“Perhaps we are both mad.”
In Gottlieb’s Hitchcock on Hitchcock, the Master of psychological thriller films explains that for him, “suspense does not have any value if it is not balanced by humour”. This is very true of The Terror – a 1963 horror movie produced by Roger Corman. Although, to be honest, I strongly doubt Corman intentionally set about creating the humorous element of pastiche present in the film, which is rather carelessly highlighted by the disjointed cast… Yet, perhaps because of the truth in Hitchcock’s insight, The Terror delivers regardless.
Even if the film is credited to Corman, it is really an amalgamation of the work of several film-makers, including Francis Ford Coppola. Admittedly, there is little of the artistic brilliance of Coppola of the following decade. Having said this, the overall product presents the script in an intriguing manner that is captivating. The film is set during the aftermath of the French revolution and opens with the rather clichéd, Robinson Crusoe image of a man landed in a cut-off place. André Duvalier, the stranded man, finds himself in a nightmarish domain inhabited by an evil, old witch; a melancholy and forbidding baron; and a beautiful but unnervingly mysterious, disappearing lady. The viewer is thrust into the treacherous terrain of the coastal cliffs with Duvalier and, much like in a first-person narrative, becomes acquainted with the characters and suspicious activities alongside the protagonist.
Unfortunately, the acting in this movie is of a rather superficial and unconvincing nature. This is particularly the case with 1960s-styled Sandra Knight, who plays the part of Hélène (the elusive woman). The set is of a similar illogically-concocted nature, which is explained by the fact that the producers used stock footage and re-used sets from other movies in the production. The relatively long shots of the geographical expanses and the long silences can distract from the main plot, rather than serve to build suspense. However, one geographical image does effectively manage to build tension; primarily because it is transformed into a symbol. By being one of the protagonists of the opening scene and recurring in the film in association with the disappearances of Hélène, the sea in its immensity paradoxically takes on the role of an ‘engulfer’.
The haunting performance of veteran Boris Karloff as the Baron Von Leppe in his ominous castle stands out as also being ‘engulfing’ in its power, even if consistently being undermined by Duvalier’s insistence that he will get to the root of the mystery. The resonant soliloquys of the Baron play an important role in asserting the dominance of his figure, and no moment in the film parallels the intensity with which he utters “Perhaps we are both mad.” to Duvalier (when the latter confronts him about the ‘ghost’ of Hélène they had both seen). Juxtaposed against this is the bizarre scene of the Baron’s servant as the hawk attacks him, blinds him and leads him to fall off the cliff in a grotesque and absurd version of blinded Gloucester’s existential ‘jump’ of the cliff in King Lear. Coupled with the eerie music of Ronald Stein and Les Baxter – as well as the pathetic fallacy of thunder and lightning – a very Gothic atmosphere is built, in which these developments are steeped. Everything culminates in a surprisingly clever and shocking plot-twist at the very end.
Although The Terror is your standard B-film, it does what it does entertainingly well. Now finding itself in the public domain, it provides 81 excellent minutes of wholesome, burlesque ‘spine-chilling’ entertainment.
Watch the whole film on YouTube and rekindle the spirit of Hallowe’en:
N.B: This review has also appeared in ‘The Insiter’ (a student magazine).