Terrifying masks, heavy Catholic symbolism, and a seemingly predictable plot make 1976’s Alice, Sweet Alice (the new release from Arrow Video has the film’s original title Communion in the credits) seem like another generic wannabe giallo. Despite some very familiar themes, the movie covers subjects more deftly than most in the horror genre. It is also a well acted and directed film that will exceed most viewer’s expectation.
Alice, Sweet Alice follows the life of the titular character. Alice is a troubled child who is dealing with the onset of her teens. She lives with her younger sister and her mother. Following a shocking murder and a series of brutal stabbings, Alice becomes the prime suspect. Is Alice the culprit behind the grisly events or is she the innocent teen she claims to be?
Director Alfred Sole does a fantastic job. It is clear that Sole was heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock. There are numerous scenes reminiscent of the famous headache inducing scenes in Vertigo. There is a great moment early in the film that looks down three floors of an apartment building from above. We see a person on each floor while action is also taking place in the stairwell. It is a striking scene that is made to look even more eye catching by the moldy green walls. This kind of amazing camerawork adds to the film.
It is not just the Hitchcockian shots that will impress. Sole’s use of foreground is superb. Everything in the scene takes on added importance without taking away from the main characters. The shots inside the church are some of the most beautiful seen in a horror movie. Sole’s direction is a director’s equivalent of no wasted motion.
The acting in Alice, Sweet Alice is excellent. Brooke Shields makes her film debut and does a wonderful job. The audience immediately knows the character. She is the younger sibling who always gets what she wants. Linda Miller also stands out in her role as single mother Catherine Spages. By the time the late 70s had come, seeing a single mother in a movie was not strange. Seeing one play what was essentially the lead role was, however.
What makes the character of Catherine work is she seamlessly mixes vulnerability and strength. Her older daughter has become a handful who is lashing out in possibly violent ways. She constantly seems unsure how to handle the situation. This leads to moments when she tries her best to comfort Alice and let her know everything is going to be better. Then there are the times when the weight of the situation is coming down around her and she looks like she is going to lose control. It is a realistic performance that makes Alice, Sweet Alice that much better.
Paula E. Sheppard stands out in the role of the title character. Her mannerisms add to the character and her angry/disillusioned voice is perfect. In the beginning, she appears to be the jealous older sister. As the plot progresses the character gets more depth. This is not just another horror movie about an evil child. This is a story that deals with neglect and the results of it. But there is still more than the, “I did it to make you pay attention!” subplot happening.
Like any child, Alice wants her mother to notice her. Unfortunately, this desire will sometimes manifest itself in some very ugly ways. Sole has no issue getting up close and personal with some of the more violent death scenes, but the plot is as much about the emotional trauma being felt by a young child as it is a slasher. Watching how Alice deals with the adults around her and how she interacts with the world is the most engaging part of Alice, Sweet Alice.
The Arrow Video release also includes some cool special features, but this is a case where the movie is enough of a selling point. Brooke Shields may be the most familiar name, but Alice, Sweet Alice is so much more. The entire cast puts in an outstanding performance while the phenomenal camerawork and nuanced story will keep audiences from turning away. The premise may seem generic, but Alice, Sweet Alice is worth your time.