Written by: Rosemary Ritvo, Alfred Sole
Directed by: Alfred Sole
Starring: Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, and Paula E. Sheppard
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Alice needs psychological help."
A cursory history charting the evolution of slasher films usually draws a line directly from Black Christmas to Halloween, which is fine and fair enough. However, doing so dismisses and overlooks a handful of terrific, noteworthy efforts that popped up in the interim. Most notable among this bunch would be Alice, Sweet Alice (aka Communion), Alfred Sole’s evocative blending of gothic staples with the flourishing giallo movement. And while it can hardly be lumped in with the type of slashers that would come to define the genre in the coming years, it’s clearly of a kin to them, as it crafts an intriguing murder mystery around a masked killer stalking their prey and dispatching them in bloody fashion.
It’s an exceptionally nasty take too, though it opens on a seemingly quaint enough scene, as a family prepares its daughter Karen (Brooke Shields) for her communion. A visit from Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) ends with the kindly priest bequeathing Karen a cross necklace from his late mother, much to the dismay of her jealous older sister, Alice (Paula E. Shephard). An obviously disturbed 12-year-old, Alice is prone to sneaking off to a macabre treasure chest that hoards everything from live insects to a plastic mask. Her mother (Linda Miller) writes it off as childish nonsense, but the family is shaken the next day when Karen is savagely murdered during her communion. Suspicion—even from Mrs. Spage’s own sister (Jane Lowry)—naturally turns toward Alice, especially when the killer continues their rampage and matches the girl’s description exactly, right down to wearing her favorite yellow rain slicker.
But could Alice—disturbed as she may be—really be capable of murder? So much evidence points in her direction that any whodunit veteran is naturally suspicious that something else is at work here. Sole and co-writer Rosemary Ritvo seem to be engaging in obvious misdirection, which actually serves to only deepen the mystery. If not Alice, who could possibly be responsible? Outside of her insistence that Karen has somehow returned from the grave, there are no truly viable suspects, and the film builds an unsettling atmosphere out of this uncertainty as it eliminates possibilities (it couldn’t possibly be Alice’s overweight cousin because her slicker would be two sizes bigger, one character bluntly explains). A gothic twinge—no doubt a result of Sole’s invoking of Don’t Look Now—colors the proceedings, adding a spooky dimension to an otherwise sordid, grimy affair awash with grisly murders and troubling interactions between Alice and older men (including an obese, scummy landlord who threatens to assault her at one point).
Alice, Sweet Alice is perched between the delicate, graceful strains of gothic horror and those lurid, slasher overtures. More often than not, the former is the guiding influence, as this isn’t the sort of film that has the audience reveling in splatter theatrics (save, perhaps, for one involving bugs towards the end). The body count is meager, scattering only a handful of deaths throughout its 106-minute runtime; in fact, one would-be victim actually manages to escape a grisly fate early on in the film, so Sole isn’t exactly eager to exploit bloodshed. Instead, he’s much more preoccupied with crafting an oppressively sinister mood around the violent outbursts. Like so many of its gialli cousins, Alice, Sweet Alice is the sort of film where fleeting images and jarring jolts haunt because they feel like they’ve been beamed in directly from some kind of waking nightmare.
There’s something slightly askew about the very fabric of this film’s reality. It’s unfolding in some vague incarnation of the 60s, though that hardly seems pertinent outside of the inherent subversion of that era’s rosy memories. Many of the performances (but especially Lowry’s turn as Alice’s manic aunt) are a half-stepped removed from a melodrama, bringing a sort of overwrought but oddly effective tone to many scenes. They do contrast sharply with some of the more low-key performances, particularly Shephard’s disturbing turn as the titular Alice. Because Shephard was actually around 16 or 17 during filming, she seems to be a touch too old as a 12-year-old, but it actually results in a perfectly strange effect. Alice is supposed to be odd, and that dark, mature streak is such a deeply weird (but completely appropriate) touch, one that allows Shephard to bring the character to life beyond the usual creepy kid theatrics.
