Friday, August 2, 2013

Alice Sweet Alice (1976)

... aka: Alice, Alice...!
... aka: Alice, Sweet Alice
... aka: Communion
... aka: Holy Terror
... aka: Mask Murders, The
... aka: Sweet Alice

Directed by: 
Alfred Sole

Alice (Paula E. Sheppard) is hardly sweet. She's disobedient, prone to tantrums, has problems at school and just loves to torment her kid sister Karen (Brooke Shields) with her creepy plastic masks. Karen is the "good" kid, the "sweet" kid, the "pretty one..."  and Alice doesn't like that one bit. Feeling neglected and lost in the shuffle, Alice does what many other children in her situation do: She starts acting out. Extremely jealous that Karen has been receiving lots of attention and gifts as of late; Alice steals a doll - a present from their long-absent father - from her sister and threatens to steal or destroy the new dress, veil and necklace Karen has received to wear during her upcoming first communion. When the date finally does arrive, someone wearing a mask similar to Alice's and a yellow raincoat similar to one Alice owns sneaks into the church, strangles Karen to death, stuffs her body inside a bench and then sets it on fire. Karen's veil ends up in Alice's possession. She claims she found it on the ground, but not many believe her. In fact, it seems like all of the evidence for the crime points directly at young Alice, and seeing how she's been showing signs of being a disturbed little girl in recent months, the suspicion is more than a little justified.

Now having lost one daughter to a mysterious and unsolved murder, poor single mom Catherine Spages (Linda Miller) must now deal with the psychological issues of her other child. To complicate matters even more, her estranged husband Dominick (Niles McMaster), father to both girls and since remarried, comes back into town and refuses to leave until he finds out what happened. Not helping matters either is Catherine's overbearing, judgmental sister Annie (Jane Lowry), who forces her unwanted "help" onto the family. However, that's all taken care of when she's attacked in the stairwell by the same masked, raincoat clad killer who stabs her foot and leg numerous times. Annie is rushed off to the hospital and, despite not actually seeing the assailant's face, tells authorities that Alice was the one who attacked her. Alice claims it was Karen. She's taken to the police station, has mixed results on the polygraph test and is dubbed a "weird little girl" by the officers. Detective Mike Spina (Michael Hardstark) decides to book her and has her sent off to a mental hospital where test results confirm the girl has some major psychological issues. But, screwed up as she is, is she actually the murderer?

Filmed under the more appropriate title Communion, Alice, Sweet Alice is completely entrenched in Catholic culture and with it the accompanying themes of guilt, secrecy and repression. Nearly every frame contains a cross or a religious painting in the backdrop, and almost all of the characters are heavily involved in the church, which is decidedly not a good thing as depicted here. Catherine's sister, for instance, retains a certain bitterness for both her sister and Dominick for engaging in premarital sex nearly a decade earlier. As a result, she's always secretly resented Alice and treated her more harshly than the other children in the family. Growing up in such a repressive environment, with many around her quick to judge and condemn, little Alice doesn't even feel secure enough to confess she's had her first period to her own mother, let alone relay her feelings of rage about her father abandoning the family and starting a new one. As per Sole and Rosemary Ritvo's screenplay, a restrictive religious environment becomes the breeding ground for various mental problems, which take on many different faces... Just like the strange doll Alice has swiped from her sister.

In this bizarre world, even well-meaning characters do unintended damage. For some reason, Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich), an outgoing, trusted family friend who oversees the private school Alice attends, doesn't relay critical information to Catherine about her daughter's mental problems until things have already started to boil over. On the other end of the spectrum is Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso De Noble), the Spages' obese, disgusting, reclusive landlord. Alphonso lives in the apartment downstairs with dozens of cats and lies around in his own filth all day listening to music. He also happens to be a pedophile who has sexual designs on young Alice. This character works as yet another reflection of the dark side of Catholicism.

Comparisons have been drawn between this film and Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973), for the raincoat-clad killer and the constant, dreary shots of gloomy skies and rain, but this is actually much more in tune with Hitchcock thrillers, right down to some of the camerawork and the music score. There are some genuinely creepy scenes and moments of jarring violence, and a good deal of suspense during the first half, though the mystery elements are dropped all together once the killer's identity is revealed well before the conclusion.

The performances are all fairly good here, though there's some histrionic over-acting from at least one of the key players. Sheppard, who was 19-years-old when this was filmed but completely convincing as a much younger girl, probably makes the greatest impression. This was the film debut of Shields. Soon after, she'd become a star after playing a child prostitute in the controversial Pretty Baby (1978), which led to other (creepy) highly sexualized roles for the underage girl. Mildred Clinton (as Father Tom's housekeeper), Louisa Horton (a psychiatrist), Tom Signorelli (a detective) and Lillian Roth (a pathologist) round out the cast.

The cut titled Holy Terror is missing footage, but the DVD releases through both Anchor Bay (which features a commentary track from the director and editor Edward Salier) and Hen's Tooth (which features no notable extras) appear to be uncut. Surprise, surprise, a remake was announced earlier this year.

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