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The Religious Terror of 'Alice, Sweet Alice' (1976)

by Dani Buckley 2 years ago in movie review
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Before Myers, Krueger and Voorhees there was... Alice. In a tale of Catholic guilt, sin and penance, a little girl in a sunshine raincoat and strange mask adopts the visage of a serial slasher. This article examines the terrifying undertones of faith beneath the grainy exterior of 'Alice, Sweet Alice'.

Alice's plastic mask is her disguise of choice. | Picture credit: The Belcourt Theatre.

Written following the excommunication of its director Alfred Sole from his local diocese for making and releasing an adult film, 'Alice, Sweet Alice' has been lampooned by critics for being strongly anti-Catholic in sentiment. Its alternative titles are 'Holy Terror' and 'Communion', and there is no denying the stark suggestions of hypocrisy existing among Catholic doctrine. However, to diminish the film for its take on a single religion would be wholly unfair, since it is a fictional depiction of the extreme forms religious dogma can take. More importantly, the film purports a campy, theatrical vibe in which the suggestion of the toll religiosity can have on the psyche is intermingled, as well as suggestions of its ability to twist, justify and manipulate one's actions.

Pre-dating the 'slasher' period of horror movies emerging in the 1980's with 'Friday the 13th', 'Alice, Sweet Alice' is a grimy, grainy, low budget blood-bath dripping in religious symbolism. It follows Alice (Paula Sheppard), a young and seemingly troubled girl living very much in the shadow of her bright and bubbly sister, Karen (Brooke Shields). Favoured by both their mother (Linda Miller) and local pastor (Rudolph Willrich), Karen bears the brunt of Alice's envious frustrations.

In the initial scenes of the film we see Alice don a yellow raincoat and translucent mask to terrorize her sister. Enraged that Karen has been selected to partake in her first communion, we are shocked but not a bit surprised when a figure in a yellow mac and eerie grinning mask brutally murders Karen, stuffing her in a chest and setting her alight before she can take communion. Alice then appears and kneels before the alter in Karen's place, her tongue lolling from her mouth in a nauseatingly suggestive expression for such a young girl, to accept the Eucharist. This devilish look and the blatant dress of the murderer onscreen confirms viewer's suspicions that Alice is indeed disturbed, and most certainly her sister's killer.

Karen awaits communion. | Picture credit: IMDB.

Yet the film is not always what it seems at first glance. Sole hands the plot to you on a silver platter in the first act, making you think you have the upper hand over the unsuspecting characters in this movie. The mixture of the visuals of Karen's death and Alice's bizarre behaviour leads one to feel no need or desire to question the narrative. But the film's second and third acts give way to a break-neck swiftness of plot reversal that will leave your jaw slack. That which you suspect quickly unravels, turning this campy 1970's horror into a rather clever gem.

Alice is not the evil killer we might assume her to be. Not yet, anyway.

It is in these more unexpected revelations that the religious elements of the film shine brightly among its numerous kills. While Alice is evaluated by fictional psychologists and viewers alike as unhinged and behaves rather nastily towards almost everyone in frame when possible, she shows no real hostility towards her faith in Catholicism. Indeed, idolatry is something she craves. It is an area which she believes she may have equality with her sister at last: under God's eye. Despite this, she is still neglected by their pastor Father Tom, who gifts Karen an ornate crucifix pendant to mark her first communion. An appalled Alice makes pains to stomp on the fragile lace veil Karen is due to wear on her death day.

In many ways, Alice is almost Christ-like in her attempts to appeal to her elders, and, most importantly, in the false accusations made against her. Her aunt, Judas-like in her betrayal to Alice and her mother, makes statements to the police, which ends in Alice being sent to the psychiatric home for assessment. Through this, she is, in effect, arriving at her metaphorical Golgotha. While certainly not the respectable miracle Christ of biblical worth, Alice shows glimmers across the film of the 'sweetness' the title chooses to associate her with. This naive innocence is often conflated with a disturbed mind, and this persists throughout the film, leaving us with Alice's cold knowing stare into the camera lens as the credits roll.

It would appear from merely watching the first half of the movie, that the film's title is a sardonic attempt to signify the monstrous tendencies stirring beneath the harmless visage of a young girl. However, Alice is, at her core, fiercely loyal to her parents and vulnerable. She can be cruel and even a little unhinged, but the truth is that Alice is sweet, she is just unwell.

The film's third and final act contains its entire thematic crux, revealing the true terror of religious dogma when taken too far. Without spoiling the remainder of the plot, it appears the murderer is framing Alice for the sins of her parents. This vantage point is borne from traumatic experiences intermingled with a dangerous interpretation of Catholic virtue. The killer in this film uses scripture and the notion of penance to enact justice upon Alice's parents by harming both her and Karen. Thus, the film demonstrates an absolutely chilling (but nonetheless extreme) example of religious followers taking the word of God into their own hands and twisting it to suit their own belief system. In doing so, Sole highlights the issue: what sin is great enough to qualify another sin as justifiable? This can be taken by those who wish it in many different ways.

Sins of the father (and mother): the killer targets the parents. | Picture credit: Trailers from Hell.

As I will point out again, this is an extreme. Despite the eerie religious manipulations amplified by mentions of mass and imagery of crucifixes, church congregation scenes and figures of Christ, it is almost impossible to take this film as a serious criticism of the Catholic Church. Indeed, if it was, such a film would be far more serious in overall tone and likely a lot longer than a snappy one hour and forty-five minute run time. 'Alice, Sweet Alice' has some interesting angles on renowned themes like sin and Catholic guilt, but at heart it is a melodramatic, fun and deliciously twisted horror movie, that is as silly in some parts as it is scary.

Alice's appearance in her mac 'n' mask combo is undoubtedly chilling, but these make up the bulk of the film's scares, aside from the resulting internal considerations regarding religion's effect on a broken mind. But one can't ponder these implications for too long; the film simply doesn't allow you to. With ripely over-the-top performances, cliche creepy music and inventive deaths, 'Alice, Sweet Alice' diverts your attention from its message enough that you don't become entangled in it. You can still have fun.

'Alice, Sweet Alice' is an unconventional take on the unbridled horrors of religion in the wrong hands. Steering clear of the usual battles of faith displayed in possession movies such as 'The Exorcist' (1973) and 'The Amityville Horror' (1979), it chooses instead to highlight the more insidious psychological effects of Catholic rhetoric on the psyche, while being intermittently refreshed by its generous helpings of vintage camp horror.

Masked Murderer: the killer sulks in the stairwell. | Picture credit: Popsugar.com.

Horror films with religious undertones are, as you may have guessed, kind of my thing, so I was always going to enjoy this wild, chaotic and hyperactive poke at Catholicism, for what it was. But it is a truly interesting and unique take as far as horror movies with undertones of faith are concerned. If you enjoy the raw, grimy, independent feel of '70s horrors such as 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974), 'When a Stranger Calls' (1979) and 'The Hills Have Eyes' (1977), then I strongly recommend bending to the will of Christ and watching this tale of holy terror.

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About the author

Dani Buckley

My life revolves around horror and film.

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