Directed by Roger Corman with Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Jakob, Jack Hill, and Jack Nicholson
Written by nobody till after it was over, and credited to Leo Gordon and Jack Hill
In the midst of the most impressive run of his career, where he was churning out good and great movies one after the other—like, actual classics—one can forget that Roger Corman was happy to put his name on the junkiest crap imaginable. Obviously, this could only be forgotten in the context of the early 1960s; frankly, it's his brand. But even by Corman's standards—and feel free to read that with italics, even by Corman's standards—his 1963 effort The Terror is avowed crap. That direly unimaginative title is a confession of sorts; it doesn't sound like a real movie, and it isn't, because it never was. It is perhaps best to conceive of it as a challenge Corman laid out for himself to test his skills as a fast, cheap, and dirty filmmaker, for that is indeed what it amounts to: when Corman wrapped early on The Raven and realized that horror icon Boris Karloff still had three days left on his contract, the director-producer got an idea. Corman, something of an artist now but at heart still just an opportunist, fell upon the old man with a way to satisfy his obligations, namely by making an entire second movie on the fly. Sweetening the arrangement with a back-end points deal (a deal that, needless to say, never materialized, though Corman eventually paid Karloff anyway, albeit only in exchange for appearing in yet another movie), Corman and screenwriter Leo Gordon cobbled together just enough of a plot to script three days' worth of lines for Karloff, and then Corman hurriedly shot the core sequences of the thing that would become The Terror, pitting Karloff against Jack Nicholson and Sandra Knight, whom Nicholson promptly impregnated. It's nice to know that somebody had fun with this.
Corman, however, came to regret his zany scheme, as filling out the rest of the film (which only deep into its production ever acquired an actual script, courtesy Jack Hill) wound up being a minor debacle, involving Corman and the assistance of a small army of co-directors, including Francis Ford Coppola and Dennis Jakob, as well as both Jacks, Hill and Nicholson alike, and it stretched out over nine months, so that for example the other major actor in the film, Dick Miller, keeps growing and losing hair, and by the last-shot sequences the expectant Knight has become a Hammer film girl. These trivialities are not the actual problems with The Terror, of course, though they're part-and-parcel with the issues that are, all of which stem from a movie made essentially on a whim with none of Corman's typical planning or preparation—as noted, even a story—and while there'd have been something heroic here if he'd even made a coherent movie, I'm afraid this was one challenge Corman failed.
The Terror is sometimes counted as an honorary member of Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, and though it is based on none of Poe's works, it's easy to see why—too easy, really, as Corman shot it on The Raven's sets and took eager recourse to his stock footage library, mostly the exterior matte paintings from Pit and the Pendulum, though House of Usher's House of Usher shows up almost as frequently—but the main thing is that it too is a little Gothic shocker, if now at the lowest level of implementation possible for a film that bears the American International Pictures logo. (But not its copyright, and while Corman wound up years later with a foreign version that he copyrighted, I don't suppose James Nicholson or Samuel Zarkoff lost much sleep over losing this one to the public domain.)
Things don't start off all that badly, narratively-speaking, and our tale, developed and elaborated upon over most of a year till it eventually collapsed under its own contradictions, starts off simply, with Lt. Andre Duvalier (Nicholson) of the French First Empire separated from his unit and lost in what the Wikipedia plot summary describes as the Confederation of the Rhine, and perhaps this is confirmed by some line in the film that I missed, though given the Pit stock footage and other Monterrey location shooting, I prefer to think of it as the French Illyrian coast in order to keep at least a tenuous hold on my sanity. On the shore, Duvalier meets a woman, Helene (Knight), beautiful but enigmatic. She tempts him into the surf, only to vanish, whereupon a falcon attacks him. Other mishaps befall him, but he is rescued, waking to find himself in the care of an old woman, Katarina (Dorothy Neumann), who keeps the kind of beakers and piping lying around that say "mad scientist" though Corman meant "witch." The falcon's there too; she also bears the name "Helene."
This is not going where you expect it to, more's the pity, and Duvalier insists he saw a woman, and his rescuer insists he probably didn't, though he encounters her again in the night woods, where she again almost leads him to his doom. Katarina's servant Gustaf (Jonathan Haze) saves him, and, despite Karatina's assertion that he's mute, he's not so mute that he can't tell Duvalier to go to the castle of Baron Victor Von Lemme (Karloff), and that if he finds out what happened to a certain "Eric," he'll find the answer to what Helene really is. Duvalier does so, much to the chagrin of the Baron and his servant Stefan (Miller), but Duvalier leverages his status as a French officer to barge his way in, though not before he spies "Helene" standing in a window. Second verse same as the first, the Baron insists he could not have seen any woman, and when Duvalier describes her, he turns Duvalier's attention to the painting that dominates the room. This is an expressionist vision of his wife, Ilsa, the spitting image of "Helene," or so they say, though neither the painting nor the sketch Duvalier did of Helene resemble Knight more than vaguely. He directs him to look at the date: this was Ilsa twenty years ago, the year she also died.
