Thursday, February 2, 2012

Alice In Gialloland

In the years-long marathon that is my Netflix queue, many a film has steadily gained traction as others in front of it veer off into Instant Watch territory for faster viewings. Alice, Sweet Alice is one of those pseudo-classics that has sat on my radar like a squished fly outside the windshield wiper’s reach, the kind of thing I know I should address but just never had to energy to do.

Why the hesitation, you ask? It’s on Bravo’s Scariest Scenes list, and I dig most of what I’ve seen from there (at this point, probably 90% OF that list). It features a creepy mask AND, more importantly this month, a vertically challenged killer with short little legs and a sharp long knife.

But…well…it’s also considered by many to be an American giallo, and the last time I tried that, I was stuck with the frustratingly promising Eyes of Laura Mars.

See, it’s not that I despise that subgenre with the same venom I spew towards something like Katherine Heigl’s Life Is Hard vehicles. It’s that most of the giallos I’ve watched offer SO MUCH POTENTIAL only to waste it all on a convoluted, unsolvable whodunit plot that interrupts what I always feel could just be a good movie on its own.

But there are exceptions, and with the promise of an undersized stabber on the loose, I delved in.

Quick Plot: Karen (a debut performance by Brooke Shields) is a pretty and perfect little girl about to make her first communion, much to the annoyance of older, more imperfect sister Alice (Paula E. Sheppard) who prefers to pass the time catching cockroaches in a jar, taunting the obese landlord, playing with the freakiest non-killer doll in cinematic history, and sporting a costume store mask to threaten the prissy Karen.

I love this kid.

During communion, Karen is strangled to death by Alice, or at least, someone with an identical yellow slicker and plastic mask. After the horrific discovery, most blame falls on the already unliked by most older sister, though her divorced mother Catherine refuses to accept such a theory, even after her grumpy Alice-abhorring sister Annie is stabbed in the feet by a raincoat clad mask-wearing doppelganger.

Alice, Sweet Alice was filmed in New Jersey in 1976 on a meager budget that probably couldn’t have bought a pair of Calivn Klein jeans. Director Alfred Sole had made only one film before this one (and sadly, just two more after) yet his strength behind the camera on this one picture easily matches some of the decade’s best. The killer’s attack on Aunt Annie (not the pretzel) is filmed with a wonderfully manic madness that proves incredibly unnerving in its controlled messiness. 

Like so many genre filmmakers, Sole cited Don’t Look Now as a key influence on his work and it shows, both in the obvious visual references (a yellow slicker homage to Roegg’s red) and in some thematic elements, particularly the undercurrent of Catholicism. The music pounds away with each act of violence, something that might feel weary if used today but in the slightly artificial context of the film, works perfectly well. Sole’s imagery is gorgeous, with some sequences (including a blood-stained pavement from an overhead shot) lingering long after the story fizzles.


And yes, fizzle it does, kind of. In keeping with the giallo rule of Someone Random Being The Killer, Alice proves to be innocent (though still bratty) as the real culprit is revealed to be none other than the heavily accented Italian housekeeper to the family priest. I GUESS she is a short woman, so that’s okay enough for the Doll’s House in February. And hey, her motives, though a tad muddled, are also appropriate for a Catholic-inspired Italian homage (Mrs. Tredoni might have found a soulmate in Don’t Torture a Duckling). But at the same time, the twist just feels…silly. The character had previously seemed to be something of a joke, making the initial unmasking a true laugh-out-loud moment for me. Oddly enough, this happens far earlier in the film than most of its kind, thus leading to a 20 minute or so final reel that’s not terribly uninteresting, but just feels so devoid of the tension that came earlier.


High Points
Paula E. Sheppard is quite good as the misbehaving Alice, capturing the angry child on the verge of teenagerhood to perfection. The fact that Sheppard was NINETEEN YEARS OLD when playing the twelve-year-old Alice makes this even more impressive. Never once did I doubt that the actress was around Alice’s age, and that in itself is quite a testament to Sheppard’s performance

One thing a lot of giallos will always have over their ‘80s slasher spawn: character. From Alice’s chubby cousin to sympathetic psychiatrist, virtually every supporting character is both believable and interesting

Low Points
Kitten violence alert! Kitten violence alert!

