You’re a Hollywood director, your latest film wrapped a couple of days ahead of schedule, it’s nearly the weekend, so what do you do? Maybe head for the beach, spend a couple extra days in Aspen, or just party for a few nights straight at Studio 57 with Andy Warhol? Let’s rephrase the question: you are Roger Corman, you’ve finished filming on The Raven and one of your stars, Boris Karloff, has two days left on his contract while all those castle interior sets are going to waste. What do you do? You make another movie of course, and this is how The Terror (1963) came about, giving a future Hollywood legend one of his earliest starring roles along the way.
Corman named the film well, for despite filming the Karloff scenes in four days flat, The Terror took another nine months and five other directors to complete, including Francis Ford Coppola, with the last scenes taking place after another 1963 Corman film, The Haunted Palace, finished production. The script often shows signs of this strain, uncertain it if it’s set in 1802 or 1806, or whether the story takes place in France, Germany or Prussia.
We open with a thunderstorm and a castle at night, with Karloff busy attending to a portcullis Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Franz Richterand various great oaken doors. One door opens and a rotting corpse falls towards the screen; whose corpse this is, and why it is loitering behind this particular door is never found out, but does make a pleasing lead in to the credits, after which we cut to a lone Napoleonic horseman trotting forlornly along a bleak and rocky shore. This, we later learn, is Lt André Duvalier, played by a young Jack Nicholson five years after his film début in The Cry Baby Killers (1958).
Duvalier became separated from his company of men during the Battle of Auerstadt (a real-life event which took place in October 1806) and is now lost. I’d say he’s lost, as Auerstadt is at least three hundred miles south of the nearest coastline, though with the sun so heavy and wearying to our lost soldier, perhaps Duvalier wandered into the Gobi desert by mistake. Exhausted by the sun, Duvalier collapses from his horse into the sea. Awakening, he sees a woman standing underneath a natural archway carved out by the sea from a rock formation. Duvalier calls out but the woman walks away in silence, only to re-appear in nearby woodland upon the cliffs, where she leads Duvalier to fresh water.
The woman becomes talkative, saying her name is Helene (Sandra Knight, Nicholson’s first wife and playing Helene while pregnant with the couple’s daughter), and she laughs with pleasure at the woozy, dream-like Sixties direction. To Duvalier’s annoyance, Helene falls mute again, vanishes and re-appears standing in the rocks where first we saw her. A bird attacks Duvalier and he loses consciousness.
The bird is Helene; at least, that’s the name the old woman gives to her pet, as she explains to Duvalier when he awakens in her wooden shack. Like all doting pet owners, the old woman, Katrina (Dorothy Neumann), denies Helene could cause any harm; she also denies knowledge of a woman called Helene when asked by Duvalier. Katrina explains Gustav (Jonathan Haze) brought Duvalier to her hut, though sadly doesn’t explain who Gustav is or what he’s doing in this film. Kartrina does mention Gustav is mute, even though he talks, albeit it in a hoarse whisper, at later points in the film. Gustav gestures to Duvalier indicating (so my later research suggests) that Katrina possesses the ‘evil eye’.
At night (the rich, saturated Pathe colors make the daylight scenes lush, but render the night scenes difficult to follow), Duvalier looks for Helene in the woods; finding her, they kiss, but with Helene mute again, Duvalier doesn’t get a mark out of ten. Helene does almost get Duvalier killed by leading him into quicksand (a 1960s movies staple since dried up due to climate change); Gustav pulls him back at the last moment. Instead of telling the solider how silly it is to look for someone in the pitch dark, Gustav informs Duvalier if he wishes to find Helene, he must travel to the castle of the Baron von Leppe. Perhaps remembering he’s mute, Gustav leaves Duvalier without giving him directions.
Back in the shack of the hag, Duvalier doodles a nifty drawing of Helene, even as Kartina insists there is no such woman, and she certainly isn’t at any such castle. “Some things are beyond your understanding,” she tells Duvalier, and she isn’t kidding.