There is a halfway-appealing old-fashioned ghost story vibe to The Terror while it's clumsily setting up the pieces of its plot, the kind of thing, say, Algernon Blackwood might have written, and it's almost-not-bad. It's remarkable, anyway, that this was made at least partly in tandem with The Raven, because Nicholson actually reads as an actor in this one—a stilted one, but an actor, though in some scenes, he can even register faintly as doing a real proto-Jack, growl-drawling his lines in his inimitable (that is, extremely-imitable) way, and giving a weird but not entirely unwelcome anachronistic spin to the stately proceedings of a 19th century spooky tale. And that spectral lover, those old folks with their secrets, all that—well, it kind of works, at least for a little while. It is not the longest while, but long enough that I found myself giving this infamous movie a chance, even wondering if the twist was that Duvalier was the ghost. Well, whatever you think of that idea, I assure you it's much more reasonable and much less obnoxiously unnecessary than the actual twists that Corman and his writers at length inflicted upon their movie. It turns out that a lot of this does not make much sense, and certainly isn't well-communicated; Corman observed that the co-directors he'd assigned to help patch The Terror into a feature film seemed to have different ideas about what the story even was, and I certainly believe him. But even the Karloff scenes feel like they're being spitballed.
A nonsense narrative isn't the death-knell for a Corman Gothic—besides Usher, I think all of the Corman Poes to date bear lesser or greater indications of illogic—and Corman's Gothic horrors are at least as much about musty, cobwebby mood. Karloff and Miller and Knight get that, and Nicholson's attempt (probably not a conscious attempt) to give the film a countervailing personality even helps to throw that into relief. I think everyone tried, most of all Corman's composers Ron Stein and Les Baxter (there's no telling who did exactly what), who try very hard indeed with an insistent and almost-constant score thrown annoyingly high up in the sound mix. It's almost successful at bullying an atmosphere into the film.
But these efforts are ultimately quixotic. Here's the real scoop: The Terror looks like lukewarm shit. Some of that is the negligence it's received over the last fifty years, but by no means all, and the three cinematographers that we even know of who worked on the film (including Floyd Crosby and, fuck, Conrad Hall, though only John Mathew Nickolaus Jr. is credited, and, no, somehow none of that name is a typo) were reduced to the level of cameramen. The whole film is badly-lit and often overlit (and when it's not overlit it's just a bunch of gunky shadows), and even the filmstock doesn't look quite right, almost every single frame of the film feeling like an enlargement, hazy and smudgy. The actual camerawork is barely better, with not-infrequent recourse to handheld operation, which gives the decaying castle of a decaying baron the complexion of a TV news broadcast. There is maybe literally only one good shot in the whole film, that uses shadows to obscure the date on Ilsa's grave until it can land with a dun-dun! kind of reveal. Of course, this was information related to us already in a previous scene.
Oh my, yes: The Terror was by necessity a Frankensteined beast (hey, that's meta), sewn together in an endless succession of editing rooms, and it's in this aggregation of footage that it becomes a full monstrosity. It's riddled with continuity errors big and small. Small: reusing the mesmerist's lantern prop from Tales of Terror, itself a bit of a jarring imposition, The Terror cuts to a reaction shot of its light reflecting on Miller's face after the last shot's already shown it being extinguished. Big: the Baron tells Stefan to get rid of this importune Frenchman at breakfast, and in the very next scene it's already nightfall, whereupon Stefan and Duvalier have a discussion, tense, but about other subjects entirely. Then again, "day" and "night" are concepts meaningless to The Terror. But that painful editing process creates structural problems so huge they're almost invisible, where scenes feel in retrospect like they've been literally put in the wrong place, like when the Baron pukes out his secret sins almost immediately; you get the sense they had to append another scene afterward to recontextualize the lines Karloff dutifully read, just so the movie can still maintain some threadbare sensation of forward momentum.
It is, nevertheless, recognizably "Corman Poe," and it's uncanny to see it done so clumsily. Certain imagery (not just the stock footage) as well as certain ideas, of flooding crypts and haunted paintings, troubled old men and doubled young women, makes you wonder if it could have been worthwhile. Given Corman's Freudian preoccupations, maybe the real purpose of The Terror was to see what stuff of the unconscious the director-producer could dredge up if he set himself to what you might as well describe as automatic filmmaking; considering the sheer weirdness that attends the final act, maybe he got it. But that doesn't make it remotely acceptable, and clearly nobody was ever under any illusion otherwise: besides nobody caring enough by the time it was released to call it anything other than "The Terror," it's so blatantly bad that that other movie Corman shoved Karloff into doing, Peter Bogdanovich's meta-thriller Targets, finds Karloff in the awkward position of watching himself in The Terror, and declaring it terrible.