Before we get started let me make one thing very clear: I did not walk into Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963) expecting to see opulent production values.
I was fully aware of Corman’s status as an iconic B-movie director/producer ahead of time and adjusted my expectations accordingly.
But even if I grade this gothic horror film on a curve it’s is still dreadfully boring, confusing, and not scary in the least.
The plot itself follows a fresh-faced, 26-year-old Jack Nicholson, who plays a French soldier in Napoleon’s army who gets separated from his regiment and wanders into a spooky castle occupied by the reclusive Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff).
There, Nicholson’s character becomes obsessed with a young woman (Sandra Knight) who resembles the Baron’s dead wife and he attempts to unveil the mystery of what happen to her and why.
And that’s about as succinct a synopsis as I can provide, since the film’s story is all over place and never really provides concrete answers as to what’s going on.
One of the biggest plot points that drove me crazy is the Nicholson’s love interest (Knight), since it’s never clearly established if she’s a zombie or a ghost.
Despite disappearing at random times like an apparition, she also talks about being “possessed” and under the influence of a local witch.
She also might have the ability to Animorph into a hawk, although (again) the screenwriters never make that clear.
Legend has it that Corman only filmed four days worth of footage with Karloff before handing the reins over to a handful of other second-unit directors to bring this film up to feature length.
There was apparently no real script during this part of production either, which probably explains why so many important plot points later on in the film come across as being an afterthought or improvised.
Corman’s corner cutting approach to filmmaking also affects the way the movie looks, since he apparently just re-used some of the same sets from his previous project The Raven (1963).
Because of this, the filmmakers never really establish a consistent mood or atmosphere, and it just feels like they’re throwing any kind of horror movie set dressing at the wall to see what sticks.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Corman recycled old costumes as well, since Nicholson’s period appropriate military garb really clashes with the Hugh Hefner-style robe that Karloff wears most of the time he is on screen.
But those aesthetic discrepancies are the least of the movie’s problems, since The Terror is also littered with shoddy filmmaking techniques like bad ADR, obvious day-for-night shooting, and shockingly incompetent scene transitions.
The only element of the film that doesn’t come across as being cheap is its score, and that’s only because Corman’s production company found an inexpensive way to record it in Germany.
Now, all of this could be forgiven is the movie wasn’t painfully dull.
But I’d guess that 70% of the runtime features Nicholson and Karloff walking around dark hallways looking confused, with the occasional telegraphed jump scare thrown in to keep the audience awake.
And since the two actors aren’t given any consistent direction, their performances come across as being completely lifeless, with no clear motivation driving their characters’ actions.
Admittedly, there is some novelty in watching Nicholson play a handsome, leading man since most of us have only seen perform him as a balding, middle-aged reprobate.
Unfortunately, that element alone can’t salvage the fact The Terror is a barely qualifies as a movie, with a story that goes nowhere and production values that are on par with a high school play.
Now, this whole diatribe isn’t meant to crap all over Corman’s legacy, since the man’s definitely earned his stripes as a trailblazer in the world of independent cinema.
But it’s obvious that this film didn’t receive his full attention, since he couldn’t even be bothered to come up with one of his trademark zany titles like Angels Hard as They Come (1971) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959).
Anyway, Happy Halloween and Hail Satan!
Corner store companion:
Candy Corn (because it’s barely food, the same way The Terror is barely a movie)
-Release date: June 17, 1963
-Five second-unit directors were ultimately tasked with finishing this film after Corman wrapped-up his four days of shooting. This group included Francis Ford Coppola and even Jack Nicholson himself.
-Not only were Nicholson and his co-star Sandra Knight married during the production of The Terror, but Knight was pregnant with the pair’s only daughter, Jennifer, as well.
-IMDB credits Roger Corman with producing 415 films between 1954 and today. He’s also responsible for directing 56 films in his career, with his last full-length feature being Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990).
-If you Google “The Terror,” make sure you don’t get this film mixed up with the AMC horror anthology series of the same name.
–The Terror is currently in the public domain, which means you can watch the whole movie on YouTube.