One random sunny day along the coast of ….. France, Lieutenant Andre Duvalier (Jack Nicholson), separated from his regiment in Napoleon’s army, encounters a beautiful woman, who leads him on a mysterious chase through a forest, across a field, up some stairs, among the surf. It is quite a diverse landscape. As is the coast of California. I mean France. She does not speak. Her lipstick is perfect. Her eyeliner even more so. Her bosom heaves. Who is she?? Is he in love with her? What the hell is going on? I was too distracted by the sight of Jack Nicholson wearing a flowing black cloak like the Headless Horseman, a blue military uniform with gold epaulettes, and a bicorne hat, for God’s sake, to really focus on the emotional impact of the encounter.
He becomes obsessed with this woman (I mean, who wouldn’t with that eyeliner and that feathered hair), especially after she disappears into the roiling surf, and then, out of nowhere, he is attacked by a giant furious hooked-beaked bird. The attack is so vicious that he passes out on the beach, and the surf rolls in around him. He wakes up in a cottage out of a fairy tale, being taken care of by an old crone with a head scarf (Dorothy Neumann), and the scary bird is in the room. Our handsome Lieutenant with the hipster haircut of the early 60s, and the shimmering gold epaulettes, is confused, and wants to know “who that woman was”. The crone is baffled. There is no woman. There is a mysterious mention of a castle down the coast, and a man who lives there, the Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe. But, the crone warns, “I can say no more. There is great danger.” She hisses at Lieutenant Andre, “You are getting now into things beyond your understanding. Leave now while you still can.”
Does he take the crone’s advice? Naturally he does not.
Directed and produced by Roger Corman (with a young Francis Coppola listed as Associate Producer), The Terror is so overwrought that I feared I would have a heart attack merely from listening to Ronald Stein’s score, which is omnipresent, underneath every moment. There’s a campy aesthetic here, something I very much appreciate, because it is sincere. Sincere and ridiculous, everyone committed to the same absurd thing. You can feel the dedication in The Terror. You can feel how quickly they shot it, how little money they had, and yet the movie’s got heart. A ridiculous heart, yes, but sometimes that’s the best kind.
Lt. Devalier goes straight to the castle, an imposing San Simeon structure huddled on a giant cliff, and bangs on the door, shouting, “I am a representative of the government of France!”
Of course you are, Jack.
The castle door finally opens, and there, in a shiny blue smoking jacket, is Boris Karloff. A dignified elderly man, with haunted eyes, and an unfriendly aspect, he denies that there is a “young woman” living here at the castle, “you must be mistaken, young man”, and although he tries to close the door in the Lieutenant’s face, Andre manages to talk his way inside. “Surely you will not turn away a soldier in France’s army.”
I was just so in love with the image of Jack Nicholson, gorgeous and intense, early 60s hipster hair, slicked down, with the already-familiar wrinkled lines of cynicism and humor in his forehead, but dressed like this.
… and saying words like “surely”.
He has the following monologue:
“My father was the Comte Duvalier. Was, until they spilled his head into a basket one morning in the Place de la Concorde.”
Hearing Nicholson say the words “Place de la Concorde” helps me to rest easy at night, certain that the world makes some sense.
Recognizable Jack already, (especially with the second emphasis on was, you can hear his “persona” there, or at least an echo of it), but strange in this situation. Nicholson, to me, seems 100% 20th century. His sensibility, his face, his attitude. Your father was the “Comte Duvalier”? Really? Because you look like a Beat poet gone to seed to me, strictly American, strictly mid-century, coming down off a hangover, emanating pot smoke, and hoping to hit the surf later that afternoon to catch some waves and bag some babes. “My father was the Comte Duvalier.” But that’s the awesome fun of these Roger Corman movies. The concerns are story, mood, and also, frankly, just getting the damn thing done. Print, wrap, let’s party, and move on to the next one.
