustrophobic staircase, and the creepy, reclusive landlord, Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble). But the outside world is one of gloom, drenched by the pouring rain and seemingly filled with abandoned buildings. Even a church is not safe from the atrocities, as the film’s first murder occurs in such a place. Perhaps the movie’s most noteworthy trait is that Sole provides unforgettable shocks and thrills: an early scene in which Alice scares Karen by wearing a mask (pulling aside said mask to reveal another one), and the attack on Annie, which is utterly terrifying. Though Annie survives the assault, her sister is helpless, and outside the rain disperses Annie’s blood in lieu of washing it away. There is no solace in the woman’s endurance, particularly as a tearful, pale Annie accuses Alice in her hospital bed.

Alice, Sweet Alice was filmed and released initially as Communion, a greater and more appropriate title. But due to the notoriety surrounding Pretty Baby in 1978, in which a very young Brooke Shields appeared in a movie about a brothel, Sole’s movie was re-released under the Alice title and focusing on Shields’ involvement. In 1981, after the actress had garnered even more fame with The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Endless Love (1981), the film was released a third time as Holy Te
rror. Though the director prefers his original title, the most accepted title among fans and perhaps the best known is Alice, Sweet Alice.
Actress Miller was the daughter of Jackie Gleason and had been married to Jason Miller, who played Father Damien in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). She and her former husband are also the parents of actor Jason Patric. Though she was portraying a 12-year-old girl, Sheppard, in her cinematic debut, was 19 at the time of filming.

Unfortunately, Sole directed only a handful of films, as he was unhappy with the lack of independence working in Hollywood, including his 1982 slasher film parody, Pandemonium. Since stepping away from the director’s chair, he has become a production designer (a job which he essentially handled in Alice, Sweet Alice) and is quite prolific, working on TV series such as Veronica Mars and the currently running Castle.

Sole has cited Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) as inspiration for his 1976 film. Certainly there are visual connections to Don’t Look Now, as well as a subtle play on Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but the richly textured Alice, Sweet Alice is entirely the work of Alfred Sole. He adds menace to a yellow raincoat, makes a 12-year-old girl’s playful ways ominous, and triggers a sense of dread when a character takes the stairs. He makes it abundantly clear that no one can hide, no one is safe, and no one can help. Sole offers the kind of film that doesn’t allow its viewers to alleviate their fears and unease by turning on all the lights.


  1. Sark, I certainly look forward to future installments of Ante Meridiem Theatre, having seen many a movie "in the wee hours of the morning" when I was "only partially awake." ALICE, SWEET ALICE certainly doesn't get the recognition it deserves. It pre-dates more widely-known genre films such as HALLOWEEN (which is better) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (which is not). When I first saw it and spotted Alice in her yellow raincoat, DON'T LOOK NOW immediately sprang to mind. I always liked that ALICE was set in th 1960s. I think that era carries a nostalgic factor that amplifies horrific events (it works equally well in the 1960s-set LADY IN WHITE, though that film is much different in tone, of course). Your background details are interesting; I had no idea that Sheppard was 19 when she played Alice and that Linda Miller was Jackie Gleason's daughter and Jason Patric's mom.

  2. A wonderful new feature added to The Cafe and yet another reason for obsession with this great site and the knowledgeable bloggers that contribute. I look forward to future installments of Ante Meridiem Theatre!

    I've never seen 'Alice, Sweet Alice' and will add it to my ever-growing list of must-sees. I also didn't know the interesting family relations of Ms. Miller, both on and off-screen.

    Very interesting read and information! A pleasure!

    From a fan!

  3. I remember this film (it must have been very early in the morning!) as quite creepy, particularly the scene when Brooke Shields' body is dragged away by unseen hands. I hadn't made the connection between this film and 'Don't Look Now,' but you can see it with the children's coats (the yellow raincoat in 'Alice,' the drowned child's red coat in 'Don't Look Now'). 'Alice' seems to have been the start of a run of 'murderous child' movies throughout the '70s and '80s. Look forward to future ante-meridiem posts! (Maybe, as a logo, you can adapt the red hand from Chiller Theater, holding a cup of late-night java...)

  4. Sark, I like the Ante Meridiem Theatre idea! Your first post was interesting and well researched, as always. I agree with Rick who mentioned the yellow rain coat reminded him of the red rain coat in "Don't Look Now." Just no dwarves, from your plot description. Great post!

  5. I hadn't heard of this film before now, but I definitely will add it to my list to see.

    Just stopped by to let you know I am honoring your blog with an award over at Blame Mame.

  6. Sark, this one got right by me! Looking at the date, I can see why - I was very ill for 2 weeks during this time. I have GOT to see this movie. Your write-up was even scary! I love good scary - I don't mind blood and all if it's quality fright! Really interesting history, with Jackie Gleason and Jason Miller and Patric - didn't know any of that! Excellent review...I am really looking forward to more of this series. Keep 'em coming!

  7. Sark, hope you see this. I just got Alice, Sweet Alice in the mail today from Netflix. Yes, I caved and added the disks. There were a lot I couldn't get on Streaming, like this one, and I was weak. Can't wait to watch it! I'll let you know how it strikes me!

  8. It's late for a comment, but as above I got to see Alice, Sweet Alice, and watched at at night, which was a fairly stupid thing to do. I expected a pretty crummy movie with some shocks. What I didn't expect was a good movie that had some character development and undertones set BEFORE the first shocker. These kind of movies usually don't - they open with a gory scene, and it's off to the races without anybody knowing or really caring about the characters.
    This one also leaves you with questions -- did Fr. Tom mean to treat Alice like one of the dining room chairs, or had he been as nice to her at HER First Communion? Did Alice's Mom love her as much as Karen, at least before the main event? Should I have felt bad when Aunt Annie had trouble? (I didn't -- I was kind of glad -- does that make me awful?) Was Mr. Alphonso a real person or a fat suit? LOL! I know he was real, I looked him up, but I could barely tolerate this character in the movie, he was so disgusting. Reminded me of Fat B-----d in the Austin Powers' movies. Couldn't stand to look at him either.
    I can't say any more without spoiling things, but I was surprised at the fact that this movie was well done, and scary in ways much more subtle than I expected. Thanks, Sark, for recommending this as a late-night thriller!