Sole almost takes the Michael Myers route with Alice: while we obviously see much more of her childhood, there’s no explanation for her sinister mean streak. School officials hint at disturbing psychiatric tests, and she has trouble socializing with those around her despite a fairly decent home life. Her parents are currently separated, but that hardly accounts for her potential psychosis. Maybe she’s just a bad egg; what’s more, Shephard often plays her with a wry sense of delighted awareness, so Alice knows she’s a bad egg and is looking to live up to that reputation.
Discussing some of the film’s further intriguing points and performances requires a spoiler warning from this point on, so heads up: if you don’t want to know the killer’s identity check out here (and trust me—go watch this one). In one of the film’s more distinctive developments, Sole reveals the culprit with about thirty minutes left during one of the film’s signature sequences. After Alice’s father receives a phone call from someone he believes to be his niece, he agrees to a meeting, only to find the killer has lured him into an abandoned building. A stunning turn of events unfolds, as he’s stabbed multiple times, putting him at the mercy of this unknown assailant. Then, rather casually, she reveals herself to be Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton), the kindly, elderly assistant to Father Tom who’s appeared innocuously enough in a handful of scenes up until this point. It’s a clever reveal, one that’s punctuated with Mrs. Tredoni tossing Mr. Spage’s body right out of a window before it lands with a sickening thud.
Having thoroughly blindsided the audiences with this topsy-turvy reveal, the film then explores a bit of a tangent by hovering around the killer. Suddenly, the film is much less about its title character (who finds herself committed to an institution for the second half of the film) and more about exploring the loss and grief of Mrs. Tredoni, whose zealotry has inspired her to do God’s work (with a butcher knife acting as her instrument of choice). Unlike so many slashers and gialli, Alice, Sweet Alice isn’t content with taking on a hasty explanation for its killer’s psychosis, so it allows Clinton to truly craft a character out of the sad, desperate, and lonely Mrs. Tredoni. Her portrayal almost renders the killer sympathetic, as she’s driven by the loss of her own child and a desire to uphold her screwy sense of morality. Mostly, she just wants to protect Father Tom from what she believes to be a corroding influence in the godless Spage family (particularly Mrs. Spage, whom she senses has a thing for the priest). Thanks to this character depth, a church-set climax (during another communion, naturally) is unbearably tense—for once, you sense there might be a chance to avoid bloodshed. In fact, that would be preferable—how often do you say that about any slasher or giallo?
Despite the film’s subversion and resistance to those genres’ tropes, their DNA undeniably lurks within. Mrs. Tredoni’s motivations instill that conservative, moralizing steak that runs throughout so many slashers, where “bad people” (and, in this case, specifically promiscuous women engaging in premarital sex) are punished for their misdeeds. Of course, her wild-eyed, homicidal zealotry allows the film to also act as a commentary on religious hysteria, hypocrisy, and repression, a fairly common staple often carved out of these hack-and-slash genres. Mrs. Tredoni’s status as a vengeful, psychotic mother is another familiar motif, one that continues to recur throughout these genres. You perhaps can draw a straight line from Mrs. Tredoni right to Mrs. Voorhees, who practically helped to birth the slasher boom in earnest just four years later.
However, despite my insistence on framing Alice, Sweet Alice within the larger slasher canon, it truly does resist easy classification. Identifying its disparate influences might be obvious enough, yet there’s still nothing quite like it. Part embryonic slasher, part American giallo, part gothic-tinged mystery, the film is ultimately entirely haunting in a way few of these things are. Look no further than its final shot to understand its bizarre place in this canon: where so many films of this ilk end on a stinger to send its audience out with unsettled laughter, this one lingers on a disturbing shot that implies a cruel, twisted fate for Alice, a sad, misunderstood little girl who doesn’t resort to violence so much as she’s resigned to it. The off-kilter, brooding strain rumbling throughout the Alice, Sweet Alice yields to a haunting, melancholy coda, cementing its status as one of the most genuinely unsettling films of this era.
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