“Did you make a good confession?”
What if Halloween was Carrie was also a Hitchcockian psychodrama? That elevator pitch might be a little reductive, but it’ll also get you pretty close to the ballpark of Alfred Sole’s unlikely masterpiece, Alice, Sweet Alice.
Shot in 1975 in Sole’s hometown of Paterson, New Jersey—a town that had just turned on Sole after the release of his erotic first film, Deep Sleep—and set in 1961, Alice, Sweet Alice owes a heavy (and acknowledged) debt to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. (See, for example, a shot of a coffin in front of a poster for Psycho.)
Alice, Sweet Alice has also been called the most “gialloesque” American movie of all time, and Sole himself has admitted to being inspired by Nicolas Roeg’s classic Don’t Look Now. All of these observations help to convey what the experience of watching Alice, Sweet Alice is like, help to place the film in a broader cultural context, but they also run the risk of downplaying the unclassifiable originality of Sole’s film.
According to the booklet that accompanies the new Arrow Video Bluy-ray of Alice, Sole’s debut was, “Little more than a low-budget porno produced by an eager young filmmaker desperate to get a foot in the door.” Deep Sleep unfortunately did much more than that. It was prosecuted under obscenity charges in Sole’s hometown, resulting in a highly publicized court case.
Sole was hit with a weighty fine and a prohibition against filming anything for two years. Perhaps more relevant to the creation of Alice, Sweet Alice, he was also excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Diocese in which he had grown up.
Neither Paterson nor the Catholic church come off very well in Alice. The palette of the film is grays and browns, especially in exteriors, where the city seems almost aggressively dilapidated. Water stains mar the walls, abandoned industrial buildings loom large, and rain beats down but cannot wash the city clean. When the characters aren’t being menaced by religious iconography, the backgrounds feature signs for fallout shelters.
The church fares even worse. “From one scene to the next, religious iconography overwhelms the screen,” Sheila O’Malley writes at Film Comment, “paintings of Mary and Christ, marble statues, crosses on every wall, religion leering at the characters from behind.” O’Malley goes on to note that, “Religion is not a refuge in Alice, Sweet Alice. It is a rejection of the body itself, but the body—its tongues, its teeth, its menstruation—will not be denied.”
Also known by a handful of other titles—in the new 2K transfer on the Arrow Video Blu it goes by the original title, Communion—Alice has been called overtly anti-Catholic, and it certainly doesn’t shy away from portraying religion in an unflattering light. When it was rereleased in 1981, to cash in on the rising popularity of Brooke Shields—who makes her feature film debut here, as the young girl whose murder kicks off the film’s horror—it was called Holy Terror.
Alice gets frequently classed as a slasher film—it was ranked #4 on Complex’s list of the best slasher films of all time, where it was beaten out only by the original Nightmare on Elm Street, Black Christmas, and Halloween. The reason for this classification seems pretty obvious: the killer wears a distinctive mask, in this case a sort of translucent plastic mask with a made-up facsimile of a female face and, at one point, a twist-nudging other mask beneath that one.
For a slasher, though, Alice is… not necessarily bloodless, but certainly low on body count. In fact, the movie is more than halfway over before the second murder is committed, though in-between there is perhaps the film’s most disturbing set piece, a stabbing that doesn’t lead to death, though not for lack of giallo-red blood.
While the film wants you to wonder whether a 12-year-old girl could really be the perpetrator of such heinous deeds—anyone who has ever known a 12-year-old of any gender knows the answer to this question already—it’s obvious pretty early on that Alice can’t be the killer, because Alice as the killer is too obvious.
Unfortunately, Alice, Sweet Alice is at its best before the identity of the killer is revealed. Afterward, things take an even more Hitchcockian turn, with a few “bomb under the table” sequences where characters don’t know that they’re in danger while the audience definitely does. But certainties are rarely as intriguing and ambiguity, and Alice is a prime example.
Still, even when it has been revealed that Alice isn’t the culprit, she isn’t entirely cleared, either. One of the most fascinating aspects of Alice, Sweet Alice is its portrayal of the title character. Played by then-19-year-old Paula E. Sheppard, Alice is a neglected and almost certainly disturbed young girl who is surrounded by people who are supposed to be more “normal” than her except that, of course, they aren’t.
Alice is neither a sociopath like the Bad Seed or the killer kids in Bloody Birthday nor entirely an innocent victim caught up in sinister events. She is capable of malevolence, even if she isn’t the villain of the piece, but she also feels, in many ways, more human than the “normal” people in her life, who are filled with their own repressed feelings and often played with intentional soap opera histrionics.
The film also provides a constantly-simmering subtext of sexual abuse that never quite boils to the surface, but is also never escapable. Even as characters hypothesize that Alice is the killer, they also sexualize and objectify her, both directly and indirectly.
The slobby landlord of their dingy brownstone (this movie isn’t very kind to fat people, either) tries to force himself on Alice; she gets her period and doesn’t tell her mother; when the police are hooking her up to a polygraph, the technician says, “When I was putting the tube around her, it was like she wanted me to feel her up.”
This same kind of objectification and projection plays into the motives of the killer, who is punishing those within the congregation she sees as sinful. “Children pay for the sins of the parents,” she says, by way of explanation for her actions.
Everyone in Alice, Sweet Alice is simmering in a stew of repression and conflicting psychological—and sometimes psychosexual—impulses, none of which are entirely resolved by the time the film ends on a chilling freeze-frame of Alice looking straight at the camera.
The Arrow Video Blu-ray looks great and comes with a raft of extras including featurettes, commentary tracks, even an alternate TV cut of the film. Besides the booklet and reversible sleeve, the Blu-ray also features a poster with a “killer kit” on the back, including a yellow slicker, white gloves, creepy mask, and bloody knife. “Now you can be the killer you’ve always wanted to be!!”
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.