Communion (aka Alice, Sweet Alice; Holy Terror, 1976)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Alfred Sole

By Roderick Heath

One reason horror genre fans look back to the 1970s with such keen nostalgia is not simply because lots of horror films were made, but because so many different varieties of horror film were made, before the arrival of the slasher flick late in the decade permanently skewed the genre towards more formulaic bellwethers. This brilliant little crossbreed from independent New Jersey filmmaker Alfred Sole is very much an example of the era. It straddles the mid-’70s Hitchcockian revival that included young filmmakers as radically different as Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg; the George Romero school of gritty, handcrafted genre cinema; and it also breaches the realm of the nascent independent film, with its template of empathic realism in portraying lives in society’s peculiar niches. The setting and characters are depicted intimately, their world investigated with familiarity and feeling, and everyday pains and perversities are invoked, even as the film erupts with intervals of psychotic violence and raw suspense orchestrated in exacting cinematic terms.

Sole cowrote the screenplay with Rosemary Ritvo, and as well as a deep lexicon of film references, much of it has a flavour of being torn from memory and observation. The setting is 1961 in an intensely Catholic neighbourhood, a similar time and place to what John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt tried to revive. The changing mores of the world around the church that is the linchpin of the story and its characters’ social lives is part of the film’s unstated texture, as the tale revolves around young divorcee Catherine Spages (Lisa Miller), who is raising two daughters on the cusp of pubescence, Alice (Linda Sheppard) and Karen (Brooke Shields).

At the film’s outset, Catherine shepherds her daughters to visit the handsome, much-liked young Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich). Tom lives with another priest and a monsignor (Peter Bosch), all taken care of by the dedicated Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton). The purpose for the visit is to arrange for Karen’s first communion, and Father Tom gives Karen an ornate cross on a chain. Alice, distracted and irritated by the attention her sister is receiving, scares Mrs. Tredoni by sneaking about wearing a doll-like mask. When Karen later receives her communion dress, Alice steals the veil and then one of Karen’s dolls; when the distraught Karen tracks Alice to an abandoned building, Alice frightens her by slamming a fire door shut behind her, sealing her in a decrepit space. When she releases her, Alice bullies her sister into keeping quiet about it. When Karen is standing, last in line to receive communion, she’s grabbed by a figure clad in the same doll-like mask and the ubiquitous yellow raincoat all of the young girls who go to a local Catholic school wear. Karen is strangled with a candle, and her killer stuffs her body into a trunk, steals her cross, and places a lighted candle in with it. Alice enters the church wearing a veil she claims she picked up, and soon, the smell of burning attracts attention and Karen’s body is found to a general furor. When Karen is buried, her father, Dom (Niles McMaster), who has remarried, returns to attend and consoles Catherine, whilst police detectives Spina (Michael Hardstarck) and Brennan (Tom Signorelli) and Catherine’s shrewish sister Annie (Jane Lowry) make little secret of their suspicions that Alice killed her sister, a notion Catherine and Dom reject out of hand.

Alice is from the outset one of the most intensely believable and fascinating portraits of bratty youth ever committed to film. Aggressive, frightened, volatile, secretive, Alice is both victim and perpetrator of evils in a landscape where images and rituals of purity, beauty, and just order are often revealed to have seedy and decaying flipsides. She keeps a private shrine littered with stolen objects, a talismanic photo of her father, candles, and a jar full of insects she will eventually put to good use. The neighbourhood hasn’t gone bad, but there’s a feeling that behind many a door things are rotting. The Monsignor is ancient and decrepit, yet technically still an authority. Catherine’s landlord Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble) is an obese shut-in with urine stains on his pants who accepts Alice’s insults with smiling menace as he tries to paw her. Alice seems jealous of Karen partly because, like everyone else, she has a crush on Tom, who offers an aspect of the father figure just as he subliminally offers a figure of romantic aspiration for Catherine, and also because she seems to have not experienced the first communion, perhaps when Catherine was still on the outs with the church for her divorce; each time Alice steps forward to actually take communion, someone dies.