Traveling the next day, Duvalier beholds a matte painting of a castle, rising from the shore as Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domainincongruously as the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes (1968). Now sporting a fetching Napoleon-style hat, Duvalier knocks at the castle door and Baron von Leppe (Boris Karloff, benign yet brooding) appears; Duvalier gets uppity and demands entry on behalf of the French government, which is a bit much when he’s really only looking for some French action. Duvalier asks about Helene, and the Baron expresses ignorance of such a person, even though Duvalier saw Helene at a window as he approached the castle. As butler Stefan fetches cognac, the Baron introduces Duvalier to a portrait of his dead wife, Ilsa, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the fabled Helene. Ilsa, dead for twenty years we learn, might be able to see the direction the plot is taking.
During the night, Duvalier sees Helene from his room, but finds himself locked in (this castle must share an owner with that seen in The Maze). Screams and strange noises are heard; the door unlocks; the corridor is clear. Duvalier grabs a gun and Nicholson’s dialogue and actions take a harder, American edge. Outside the castle, where there’s that infernal storm again, Duvalier finds the family crypt; an inscription tells him Ilsa died in 1782, meaning the Baron’s comments set the film in 1802, not 1806, so go figure. Back inside, Duvalier finds his drawing of Helene shredded upon his bed and it’s pretty much what that picture deserved.
Duvalier confronts the Baron next morning and demands to know what’s happened to the missing portrait (or the missing part of the film in which we’re told the portrait has gone missing), and what those strange noises were all about, threatening to bring his company of men in to take apart the castle if he doesn’t get answers. Yeah, if you can find your company, Lt. Lost, and I don’t think the revolution made it as far as Lithuania, or wherever, so you’re a little out of your jurisdiction.
The Baron spills the beans. In marrying Ilsa, the Baron married a peasant girl (“Barons have married peasant girls since the dawn of time,” and I’ve never heard it called that before). Called away to military service in Poland (given its history, I doubt if even Poland knows if there was a Poland in 1802/6), only to return a year later to find a lover sharing Ilsa’s bed, and probably wearing the Baron’s slippers and drinking his cognac. The Baron killed Ilsa and the loyal Stefan killed the lover, Eric. Baron de Leppe explains Ilsa’s presence returned to the castle two years ago, to relieve him of his lonely penance. “Perhaps we’re both mad,” he suggests to Duvalier. Well, Baron, it’s a good place to start.
Gustav encounters Helene on the shore, and learns something of her origins: “The old woman summoned me from the sea.” There follows the fastest nightfall in film history after which Helene tells Stefan “the old woman tires of your interference.” And that ends that interlude.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainStefan spies on Katrina and Helene as the old woman casts a spell on the girl in her hovel, using a spinning lantern, attempting to get the psychedelia movement going 260 years ahead of schedule. Intruding, Stefan tells Katrina he knows of her history of heresy, forced to flee her home village for her own safety. Stefan notices Helene has vanished: “There was no girl,” according to Katrina, and the film starts to take on a Monster-A-Go-Go (1965) quality, which I can tell you is a very, very bad thing. Stefan threatens to kill Katrina if she doesn’t leave the Baron’s land. “Eric used to live here years ago,” mutters Katrina and whoever Corman landed with filming The Terror's concluding scenes must have felt as if they’d drawn the shortest of straws.
At the castle, Duvalier is prowling the corridors to fill the time, skulking in rooms where the doors lock and unlock to their own sense of whimsy, then follows Baron von Leppe to his private room, bursting in on hearing him talking to a woman. The Baron’s by himself of course, and rather annoyed with Duvalier’s ‘big government’ approach to bedrooms. After Duvalier leaves, the Baron calls out for ‘Ilsa’ to return.
Duvalier leaves the castle the next day and hits the beach again, but sees Gustav on the clifftop, signalling for the soldier to wait, because there’s this really cool set-piece about to happen where Katrina’s pet bird attacks Gustav and pecks his eyes out, causing a dummy of the talkative mute to fall off a cliff. Once that’s happened, the mute tells Duvalier Helene’s “soul cries out for release...return to the castle,” after which Gustav becomes very mute indeed, forever.
Returning at night, Duvalier meets Helene at the crypt. Helene tells Duvalier she doesn’t like the night, as “my arms and shoulders get cold,” so maybe a shawl is in order, although Helene is also “possessed of the dead,” which is trickier. Duvalier recommends the newly emerging “mind doctors of Paris,” as a likely source of help (here, The Terror isn’t far off the truth, with psychiatric pioneers such as Pinel, Pussin and Esquirol working at the Salpetriere Hospital around this time). But no; Helene’s release will only come with the crypt's destruction. And then she vanishes again.
