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When Napoleonic cavalry soldier Lt. Andre Duvalier (Jack Nicholson) becomes estranged from his unit, he comes upon a mysterious woman named Helene (Sandra Knight) along the coast of Germany. The lieutenant is immediately taken with Helene but quickly becomes suspicious of her actions. It seems as if she is leading him into deadly traps: the powerful ocean's tide and pits of quicksand. Things take an even stranger turn when Duvalier seeks refuge at a nearby castle maintained by a baron (Boris Karloff), and Helene unexpectedly appears there. The baron is convinced that Helene is the ghost of his long-departed wife Ilsa, but the lieutenant believes Helene is under a hypnotic spell cast by an old witch that is scheming against the baron - slowly driving him to the brink of madness.
For more about The Terror and the The Terror Blu-ray release, see the The Terror Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on April 23, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight, Dick Miller
Director: Roger Corman
» See full cast & crew
The Terror Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, April 23, 2011
The Terror is one of those legendary films whose fame rests as much in anecdotes about its production as in any lasting value in the film itself. This 1963 opus, ostensibly directed by producer Roger Corman (more about that later), and featuring performances by Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight and Dorothy Neumann, is an odd concatenation of ghost story, Edgar Allen Poe-esque revenge melodrama, supernatural hoo-hah (a technical term), and, just for good measure, a dash of Daphne du Maurier's The Birds. The Terror has gained much more fame in the intervening decades since its initial release than it ever had in 1963, when it was just another American International Pictures knockoff made to bring in a few bucks at drive-ins, probably on a double bill with another AIP movie. But somewhere along the way, perhaps bolstered by Peter Bogdanovich's fascinating Targets, Karloff's last American film and one which included snippets of The Terror, a reexamination of this odd little film started taking place and somehow the legend replaced the reality. The Terror assumed iconic proportions even within the decidedly outré career of Corman for the mere fact that Corman managed to film this piece utilizing sets from previous AIP productions (notably the Vincent Price The Haunted Palace), even as they were being torn down around him. In true Ed Wood fashion, Corman simply filmed Karloff and Nicholson running through various soon to be destroyed sets and decided he would figure out how to incorporate them into a storyline later. Ah, the joys of "serious" filmmaking. The Terror has since become a staple of late night "nightmare theater" film series, including Elvira's famous outings, and there's probably no one over the age of 35 or so who hasn't seen at least a scene or two from a film that has somehow managed to enter the public lexicon in a way Corman probably never imagined or indeed intended.
It's a little maddening to try to provide a plot summary for The Terror, for the fact is the film makes little sense, especially if thought about too much. Basically we have Nicholson portraying early 19th century French soldier Andre, who has become separated from his regiment and soon lies helpless on a beach, where he's rescued, more or less, by a mysterious young beauty named Helene (Sandra Knight). Helene soon disappears into the raging ocean and Andre collapses trying to find her, awakening in the home of an addled old woman (Dorothy Neumann), who has a pet hawk named. . .Helene. But, wait, you also get: Andre soon becomes embroiled in the "home" life of the local Baron (Karloff), an equally addled old man who is in the throes of dementia after having (evidently at least) murdered his wife in a rage twenty years previously. To say that's merely the tip of the plot iceberg is a bit of an understatement, because in what is supposedly a major "twist", we find out there is a series of possessions going on which slightly tweaks who's doing what to whom.
The Terror has the feeling of a crazy quilt, one which was perhaps governed by too many Chiefs and not enough Indians, as the old saying goes. Corman evidently handed the directorial reins over to no fewer than four other helmsmen, including Associate Producer Francis Coppola (yes, that Francis Coppola, here working without the "Ford"), Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, and, lest he feel left out, Jack Nicholson himself. The "screenplay," such as it is anyway, is also credited to several hands, and the entire film has an almost improvisatory air about it which is odd and disarming, adding considerably to the virtually surreal quality that imbues the film.
There's no denying that The Terror has ambience. Karloff stumbles through gargantuan sets, Knight coos seductively as either Helene or Ilsa, the ghost of the Baron's wife, and Nicholson is stalwart, if slightly ill at ease, in a straight romantic-hero role. But probably the most memorable performance here is Neumann's spooky turn as the elderly woman-witch, a conniving sorceress with a hidden secret that plays out, albeit more than slightly incomprehensibly, as the film wends its way toward its over the top conclusion. One also has to wonder about the completely odd interpolation of an attacking hawk, especially in one scene involving a supporting character, which seems ripped out, or perhaps pecked out, of Hitchcock's film adaptation of Du Maurier's The Birds. That iconic film opened in March of 1963, probably about the time The Terror was being filmed, and it doesn't take much imagination to wonder if Corman saw it and decided his film needed some marauding avian element to make it more "appealing" to 1963 audiences.
