1 Hr., 48 Mins.
Alice, Sweet Alice
ometimes, Alice (Paula E. Sheppard), a bratty 12-year-old, likes to taunt her younger sister, Karen (Brooke Shields), by putting on a canary-yellow rain jacket, wearing a semi-opaque rubber mask, and jumping out from the darkest corners of their New Jersey home. The gag is a dependable way to freak out Karen, who, time and time again, runs to their mother, the ever-annoyed Catherine (Linda Miller), in a tearful panic. These are, of course, typical sister-sister shenanigans, especially when there's much
time to pass and you’re being raised in a Catholic household that doesn’t exactly engender carefree fun.
Minutes into Alice, Sweet Alice (1976), though, the hubbub is robbed of its childish innocence. On the day of her first communion, while standing in one of the church's transepts, Karen is brutally strangled and then callously dumped into a bench compartment, which is set on fire. The detail the film wants us to notice most, though, is the killer’s costume. Worryingly, it is identical to the mask-and-raincoat uniform so often worn by Alice.
When the latter walks into the church shortly afterward, clutching the veil Karen was wearing at the time of her death, she is understandably billed the primed suspect. In the meantime, her estranged father, Dominick (Niles McCaster), investigates; Catherine’s spinster sister, Annie (Jane Lowry), moves into the former’s apartment as an extension of emotional support.
When Alfred Sole began writing Alice, Sweet Alice in 1974, with the help of his English professor neighbor, Rosemary Ritvo, he was an architect and one-time porn director who had been taken aback by 1973’s Don’t Look Now, the horror-tinged marriage-in-crisis thriller from Nicolas Roeg. Late-night discussions with Ritvo, who was Catholic and a horror fan, were additionally stimulating: They persuaded Sole to conjoin his horror-movie inspirations — namely the filmographies of Alfred Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot — with his own experiences as a child raised in an Italian-Catholic household.
Alice, Sweet Alice, which premiered to positive reviews at the Chicago International Film Festival in November, 1976, is now often considered the cardinal American answer to the giallo thrillers popular in Italy in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Those films, sinister, stylish, but oftentimes thematically germane, routinely combined slasher tropes with themes of Catholic hypocrisy. (Although Sole’s style here has frequently been compared to the genre’s predominant proponent, Dario Argento, the former has said that, at that point, he’d never seen any of the latter’s movies.)
The film is also revered as one of the finest, and most underappreciated, products to come out of the slasher-movie woodwork. Whereas myriad genre upshots are grimy, thoughtlessly violent, and vaguely-to-grossly exploitive, Alice, Sweet Alice refuses to go for the forgettable cheap thrill. By inculcating its suspense with sickening instances of child murder and religious cant, and topping it all off with artful, De-Palma-like photographic composition, it is genuinely unsettling in ways the spectacle-preferring slasher subgenre rarely is.
Sole, for the most part, avoids pandering to genre truisms. Though red herrings and plot twists are extensive, Alice, Sweet Alice is first focused on how death can affect an already rickety familial dynamic. The grief-centricity is belabored by the lived-in setting. The apartment complex, as well as the church, where much of the movie takes place, feels lived-in. The heartache Catherine must feel when walking into her well-tailored home, sans Karen, is tangible.
Pain is also stanchioned by the actions of the characters. Catherine, prone to snapping when pushed too hard, is an effective vision of a mother trying to remedy her life amid looming danger. Alice, whose behavior was already capricious before Karen’s murder, grows progressively erratic — to the point where we wonder if, maybe, she’s the killer after all.
Deep-seated hurt is fundamental to Alice, Sweet Alice. The outré stylistic flourishes, accentuated by the warped, early-1960s setting, then, renders the movie a stomach-churning fantasy, where everything’s lopsided and evil is rife. It is a pity that Sole would only make two more movies: Though the filmmaker would go on to successfully work as a television production designer, in Alice, Sweet Alice do we have a slasher movie that overcomes the subgenre’s foibles. A-