Alice is the sort of embryonic troubled youth punk and grunge rock adored celebrating. (Sheppard would go on to play in her only other film, Slava Tsukerman’s equally cultish punk relic Liquid Sky [1982]). Alice is secretly angry at her father’s departure and wants him home again, and she’s begun lashing out at everyone around her with increasingly artful offence. But she also hides a powerful, if manipulative, streak of real despair and fear of abandonment as revealed when she drops a jar of jam when Annie is bossing her about, sparking a furious kitchen confrontation. Alice is certainly infuriating and perhaps even a little dangerous—but is she unhinged enough to be a murderer? For Annie and others, Alice’s transgressive attitude is easily transmutable into sociopathic acts, especially as the killer consciously adopts the same dress and guises as Alice. When Annie leaves the Spages’ flat after her charged clash with Alice and Catherine, the same masked, raincoat-clad figure attacks her and hacks at her legs on the stairs. Annie plunges bleeding and terrified down into the lobby, screaming that Alice has attacked her, and crawls out onto the sidewalk in the pouring rain as Dom and Tom arrive.

The film’s opening titles proffer a weird gag, in which a young woman in veiling white is seen praying with a crucifix in her hands as an image of sanctified youth, only to lift the cross and reveal a dagger point on the end. It’s the first moment in a film that presents seemingly disparate things—devotion and homicide, innocence and sadism—in a confused singularity. The cleverness of Sole’s film is in the richness with which he melds humdrum detail and the heightened realism of the familiar, down-to-earth preoccupations of the characters, full of family tensions that blend love and antipathy in barely separable ways, and the more expansive cinematic gamesmanship of its thriller plot and visuals. Sole’s use of Hitchcockian visuals, justified not only by story, but also by the fact that Psycho is showing at the local movie theatre; so, the texture of remembering an era and a set of events as filtered through an associated aesthetic method is matched by an individual cinematic sensibility that expresses itself mostly keenly through close-ups. Sole builds to singular moments of feverish, almost operatic telegraphy of feeling in his close shots, as when Karen’s body is found and an exchange of looks between Tom and Catherine confirms the worst, and when Annie, screaming in panic, crawls into the torrential downpour. Sole is constantly receptive to faces, particularly those of the female cast. Miller’s Catherine, with a mature beauty, retains at first a sphinx-like aura of self-containment, often shot in cool profile or watched in silent recline, only to be constantly twisted into a mask of anxiety as she’s beset with the trials of Job as many a single mother might feel. Alice’s face with her unnerving large eyes and sullen mouth radiate force of character unleavened by the deference of maturity, and Annie’s face looks like Catherine’s except slightly smudged by a life of bossy and judgemental self-righteousness. Later, there are faces bent in pain and transfigured by madness and anger.

The actual killer calls to mind other horror movie tropes beyond Hitchcock, with the killer’s deceptive physical appearance and raincoat evoking the killer dwarf of Don’t Look Now (1973) and Dom as a similarly doomed pursuing father, whilst the mask is pure giallo movie stuff. Like George Romero’s Martin from the same year, Sole utilises an almost neorealist sensibility in his depiction of his native milieu, his feel for the assailed, decaying sensibilities of the formerly secure, and his use of genre tropes to try to describe an authentic psychic atmosphere of disconnection and alienation in communities that used to be defined by rock-solid values and an insularity both reassuring and suffocating. Alice and Martin are similar square pegs for very round holes, whose inchoate rebellions inevitably bring on punishing forces, all the more hysterical as the certainties that inform the punishers are endangered. Yet in many ways, the actual mood of Sole’s film is closer in spirit to Val Lewton than Hitchcock or Romero, in its sense of ordinary lives inflected with eruptions of the irrational. For the most part, Sole takes his material on at the far more immediate level of a family drama, and many sequences, like the kitchen bust-up, are convincing depictions of simple, emotional fracas amongst ordinary people; indeed, aspects of the film, for example, the depiction of psychologically injured youth in the wake of calamity, anticipate the more precious “serious” stuff of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980). The process of Alice’s becoming a serious police suspect evokes the similar scenes of Antoine Doinel’s passage into the justice system in The 400 Blows (1959), even as Alice still manages to get a blow back by sabotaging a polygraph when the technician is out of the room. The visual texture around Alice becomes encaging, with repeated shots through bars and window frames isolating her from the world.