Lessons Learned
God always takes the pretty ones

An added perk of being a landlord is that when someone dies, you get free cake

Wallpaper design in 1976 was a very big laughing matter

The one good thing about getting your period: you will finally lose that weird, inexplicable love of creepy two-faced dolls

Because of its subgenre conventions, I had my share of issues with Alice, Sweet Alice. That being said, this is a genuine gem, an excellently made, actually scary little movie made by a talented and disciplined cast and crew. The DVD doesn’t look spectacular, but there is a good-natured and quite informative commentary from Sole and a few more crew members, making it well worth a buy if found at a good price.


  1. I was mesmerized by this film when I first saw it as a kid. It has that arty, pretensious vibe that I like with all my exploitation cinema. I'm going to have to pick this one up on the cheap via DVD.

    Great write-up, Emily.

  2. Thanks Hans! The DVD includes a pretty interesting commentary track, so I say buy away!

  3. Man, now I want to see this. I love creepy and / or violent movies from that era. And this is a title I've always heard of but never seen.

  4. Kitten Violence >: grr

    Will put this one on the to watch list. They really did creepy well in the mid to late 70' Sentinel, Beyond the door.

  5. Yup fellas, the '70s knew how to be freaky. The '80s has its charms, but I'll take the era of wicker men, burnt offerings, sentinels, and general satanism over slashers just about any day.

  6. This sounds worth checking out, but, I have to ask: the kitten violence isn't real, right? I draw the line with that stuff if I know it's there, beforehand.

  7. Hm. I didn't get to that point in the commentary (I put it on before bed and passed out) but it's not cut in a way that makes it look obviously fake. At the same time, it's not Men Behind the Sun style torture, just a veryquick moment where Alice picks up a kitten and hurls it. It's the only moment of animal cruely and it's not prolonged and heck, it might not have done any serious damage (if it was actually real, which I really couldn't know for sure). I don't think it's necessarily a reason to NOT watch the film because it is so quick, but you know...I like kitties.

  8. Oh! Be still, my sleaze-loving beating heart!

    I ADORE this film. A truly underrated gem with the perfect blend of religious solemnity and 1970s filth.

    How Sole managed to pack in so much on such a tiny budget (around $340K) is impressive. It's too bad he didn't do more movies. He had a gift. Some of his cinematography was worthy of Hitchcock.

    And what a story! Killing a kid (BROOKE SHIELDS, of all the gall) in a church? During communion? Strangling her and setting her body ablaze? That takes guts AND a deliciously deranged mind. Making her sister such a nasty little tart was perfection. Alice's mask is scarier than Michael Myers.

    The commentary talks about how Paula Sheppard walked around the set, smoking and cursing. I wouldn't have guessed she was 19 at the time. She didn't do much after this movie, which is a shame.

    Outside of Alice, my favorite character is Mr. Alphonso. The actor was interesting. He would pretend to be a priest and hang around graveyards. Little old ladies would ask to be blessed, then give him donations for the church. Which he kept. He also was a bouncer at Patterson, NJ's gay bar. You can literally SMELL his urine-soaked apartment from the DVD. What a creepy, nasty fella. Played the heck out the role, though.

    And the mother? Is Jackie Gleason's daughter and Jason Patric's mother.

    I'm probably telling you stuff you already know, but as I mentioned, I really like this film. Too bad a better release hasn't come out yet. I want to buy a copy, but not at $20 for a DVD. Maybe someone like Blue Underground will get on it one day. I hope so.

  9. Thanks for that great comment! It really is a shame that Sole didn't direct much. As you say, being able to make THIS film with such small means really does show great filmmaking talent.

    And yes! That mask is terrifying! And the opening does pack such a bang. Once a little girl is killed in a CHURCH, you really have no sense of how far the film will go.

    I think Sheppard had one other notable supporting role (I forget the name of the film, but it comes up a lot in conversation about this film) but again, where'd she go? SO good as a little girl! Not an easy acting feat.

    Mr. Alphonso is one for the books! I love that this film contains the kinds of supporting characters who could've starred in their own films.

    Hopefully the film will get a better release soon. The commentary is great, but this film definitely deserves the full-out Blue Underground treatment!