Directed By: Roger Corman
Starring: Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight
Tag line: "There's No Rest For The Wicked..."
Trivia: All of the scenes involving Boris Karloff were filmed by Corman in four days
Old meets new in Roger Corman’s 1963 horror film The Terror, a movie that features Boris Karloff (in the waning days of his career) and Jack Nicholson (towards the beginning of his). Yet not even these two powerhouse performers could help conceal the fact that The Terror has very little story to speak of, and even at 80 minutes feels as if it was twice as long as it needed to be.
It’s 1806, and Andre Duvalier (Nicholson), a soldier in Napoleon’s army, has been separated from his unit. While walking along the coastline, he meets a beautiful woman who claims her name is Helene (Sandra Knight). Andre will spot Helene several more times during his journey, but when he makes his way to the castle of Baron von Leppe (Karloff), he’s informed by the Baron that no Helene resides in the area. What’s more, Andre finds that she bears a striking resemblance to a portrait of the Baron’s wife, Ilsa, who died nearly 20 years earlier. Determined to learn who this young woman really is, Andre carries out an investigation, questioning everyone from the Baron’s butler Stefan (Dick Miller) to a peasant named Gustav (Jonathan Haze). But it’s Katrina (Dorothy Neumann), an elderly witch, who holds all the answers, and its her intention to use Helene in an attempt to finish off the Baron.
The question, of course, is why?
A seasoned pro by 1963, Karloff does what he can with the role of the Baron, and for the most part manages to breathe life into what proves to be a conflicted character (his wife’s death has haunted the Baron for years). As for Nicholson, his performance as Andre is far from his best work (he never really settles into the part), yet is quite good in the handful of scenes he shares with Karloff. In addition, regular Corman collaborator Dick Miller, portraying the Baron’s servant Stefan, is used solely for exposition, revealing plot points at key intervals throughout the film, while Sandra Knight (Nicholson’s wife at the time) looks great as the ghostly vision haunting the two stars, but is given very little to do (she spends about 80% of her screen time wandering from one place to another). Rounding out the supporting players are Dorothy Neumann, who, as the old witch Katrina, has several strong scenes (especially towards the end of the movie); and Jonathan Haze as the dimwitted Gustav, whose run-in with one of Katrina’s birds results in what is arguably the most memorable image The Terror has to offer.
Thanks to the many brilliant people involved in the making of this film, The Terror is far from a total bust. Along with Karloff and Nicholson, future directors Francis Ford Coppola (listed as a producer) and Monte Hellman (location director) took their turns in the director’s chair (albeit uncredited), as did Corman favorite Jack Hill (the man behind Spider Baby and Coffy, just to name a few). It’s rumored that even jack Nicholson tried his hand at directing the climax. This, combined with the appropriately gothic set pieces (leftovers from 1963’s The Raven and The Haunted Palace), gave The Terror what personality it had.
But with its chaotic production schedule (Corman shot the scenes with Karloff in four days, yet took an additional nine months to finish the film) and a story not meaty enough for a feature-length movie, The Terror was, though not a complete failure, a definite disappointment.