The thriller plot, then, works in tandem with depictions of the all-too-familiar dangers and threats of childhood, like the dance of malignancy Alice and Lorenzo engage in. Three sequences of sustained emotional volatility in the film’s mid-section serve both in a propelling plot purpose, but also retain self-sufficient qualities of character study and interaction. The first is when Catherine desperately pleads with, and then threatens, Annie in her hospital bed to divert her from saying that Alice attacked her, but Annie, agonised and fraught, still bawls out to her henpecked husband and the police that Alice was the guilty party. The second comes when Dom and Catherine visit Alice, who’s subsequently locked away for psychiatric evaluation, with a doctor (Louisa Horton) concluding she has schizoid tendencies; Alice at first furiously rejects them, but then buckles and chases after her mother in a teary catharsis. Alice’s incarceration means that she ceases to be the centre of the story, as Dom and Catherine move into focus in the third scene, as they momentarily give in, in their brittle and clingy states, to their still-bubbling attraction, only for a phone call from Dom’s new wife to cut into their tryst with humiliating timing. Nonetheless, Dom’s return and his determination to stick about until he can find the real killer, whom he begins to suspect might be Annie’s chubby, sullen daughter Angela (Kathy Rich), seems a perfect way not only to get his daughter out of immediate trouble, but also to prove he’s still a part of her life, vitally important to saving her unstable psyche as well as her freedom. But in a coldly inspired, mercilessly staged sequence, Dom is fooled into meeting with Angela in a park, and, spying the coated, masked figure, chases it into a disused building, where the figure stabs him in the shoulder on the stairs, and flees to a higher floor.

Dom continues to track the attacker, still believing it’s a frightened and unstable girl, only to then be knocked out, tied up, and rolled towards a high drop with chilling, laborious calm, by the murderer. This is actually Mrs. Tredoni, utterly psychotic and determined to destroy the Spages, who represent everything that’s wrong to her with a world of decaying morals, and who keep distracting her beloved Father Tom from his priestly duties and her tender care. Dom’s panicked, prone screams once he revives can’t stop her from continuing to roll him toward his doom. He manages, however, to tear Karen’s crucifix from her neck with his teeth, and won’t give it even as she smashes his teeth in with a stone, swallowing it instead, before sending him plummeting for the coup-de-grace. The grinding sense of corporeal punishment here, suffered for sins directly subsequent to the moment of near-adultery between former husband and wife, beautifully channels Catholic guilt into worldly suffering, as the killer inflicts pain as self-appointed wrath of god, albeit one who returns to scrubbing floors and making tea and grumbling. The film’s signal image inverts meaning: the mask, which on Alice signifies a longing for the depersonalised power of adult eroticism, is on Mrs. Tredoni a borrowed guise of sensuality turned grotesque, as she seeks to punish “that whore” Catherine for her perceived transgressions, and the secret perversity of the conformist, rather than the outsider, is revealed. Tredoni’s attack on Dom’s teeth carries Freudian dimensions, redolent of a prepubescent oedipal violence.

Bloodied and dirty from her exertions, she returns to the church and takes refuge in the confessional, where she admits vaguely to her sins to be given a reassuring absolution by Father Tom, who tells her she’s a good person, accidentally, implicitly affirming the rightness of her determination to punish the wicked: Tredoni, slumped in the shadows and quivering with feeling after her deed, now lifts her eyes in beatified happiness. Momentary calm, however, threatens to dissipate as Alice returns home, restored to her life by a repulsive sacrifice Catherine decides to keep secret from her for a time. Catherine still taunts Tredoni with her presence in the church, and her attempt to kill Catherine is forestalled by the most bizarre device: Alice, in her return home, leaves her jar of bugs propped on the sleeping Alphonso’s lap. When he wakes with the bugs crawling on him, his cries brings the watching detective charging in, and Tredoni, alarmed, stabs Alphonso to death and is seen fleeing. She makes it to the church, where she stands in the queue to receive communion, unaware that the police are gathering outside. Father Tom begs them to let him extract her, but Tom’s conscientiousness finally proves his own undoing as he asks Tredoni to leave and she, in a rage of betrayal and lunacy, asks why he’d ask her to leave and not “that whore” and stabs the priest in the neck.