Despite its often incomprehensible plot, and the sort of "by the seat of your pants" ethos the film exhibits, The Terror is nonetheless a fascinating outing if for no other reason than for those very same legendary accounts of its haphazard filming. The fact that the film is stitched together as well as it is is something of a minor miracle. Rich with a quasi-Gothic atmosphere, The Terror may in fact make little to no sense, but it has a sinister ambience that is hard to forget. As an early example of film work by Nicholson and Coppola, it's also fascinating from a historical perspective. While Karloff is relegated to virtual Plan 9 from Outer Space Lugosi status here, the real scene stealer is Dorothy Neumann in a fun and frightening portrayal that helps deliver a chill or two even if you're not entirely certain what's going on at the time.
The Terror Blu-ray, Video Quality
Save for the lamentable Carnival Magic, a film I'm still trying to erase from my scarred synapses, The Terror marks HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest's first foray into presenting a color film on Blu-ray, so I was really interested to see the results. While this release will almost certainly raise the ire of DNR-phobes, I personally found the efforts accorded The Terror encouraging. Presented via an AVC encode, in 1080p and an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 (you'll notice a very thin vertical black bar at the right side of the screencaps), The Terror has, like other HD Cinema Classics releases, undergone quite a bit of clean-up, with many blemishes removed from the original 35mm print utilized for the transfer. What's more encouraging about this release, however, is that there seems to have been some very smart telecine color timing tinkering, with someone modulating the usually over-yellow Pathé color prints of this film almost always show. You'll notice it immediately if you watch the restoration demo and keep an eye on the sky colors, which are now more truly blue. There are still some passing issues with the color timing here, at least from my personal perspective, with overly pink fleshtones, but on the whole, this is a nicely robust and well saturated presentation. There is fairly aggressive DNR applied to this film, but even that can't affect the stock footage of crashing water, which still exhibits grain bordering on digital noise. Overall, if you don't mind the smoothness that attends DNR, you'll probably find this the best looking release of The Terror currently available, with a decently if not overwhelmingly sharp image and excellent color.
The Terror Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Unfortunately we are once again not only given only lossy Dolby options here (a faux 5.1 repurposed track, as well as a standard 2.0), The Terror's soundtrack, at least the one on the print utilized for this transfer, has some pretty bad damage. It's most noticeable in several of the cues from Ronald Stein's score, notably the opening theme, which crackles and pops really badly. This is odd, in that Stein's score for Dementia 13 escaped largely unscathed in that Blu-ray presentation by HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest. As with Dementia 13, this film was obviously post-dubbed, at least some of the time, and perhaps surprisingly, the dubbed work sounds cleaner and more natural than what was evidently recorded live. The soundtrack here suffers from a really narrow, unnatural sound in both the extreme high and low registers, though to be fair, this is some ample "oomph" on the low end, at least relatively speaking, with a couple of impressive sound effects. The 5.1 repurposing is largely a moot affair, as there is virtually no discrete placement of effects in the surround channels. Instead, we get a fairly gratuitous "spill over" in the surrounds.
The Terror Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
As with other HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest Blu-rays, there are a few "extras," but nothing which rises to the level of what I personally consider a real supplement:
The Terror Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
If you divorce The Terror from its production history, the truth is there's really not much there. This is a film long on atmosphere and woefully lacking in anything resembling a coherent plot. But it's immense fun in its own extremely goofy way, and it's a delight to see Nicholson at this early stage of his career playing a straight romantic lead, something for which his quirky persona is not a great fit. Karloff is fine, if largely wasted, and the soon to be torn down sets are nicely sumptuous, at least by American International Pictures standards. But it's Dorothy Neumann who steals this show quite handily, and her performance as well as the film's now iconic production history makes this a must-see for film lovers of a certain cultish stripe. This new Blu-ray offers a serious upgrade in color correction, and though DNR has been applied, the increased color saturation and robustness helps to make up for the lack of grain. Though the film is still relatively soft, as it always has been, this is one of the nicer looking PD efforts from HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest and it comes Recommended.
The Terror: Other Editions
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The Terror Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Terror Blu-ray Announced - March 29, 2011
Film Chest and Virgil Films & Entertainment have announced The Terror for Blu-ray release on April 26, in a BD/DVD combo pack. This 1963 horror thriller, produced and directed by Roger Corman and starring Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff, is famous for being ...
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