Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

          The image of a child committing murder is evergreen in horror cinema, and with good reason—few visual juxtapositions better encapsulate the confluence of innocence and menace that powers the best fright flicks. Accordingly, it’s peculiar that Alfred Sole, the director/cowriter/coproducer of Alice, Sweet Alice, hedges his bets regarding the use of this image. Alice, Sweet Alice is primarily about a disturbed 12-year-old who becomes a murder suspect when her little sister is killed, but Sole turns the plot in such a way that the extent of the title character’s misdeeds becomes ambiguous. It’s as if Sole wanted the cheap thrill of presenting a preteen with homicidal intent, but lacked the conviction to deliver on the premise. Moreover, the script is confusing, and the performances range from ridiculous to subtle. As such, Alice, Sweet Alice is merely a trifle with some good atmosphere, a few jolts, a measure of visual style, and plenty of disquieting implications.
          This picture was originally titled Communion, and later re-released as Alice, Sweet Alice (in 1978, when the film found its widest audience) and as Holy Terror (in 1981). By any name, the movie is noteworthy for containing the acting debut of juvenile model Brooke Shields—even though she’s in and out of the story very quickly.
          Set in 1960s New Jersey, Alice, Sweet Alice concerns a working-class single mother, Catherine (Linda Miller), who is raising two daughters, saintly 9-year-old Karen (Shields) and sinister 12-year-old Alice (Paula Sheppard). Alice is a weirdo who hangs out in the basement of her apartment building, trapping insects in jars and wearing creepy masks. One day, someone wearing a mask like the one Alice owns kills Karen, triggering a police investigation. Catherine refuses to consider Alice a suspect, but Catherine’s bitchy sister, Annie (Jane Lowry), thinks otherwise. Then someone wearing a similar mask attacks Annie, so police apprehend Alice. Yet things get complicated when another crime occurs while Alice is in custody. The whole is-she-or-isn’t-she contrivance is problematic, because this forces Sole to keep Alice offscreen for long periods, during which he lingers on tedious investigation scenes.
          Nonetheless, because generating visceral excitement the main priority in any horror movie, Alice, Sweet Alice gets decent marks for delivering a number of suspenseful scenes. Plus, Sheppard is genuinely eerie, Lowry gives an enjoyably campy performance filled with wide-eyed overacting, and Miller is elegantly beautiful. And for those who enjoy parsing such things, the film is deeply infused with imagery and themes related to Catholicism.

Alice, Sweet Alice: FUNKY

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