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Blast from the Past: The Terror 

What’s it rated? PG.

Filmed on leftover sets from The Raven (1963) and The Haunted Palace (1963) as well as in Big Sur, The Terror stars Jack Nicholson in one of his early roles and Boris Karloff in one of his later. Though its direction is credited to schlock king Roger Corman, who shot the scenes on the leftover sets, the film was also directed by Francis Ford Coppola in Big Sur, and Monte Hellman, Jack Hill (who co-wrote the screenplay with Leo Gordon), and Nicholson himself also directed some scenes.

If it sounds like a case of too many chefs in the kitchen, it is! It was also filmed in a big damn rush! Corman hired Karloff for just three days and the film is as patchy and unevenly paced as you’d think. Still, it has its charms, not to mention its historical significance for buffs of inventive, low-budget filmmaking.

click to enlarge THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT :  Jack Nicolson stars as Lieutenant Andre Duvalier, who while separated from his regiment in Napoleon’s army discovers a beautiful ghost at the center of a murder mystery. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FILMGROUP
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF FILMGROUP
  • THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT : Jack Nicolson stars as Lieutenant Andre Duvalier, who while separated from his regiment in Napoleon’s army discovers a beautiful ghost at the center of a murder mystery.

The horror film is set in 1806 France, and the story revolves around Lieutenant Andre Duvalier (Nicholson), who’s been separated from his regiment in Napoleon’s army. When he runs across a young woman (Sandra Knight), he asks for direction to Coldon but she doesn’t answer and barely acknowledges him, so he follows her toward the sea, where she disappears into the water. When he goes in after her, a bird attacks him and he inexplicably loses consciousness.

He awakes in a cottage where an old woman (Dorothy Neumann) claims she never saw the young woman. Andre is eventually directed to inquire at the castle of Baron Von Leppe (Karloff), where he sees the young woman in the window, but Leppe—who’s reluctant to let Andre in—adamantly denies the young woman is in his castle.

As the convoluted story plays out, we learn of an old murder plot, a possession, a ghost, a witch and her curse, and an identity swap. It’s a yarn over burdened by its complications, which you might think makes for a brisk story at a brief 79 minutes, but it’s surprising plodding in spots. Still, it’s fun to watch Nicholson in one of his early roles, and Karloff has such wonderful gravitas. The castle sets are also impressive.

Like many of these old, low-budget films, it’s fallen into public domain, which means anyone can use it, sell it, and repackage it. Many versions on the market look terrible, but Film Detective and Allied Vaughn recently released a new Blu-ray version constructed from archival 35mm film elements in its original aspect ratio. It’s campy fun and it looks pretty good!

Trivia note! The uniform Nicholson wears was also worn by Marlon Brando in the film Désirée (1954). (1963; 79 min.). 

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