US | 1976 | Directed by Alfred Sole
Logline: After a young girl is murdered during her first communion, her strange and withdrawn older sister becomes the main suspect.
Alfred Sole isn’t the only notable horror director who started his feature career in the adult movie industry, there’s Abel Ferrara and Wes Craven, even Francis Coppola made a softie before Roger Corman offered him the chance to direct Dementia 13. Sole only directed four movies, the other notable one being the unctuous Tanya’s Island with Vanity rejecting her abusive lover for the affections of a huge ape. But I digress.
Alice, Sweet Alice was originally released as Communion, a title Sole fought hard to keep, but due to copyright issues which resulted in the original studio dropping the movie from its distribution schedule, it was picked up by another company who feared the general public would confuse it for being a Christian film. Curiously, the title was inspired from a line in a Catholic publication, and it’s Catholicism which has its feathers seriously ruffled by the movie’s premise. Alice, Sweet Alice is a murder mystery pinned by religious piousness.
Alice (Paula Sheppard) is a troubled twelve-year-old. Her eight-year-old sister Karen (Brooke Shields in her feature debut) is about to have her first holy communion, and Alice is jealous of her mother’s attention on her younger sister. She behaves badly, frightening her sister by wearing a mask, and generally acting up. She becomes the centre of attention when her sister is strangled to death in the church by a figure wearing the same mask just prior to the ceremony, and Alice is, quite justifiably, the main suspect.
What unfolds is essentially a whodunit, and many critics over the years have pointed out how similar in atmosphere, tone, and mise-en-scene the movie is to the Italian gialli, even saying Alice, Sweet Alice is the closest American movie to a genuine giallo. But not only in its design, many of its cast have that striking European look, from Linda Miller as the highly strung mother Catherine, to Mildred Clinton as Mrs. Tredoni, the housekeeper for Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich), and even Paula Sheppard. Sheppard’s casting is particular fascinating, as she was nineteen at the time of filming. Although its obvious she has a young woman’s figure and voice, it is her unusually short stature and her round baby face that allows her to play the role of adolescent Alice. Her contrasting young and mature physicality gives her a compelling visual edge, one that Sole uses to great effectiveness. It’s a shame, Sheppard made Liquid Sky in 1982 and then abandoned her acting career.
The movie is set in the early 1960s, but there isn’t much, apart from the cars and Catherine’s hair style, that date stamp the story. It is definitely the giallo-esque qualities of the movie that make it far more memorable than other murder mysteries of the period, even if it isn't that scary. Sole’s wonderful use of widescreen and closeup compositions, and some of the editing, are very much of the gialli school of technique, as are the brutal kitchen knife attacks. Bill Lustig was one of the special effects guys, and he would go on to direct Maniac five years later.
It’s curious then that Sole remarked that he had not watched any gialli, but openly admitted to being influenced by Don’t Look Now, Les Diaboliques, and the thrillers of Hitchcock. I’m surprised Alice, Sweet Alice hasn’t been remade. It was re-released theatrically in the US in a cut version in 1981, under the title Holy Terror, and to cash in on Brooke Shields fame. For nearly twenty years it was bootlegged from television screenings, until finally Anchor Bay released it officially on VHS in 1997, and then DVD a couple of years after that.