Again, Alice’s attempt to receive communion is ruined, this time by the savage annihilation of her last father figure right in front of her, and the spectacle leaves her wandering away with Tredoni’s bag, fingered her mask and knife with a boding purpose. It’s arguable that here finally Sole steps too close to a glib twist ending, but there’s a terrible concision to it: like the same year’s Carrie, there’s a dark catharsis where damaged youth finds itself irrevocably tethered to the sins of the parents and broken morality, and rational forces no longer present any credible barrier to the young inheritor’s vengeful mind. Either way, Communion is a small masterpiece. For a cast of virtual unknowns, with the exception of I’ll Cry Tomorrow scribe Lillian Roth in a droll cameo as a medical examiner and, of course, future star Shields, the cast is remarkably effective. Sole, sadly, never came close to matching it again: whereas, by his own admission, he would have been better off remaining an independent local filmmaker, a la Romero and John Waters, he went Hollywood, and after making the utterly bizarre-sounding Tanya’s Island (1980) and the weak slasher-movie send-up Pandemonium (1982), he finished up in a career as a production designer.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    1st/03/2012 to 1:50 pm

    “It straddles the mid-’70s Hitchcockian revival that included young filmmakers as radically different as Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg; the George Romero school of gritty, handcrafted genre cinema; and it also breaches the realm of the nascent independent film, with its template of empathic realism in portraying lives in society’s peculiar niches. The setting and characters are intimately portrayed, their world investigated with familiarity and feeling, and everyday pains and perversities are invoked, even as the film erupts with intervals of psychotic violence and raw suspense orchestrated in exacting cinematic terms…”

    Again you pay a visit to the horror genre with scholarly purpose and an acute focus of a film that probably escaped the radar for many, even genre fans. As it is I know this film quite well, own it on DVD and saw it back in the day when it was first released. I’ve never forgotten it, as with me there’s an errie austerity when horror is served up on an altar. You brilliantly discuss the film’s metaphorical slant with a plethora of cinematic references, nearly all that I am nodding my head on. I never forgot Sole’s name either, as it was always a curiosity as to who directed this often underestimated gem. Your exhaustive analysis of Alice is fascinating.

  • Roderick spoke:
    2nd/03/2012 to 3:49 am

    Hi Sam. I always experience discovering gems like this by directors whose careers never went anywhere to be a bittersweet experience, but Sole’s grip on this film is easily the equal of many infinitely more famous directors, and I wish he might have had a real chance to develop his singular strand of dramatic style and genre interest. Glad you’re a fellow fan, Sam.

  • Christianne Benedict spoke:
    7th/03/2012 to 9:04 am

    I remember seeing this (as Alice, Sweet Alice) on late late night HBO back in the early 1980s. I never forgot it, either. In the 1990s, I put it on the list of horror movies I wanted when I opened my video store. I kept the VHS edition when I closed the store. I should think about replacing it with a DVD.

    I LOVE Paula Sheppard’s performance in the lead. I always thought she should have had a career afterward. Ah, well.

  • Roderick spoke:
    7th/03/2012 to 9:23 am

    Hi Christianne – interesting anecdote about your VHS copy, a tale with bittersweet intimations indeed. Ah, the sainted days of the horror section in the old VHS stores…And Paula Sheppard, fuck yeah! Instead blandy-wandy Brooke Shields went on to have the big career.

  • Tony spoke:
    28th/07/2013 to 6:26 pm

    On the DVD Director’s cut, Alfred Sole said that Linda Miller ( Jackie Gleason’s daughter) was hurt during the hospital scenes and that they had to stop filming for about a month. He does not elaborate on how she was hurt. Does anyone know what happened?

  • Roderick spoke:
    29th/07/2013 to 12:31 am

    Can’t help Tony, sorry, I can’t find out anything beyond those basic facts. Perhaps other readers…?

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