It’s fun to see Nicholson here, pre-fame. He’s been famous longer than I have been alive. There are so many important films, and groundbreaking moments, and funny/specific/angry performances that it seems as though he must always have been so in charge of himself, so confident, so cocky. In The Terror, Nicholson does not really inhabit himself yet as an actor (although there are glimpses, as in the “was” inflection I already mentioned). He’s certainly not “in” his voice, meaning: there is a flat recitation feel to his lines, which perhaps could be due to the ridiculous dialogue, but also shows that Nicholson was still working it out, still figuring it out. He sounds like an actor. Every film presents a problem to be solved. And here, he has to gallop along on a horse, checking his compass (why?), black cloak billowing behind him, squinting up at the ominous castle, and then, randomly, for no immediately apparent reason, get all righteously angry at the aged Baron when the Baron won’t show him the Von Leppe crypt. I wanted to say to Lieutenant Duvalier, “What business is it of yours? This is my house, you barge in here in your absurd bicorne hat and your shiny boots. My crypt is my business. Get the hell off my property!”
But Lieutenant Duvalier will not be dissuaded! That woman he saw in the woods … in the surf … in the fields … up the down staircase …. it’s not every day you meet a country-wench with perfectly applied lipgloss and shiny black eyeliner. Who doesn’t speak. She’s perfect, and she is in this castle, he is SURE of it. There are secrets behind every corner, and he will get to the bottom of it!
Karloff is a touching figure here. He is secretive and mysterious, as the character warrants, and touchy about his past, but there’s something about his walk, and how he favors one leg over the over, an old man’s walk, that tore at my heart. Not for the character, but for the actor: an old man, who had been in show business since the silents and before. Karloff had a bad back his whole life, and struggled with pain management. Yet the dignity, the inherent honor, in an old actor such as himself, who has seen so much, been through so much, and can automatically transfer that life experience into his performance, elevates the Baron into something almost mythic. It’s all balderdash, honestly, but so much of theatre is made up OF balderdash, and there is no shame in that. Karloff could commit to anything, and would. To see him here, acting the shit out of the Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe, having sinister asides with his French butler (who has a Bronx accent), and reprimanding Lt. Duvalier repeatedly for overstepping his bounds, is to see what it means to be a pro. Karloff, at the end of The Terror, is in the crypt, begging and pleading with his there-and-then-not-there dead wife, and he has a moment where he seems truly mad, hope and fear and denial struggling in his big wounded eyes.
The crypt is flooded at one point, and there is a struggle between three people in the onslaught of water, Karloff in the rushing water with the rest of the actors, and it made me think of … so many things: Nina in the last scene of The Seagull (“When I think of my vocation … I am not afraid of life”), “Bela Lugosi” wrestling with the giant octopus in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the two old theatre queens in Slings & Arrows who devoted their lives and careers to Shakespeare, but never would play the leads, all the old theatrical workhorses I have known, putting on their makeup, their wigs, their ruffs, their doublets, with their bad knees and their bad backs, and walking out into the hot lights of make-believe. Because that is the only life they could possibly lead. I worried for Karloff in that moment where he was up to his neck in what was probably freezing water. No money for stunt-doubles here.
But there is still … a dignity … in the decidedly undignified pursuit of acting. Karloff has always embodied that for me.
The Terror is so loaded with atmosphere that you are threatened, at all times, to drown in it. A cemetery is not a cemetery if it is not wreathed in fog and long blue shadows. A house is not a home without a Persian rug the size of a city block and a fireplace you can stand in. A cliff is not a cliff without a rocky avalanche. Surf boils and rages and crashes. Nicholson skulks through the castle in his knee-high shiny boots, and the butler stares at him with hostile eyes, as only a tough guy from the Bronx can stare. The score seems to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Also OCD. The crone from the fairy-tale cottage hovers over bubbling blue and orange concoctions in the middle of the night (to what purpose, I ask you??), and Boris Karloff, in his shiny blue jacket, lopes awkwardly through the empty house, eyes mad with grief and guilt.
Put it all together into 80 minutes and you get …. a campy nervous breakdown, with Karloff being Karloff, because that is what is required, and Jack not really being Jack yet. An interesting glimpse for those of us who have always known Nicholson as famous, as confident, as “Jack”.
George Cukor said, in regards to Cary Grant as Jimmy Monkley in the weird little picture Sylvia Scarlett, considered Grant’s breakthrough (it made The Awful Truth possible):
Sylvia Scarlett was the first time Cary felt the ground under his feet as an actor. He suddenly seemed liberated.
In The Terror, Nicholson isn’t liberated yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch him stalk around in the blue shadows carrying a silver pistol and wearing a bicorne hat.