Catherine Spages is preparing for the first communion of her young, popular daughter, Karen, while simultaneously trying to fend off the jealousy the event is causing in her older daughter, Alice. Alice, it turns out, is anything but sweet. She’s an outcast, sullen, has problems at school and is prone to tantrums. So when Karen starts getting heaps of attention loaded on her, Alice starts feeling neglected and does what other children in her situation tend to do: she starts acting out, tormenting her sister, stealing her things and scaring her with masks.
But when the day of the communion ceremony finally arrives all hell breaks loose when Karen is strangled, placed in a bench and set on fire in the church transept. With Karen’s veil in Alice’s possession, suspicion quickly falls on the troubled older sister. But did Alice really kill her little sister, or is Alice just an easy target to place the blame?
Don’t look at me. I’m just a cop in a horror movie, I don’t know shit.
Believe it or not, despite its good reputation among horror fans, this is the first time I’ve seen Alice, Sweet Alice. It’s a child-themed murder mystery/slasher that feels like an American version of a giallo film. It also feels distinctly 70s. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that in a bad way. It just has a certain dark tone and ambiance that seems prevalent in similar horror films from the era, like The Omen and The Exorcist. That’s a good thing. Although, these day it’s probably more well known for being ‘that horror movie with a really young Brooke Shields in it.’
Seen here in her last known photo.
There is a certain line, even today, that horror films tend to shy away from, and that is child murder. Alice, Sweet Alice jumps over that line with abandon and even goes a bit further by making you suspect another child of the murder. But even to the casual observer, suspicion falling on 12-year-old Alice feels far too easy an outcome. That’s not to say that said suspicion isn’t without some merit, however. Alice is more than just an obnoxious child. She’s cruel, she angers easily, she steals, she torments people, she’s got a mouth, she seems to lack empathy and she’s got a macabre fascination with masks and death. Honestly, she’s one suspiciously tortured animal away from filling in her pre-serial killer bingo card.
But if it isn’t Alice, than who is it? That, I think, is part of the beauty of Alice, Sweet Alice. It’s one of those movie’s where you’re meant to really pay attention to everything that’s going on. We’re meant to think it’s Alice. We’re meant to think that the reason for Karen’s murder is related to the jealousy between the perfect child and the one that feels left out. But the real reason for her death is subilty played out in the background throughout the film before the killer is finally revealed in the third act. It’s that sort of subilty that set’s Alice, Sweet Alice apart from the more ‘in your face’ films of today.
Thought the film doesn’t shy away from the blatant either. The deaths in this movie are pretty damn brutal. It’s not just suggested that innocent Karen is strangled, you get a front row seat to her slowly getting throttled to death. Others are unceremoniously beaten and stabbed and thrown out windows. I wouldn’t call the deaths inventive, and they’d be considered pretty tame by today’s standards, but they’re all pretty horrific to witness, since, unlike other movies, the camera doesn’t shy away from the attacks and the viewer is granted a front row seat to the bloodshed.
The film is filled with some pretty strong performances, chief among them being Paula Sheppard and Linda Miller. Miller plays a convincingly distraught mother, one who’s struggling with trying to grieve the death of one child while desperately trying to protect and reconnect with the one disturbed child she has left. Although the real stand out here is probably Sheppard. By the end of the film she really makes you feel for Alice. She initially comes off as being really bratty, but as the film plays out there’s less menace and more vulnerability as you realize that she’s really just as much a victim as everyone else. She’s having some serious mental issues that the school knew about, but failed to relay to her mother. Her aunt treats her terribly. The landlord’s got his pedophilic eye on her. She’s been thrown in a nuthouse. And to top it all off, her father comes back and reignites all the abandonment issues she got when he divorced her mother and left to start a new family. That’s a hell of a lot to get across and Sheppard does an excellent job at all of it.
Also, did you know she was 19 when she filmed this movie? I sure as hell didn’t.
But none of that means that Alice, Sweet Alice isn’t without it faults. Some of the characters expressions are a bit over exaggerated, the Aunt here being the main culprit. There are two scenes where she’s literally shrieking in absolute terror and…I’m sorry, but she just has the most ridiculously entertaining screaming face. I ended up laughing at her when I was watching it and then laughing again as I was taking the screenshots. It sort of takes you out of the moment, because these are scenes where you’re supposed to be horrified and…I wasn’t. Sorry, movie.
Also, I’m a big fan of the use of subtlety in this movie, but sometimes the film goes through things a little too quickly. For instance, the part where the killer is revealed is a bit of a mess. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good reveal, but the after scene feels a little too quick and the resulting mumbly, rushed interaction almost guarantees you’re going to miss the all important revealed motive during the pivotal moment. I know I did. I had to rewind it a couple of times to make sure I caught everything, and even then I still went off to the internets the next day to make sure I’d heard right. It’s little things like that that can really interfere with one’s enjoyment of a film.
Damn it, camera guy, if you’d tilted the camera down a couple inches this shot would have been perfect.
All that said, Alice, Sweet Alice is still a great little slasher/thriller. The film does feel a little long and I think the story would have benefited if it had cut out a couple smaller sub-plots involving Alice’s parents and the creepy landlord. But it looks and sounds great and, with the exception of a couple instances, the acting is pretty stellar, too. It fits in perfectly with the other religious based horror films of the 70s. If you’re a fan of early slashers, than feel free to give Alice, Sweet Alice a go.
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