The Baron re-enacts the pre-credits sequence, only without the scary corpse and with Duvalier watching. Using a secret entrance to the crypt, the Baron talks to Ilsa’s coffin,which is remarkably good at keeping up a conversation. To reunite the pair, Ilsa needs the Baron to perform some act which fills the old boy with dread. Duvalier bursts into the crypt, crying “what kind of woman are you?” The Baron faints in shock and is bedbound for a couple of days.
Stefan and Duvalier attempt to investigate the crypt via the traditional entrance (the Baron holds the key to the secret entrance), but cannot gain access. Seeing a light in a sealed room in the castle tower, the two men investigate, excited at the prospect of a new set to visit. Kicking down the door, they find a musty bedroom, including a baby’s cot. “The Leppes had a child?” asks Duvalier, but the point is no further explored than that. The Baron, fed up with Duvalier bursting in on every single darn room in the castle, tells the young man to leave, again. Once alone, Ilsa’s ‘ghost’ tells the Baron he must commit suicide to balance the spiritual scales, what with him murdering her and all. Only then will the lovers be united in the afterlife, although the Baron suspects God won’t be on-message about the whole suicide thing.
Outside, Duvalier runs into Katrina, who we learn is a witch, using the ghostly Helene as a puppet in the form of Ilsa to avenge the death of her son, the fabled lover-boy Eric, for once the Baron has offed himself, he will spend eternity in Hell, and serves him right. Unbeknownst to the witch, Helene is planning for the crypt’s destruction via a channel connected to the sea, before the Baron can take his own life. It seems the witch will get her way first, as the Baron locks himself into the crypt, but Duvalier drops Stefan into it, telling Katrina it was the butler who did it for Eric, not the Baron. Stefan calls Duvalier’s plot point and raises him by another; Eric killed the Baron, and “replaced him, in body and soul.” The Baron was dead all along and Eric alive, thinking himself the Baron, for which we have to thank Roger Corman lobbing in a late random plot twist to keep the audience guessing, or at least awake.
Duvalier tries to drag Katrina into the crypt to help save Eric/The Baron, or Helene or someoneCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Lyoha123 (things are getting hectic at this stage), but the crypt is holy ground and godly lightning kills Katrina during yet another storm. Inside, Eric breaks open Ilsa’s coffin only to find a dead body and not the chatty girl he messed around with twenty years ago. Horrified, Eric the murdering marriage hears Ilsa swear “I will damn you as you damned me.” The crypt fills with seawater as Ilsa and Eric fight, with Stefan plunging in for the sheer heck of it as a few fake rocks float past.
The crypt collapses before the film can do likewise, Stefan and Eric die and Duvalier hauls Helene back to the land of the living. Until that is, Duvalier tells Helene “you’re free now,” kisses her and grosses out as Helene rots to death, bringing the film to an oozy, icky end.
Jack Nicholson, the three times Best Actor Oscar winner, does not have fond memories of The Terror, admitting in an interview “The Terror embarrasses me more than anything.” Nicholson isn’t anything special in The Terror, OK for the most part, but struggling with the simplest lines, such “come with me,” delivered as if he’d just learned to read. Biographer Patrick McGilligan suggests Nicholson’s experiences with Francis Ford Coppola on the film as a reason Nicholson turned down the role of Michael Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Nicholson also appeared for Corman in the cult movie Little Shop of Horrors in 1960, alongside Corman regulars Haze and Miller, and spent the decade appearing in bit-parts before hitting the big time with Easy Rider (1969).
The Terror came during Roger Corman’s ‘respectable’ period in the early 1960s, when the directed busied himself with Poe adaptations and admired horror films such as X – The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963). Although not as polished as the likes of The House of Usher (1960), The Terror is still of interest, and with more planning and attention (Corman confessed in a 1984 interview that his idea to make The Terror would not have occurred to him if a Sunday session of tennis hadn’t been called off due to rain!) we could have had something more in the style of a Ambrose Bierce story, with the atmospheric early footage on the beach and in the woods bringing to mind Bierce’s ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.’ True to form, Corman re-used parts of The Terror in a later Karloff film, Targets (1968) set in part at a drive-in cinema. Still active in films at the age of 88, and with over 400 producer/executive producer credits to his name, Corman is currently involved in the post-production of his long-awaited opus, Sharktopus vs. Mermantula (2014).