One of the more popular B-movies made by Roger Corman is the 1963 comedy-horror The Raven, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, but unfortunately I’m reviewing The Terror, a ghost story he made around the same time. Both films feature Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson (who collaborated with Corman on a number of occasions during the first phase of his career), but The Terror only exists because the filmmaker decided to take advantage of the sets used in The Raven when he realised he was ahead of schedule on that movie. It’s not awful, by any means, though it’s a tough one to like, and interestingly as well as Nicholson’s appearance it features some scenes that were directed by a young UCLA Film School graduate by the name of Francis Ford Coppola.
It’s something of a novelty to see Nicholson turn in the kind of wooden, dreadful performance that has long been eclipsed by his later and numerous career highlights. In his first leading role he plays a lost French soldier called Andre Duvalier, who seems to have acquired a New Jersey accent during the early stages of the Napoleonic Wars, which is quite an impressive feat. The actor spends most of his scenes wearing a look of intense concentration mixed with apparent confusion, as if he is trying to finish off a particularly challenging sudoku while simultaneously wondering – like the rest of us – just why he is playing a French soldier called Andre Duvalier. Jack Nicholson’s finest hour this is not.
Anyway, we first meet Andre wandering dehydrated and delirious on horseback on a French beach, where he is rescued by a mysterious and beautiful woman named Helene (Sandra Knight, Nicholson’s wife at the time), who looks exactly like the long-dead wife of a local Baron (Karloff). (If you think the French coastline in this film looks suspiciously like that of Big Sur, California, that’s because it is.) Weirdly, Helene disappears mysteriously into the sea, and Andre follows her in before coming to his senses. Somewhat enraged by the experience, he subsequently engages in a brutal fist-fight with a raven, before seeking accommodation for the evening with a creepy local peasant woman (Dorothy Neumann).
Keen to find out more about Helene, Andre turns his attention to the Baron and his cold, dark, local castle, where he discovers that the woman at the beach is the spitting image of Ilsa, the ex-wife of the Baron who was murdered twenty years earlier by the nobleman in a fit of jealous rage. This leaves Andre with a bunch of questions that need answering. Why has the woman started turning up at the beach? Why is she using another name? What role does the peasant woman play in all of this? Why does some random guy get his eyes pecked out by a raven on a cliff-top? And, lastly, why is a 19th Century French soldier wandering around the shoreline of 1960s California with an American accent?
Corman’s intention was to film as much of The Terror as possible in a three day period, paying Leo Gordon $1,600 to write a script on the fly. He convinced Karloff to appear and promised the aging actor a deferred payment of $15,000 if the movie earned more than $150,000, a figure Karloff eventually received years later when he agreed to do some more work for Corman. He was less successful in persuading Karloff’s co-star in The Raven, Vincent Price, to appear, as Price had to set off on a lecture tour instead. Due to contractual obligations that prevented him from completing work on the movie Corman then delegated some of the directing duties to three other young filmmakers; as well as the uncredited Coppola, Nicholson also spent some time in the director’s chair, overseeing several scenes and gaining some valuable experience to boot.
Considering the mix of directors, the turnaround time, the lack of budget and the fact that Gordon had little time to write the script, it’s surprising that The Terror isn’t a complete disaster. Some of the sets are a little wobbly, sure, and the acting is dire, but there are a couple of eerie, creepy moments and the bizarre story is simple enough to just about hang together, though, ultimately, it must be said that this is a gothic horror that doesn’t include much horror at all. There’s even an enjoyably gruesome ending, just when you think that Corman is going to finish with a crowd-pleasing union between Andre and Helene / Ilsa.
Still, there’s also a reason why nobody bothered to actually copyright the film, and it will come as little surprise to anyone that Nicholson later said ‘the funniest hour that I have ever spent in a projection room was watching the dailies for The Terror‘. Karloff isn’t anywhere near his usual standard, there’s a twist near the end that is very naff indeed, and at times there is a clear lack of continuity (perhaps most noticeably when Karloff – with white hair – is replaced in the climactic scenes by a stunt double with black hair).
Mistakes like that tell you all you need to know about The Terror. It was a rushed, cheap production, and that’s apparent to anyone who cares to watch it, but its haphazard goofiness means it retains a degree of likability and a little charm. Perhaps the main appeal today is the rare chance it offers to see Nicholson stinking up the screen for the best part of an hour and a half, and while it remains in the public domain it will probably continue to attract curious viewers as a result.
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Leo Gordon, Jack Hill
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff, Sandra Knight
Running Time: 85 minutes