Second Sight - Arrow Video: Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) - Reviewed

Former architect turned still-active production designer Alfred Sole worked for numerous television programs and briefly directed a few feature films between the 1970s and 1980s before hanging his hat on making his own films completely.  Starting out with a short porno film Deep Sleep which resulted in obscenity charges being waged against the director, the remainder of Sole’s career proved to be largely forgettable…except for one film that proved to be an inspired fluke which seemed to strike the right notes beat after beat.  

That film, cited as the most giallo-esque American film ever made, was a horror picture originally titled Communion (not to be confused with the Christopher Walken film) before Sole changed his mind and renamed it what we know it to be today: Alice, Sweet Alice.  Known for being the big screen debut of Brooke Shields and among the more overtly anti-religious thrillers of the 1970s, Alice, Sweet Alice springboards from Nicolas Roeg’s timeless horror classic Don’t Look Now with the killer sporting a yellow coat and mask while finding its own footing grounded in brutal shocks and many, many unexpected surprises along the way. 

Simply put, it’s a story set in New Jersey, 1961 about a twelve year old girl named Alice Spages (Paula Sheppard from Liquid Sky) whose track record as a troublemaking bully to her younger sister Karen (Brooke Shields) singles her out in the eyes of many as the prime suspect behind Karen’s brutal murder during her first communion.  Is the mischievous and bratty little sociopath in the making really a killer or is there something more sinister and bizarre going on as more and more attacks on the family and neighbors start happening at an alarming rate? 

Shot in 16mm, made on a tight budget and proving to be a labor of love for the cast and crew comprised mostly of friends and family, Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice is that rare instance of an inexperienced do-it-yourself independent filmmaker hitting a home run!  Though the picture experienced many hurdles including but not limited to financing falling through, production halting and several cinematographers being swapped out as the shoot went on and off again, outside of the difficult microbudget production the finished film never makes a misstep and constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Performances from all involved are excellent from both the professional and non-professional cast members.  Linda Miller, who might have been a holy terror on the set including a suicide attempt, is excellent as Alice’s mother in over her head unable to reel in her out of control daughter while wrestling with the notion her daughter might also be a murderer.  Paula Sheppard, who was nineteen at the time of the shoot, manages to convey a vague sense of evil and nastiness while still casting considerable doubt about her own culpability in her sister’s death.  Last but not least is Jane Lowry as Aunt Annie who suspects Alice might be the killer but mostly turns over one of the most hysterical and histrionic over-the-top performances in cinema history.

One particular character, the morbidly obese child molesting neighbor Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble), wasn’t played an actor but a bouncer the director spotted in a gay bar.  In one of the most memorable examples of street casting, the character of Alphonso as written couldn’t have been played believably by a professional actor from his physique to his bizarre and creepy personality.  Proof positive that sometimes pitch perfect casting doesn’t always come from experienced actors.

Opening to rave reviews as well as controversy with the film briefly being branded as a Video Nasty in the UK, Alice, Sweet Alice ran into legal trouble as the film changed distributors coupled with Sole’s own failure to properly secure the film with the United States Copyright Office.  As a result, the film was in the public domain for years with bootlegging being the only viable option to watch the picture. 

There were also numerous alternate versions with different titles not involving the film’s director which came about in the wake of the film’s absence of copyright.  It wasn’t until a 1997 laserdisc edition from The Roan Group that the film’s distribution problems were finally resolved before other companies all involving the total supervision of the director would improve upon that laserdisc release.

For the uninitiated like myself seeing Alice, Sweet Alice for the first time, the film while deriving heavily from Don’t Look Now was a splendid little chiller with some really great sequences of choking suspense and fleeting moments of terror peppered throughout.  In addition to being an effective shocker, the film is also oddly very funny with the overweight creepy Alphonso eliciting a curious mixture of uncomfortable laughter from the viewer and Aunt Annie’s frequent bug-eyed meltdowns must be seen to be believed.  All in all, Alice, Sweet Alice is that rare instance of a homegrown film production by a newcomer which manages to be one of the more iconic and unforgettable horror films of the mid-1970s!

- Andrew Kotwicki