Like any horror film fan worth their salt and of a certain age, I’ve seen badly beat-up and butchered prints of The Terror on TV and video numerous times. The film suffered the unfortunate fate of falling into the public domain decades ago so it became a staple of late-night television and was repeatedly released as part of cheap video and DVD compilations typically sold in bargain bins. What I hadn’t realized is how much the poor presentation of the film had colored my opinion of it.
Until now, I’d taken The Terror for granted and bought the idea that it was a lessor Corman film rendered incoherent due to its haphazard production history. In my defense, it’s easy to overlook the film’s merits and nuances when you’re only exposed to barely recognizable prints crudely edited and accompanied by fun-loving horror hosts cracking jokes at the movie’s expense. Now, thanks to the fine folks at The Film Detective and their extensive restoration of The Terror on Blu-ray, I’ve gained a newfound respect for the film and after careful consideration, I find it to be one of the more interesting and overlooked AIP pictures released in the sixties.
In The Terror, young Jack Nicholson plays André Duvalier, an 18th century lieutenant in Napoleon’s army who is separated from his regiment during wartime. Wearing one of Marlon Brando’s costumes from Désirée (1954) that’s a bit too wide in the shoulders, Nicholson’s character wanders an abandoned beach on horseback until he’s overcome by exhaustion. When our hero awakens (or does he?), he meets a beautiful woman named Helene (Sandra Knight, who was married to Nicholson at the time) and the graceful brunette helps him recover before she seemingly vanishes into the ominous ocean. The disoriented lieutenant becomes obsessed with the mysterious Helene and while searching for the missing woman he finds sanctuary with an old gypsy crone (Dorothy Neumann) and her simple-minded lodger (Jonathan Haze). He eventually learns that Helene might be residing at a nearby castle occupied by a Baron (Boris Karloff) and his butler (Dick Miller) so he sets out to find her and during his quest, we become immersed in the castle’s terrible history.
Incorporating sets from previous Corman films including The Raven (1963) and The Haunted Palace (1963), The Terror was cobbled together in a few short weeks utilizing the directing skills of Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and even Jack Nicholson himself, who oversaw some of the film’s final scenes. The combined talents make this one of AIP’s most prestigious pictures despite its spotty reputation. Leo Gordon and Jack Hill provided the slim script that was based on an idea that Corman had while editing duties were left up to Stuart O’Brien who was assisted by Jack Hill. Editing must have been an extremely difficult task considering the piecemeal nature of the production and one has to wonder how much credit O’Brien and Hill deserve for the final product.
After seeing The Terror presented on Blu-ray where the colors popped and the images were sharp and true, I was able to fully appreciate the filmmaker’s impressive use of the rocky California coastline. Particularly Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, which was also used as a backdrop in Corman’s The Trip (1967). I also gazed in wonder at the imaginative, low budget and surprisingly gruesome special effects involving eyeball gouging, translucent phantoms, and melting corpses. The film is lit beautifully at times especially in and outside the Baron’s castle where shades of majestic purple, misty blue, and putrid green expose cobweb strewn hallways and rotting tombs.