Tuesday, July 18, 2017
THE TERROR (1963)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
"That [development] came about... because I was thinking this picture is a really kind of dull. I was wondering what kind of twist we could put into it to make it more interesting"-- Roger Corman, quoted in ROGER CORMAN: INTERVIEWS (2011)
THE TERROR, credited to two screenwriters and (on IMDB) seven directors, is a great mood piece, but a mess in terms of a coherent narrative. According to Corman's reminiscences, Leo Gordon, with whom Corman had worked on THE WASP WOMAN and TOWER OF LONDON, was the initial source of the story. So it would seem that the "twist" Corman introduced is responsible for a lot of the narrative incoherence.
Many reviews have already covered the behind-the-scenes history of Corman's TERROR, but it would appear that the core of Gordon's original story goes like this. A young French officer, Duvalier (Jack Nicholson), becomes separated from his regiment in an unidentified European territory. He meets a beautiful young woman, Helene, who almost kills Duvalier by luring him into the ocean. He's rescued by an old woman, Katrina, and her male servant, Gustaf. Katrina denies that the woman exists-- in fact, she uses the name "Helene" for her pet falcon-- but Gustaf takes Duvalier aside and says that the soldier can find Helene at the castle of the local aristocrat, Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff). Duvalier shows up at the castle and more or less imposes himself on the Baron's hospitality. He spies Helene again, and is given the impression by Gustaf that she is "possessed" by an evil spirit, which may be the ghost of the murdered Baroness Von Leppe, killed twenty years previous by the Baron for an act of infidelity. Duvalier is too rational to believe this, but the truth proves even more extraordinary. Katrina is proven to be a witch who has conjured up the spirit of Ilsa Von Leppe, because she Katrina is the mother of Ilsa's lover, whom the Baron also slew. For two years previous to Duvalier's arrival, the ghost has tried to convince Von Leppe to commit suicide, which Katrina believes will automatically condemn the Baron's soul to hell. Duvalier, far from preventing any of this, possibly aggravates Von Leppe's murder-guilt and helps the ghost seduce the old man to commit suicide by drowning (a mirror image of the death Helene almost brings upon Duvalier at the beginning). After pretty much everyone is dead, Duvalier rescues Helene, but she deteriorates into a rotted corpse, apparently having been not a possessed woman, but a reanimated corpse.
TERROR's pre-twist plot might be considered a standard Gothic scenario, fraught with an Oedipal theme. Usually, when a young man penetrates the lair of an older one and steals away a beautiful woman, the woman is the older man's daughter. Here, the woman's youth is an illusion brought about by a old witch, and in terms of the generation into which the fictional Ilsa is born, she's closer to being a "mother-figure" to Duvalier than being a "daughter-figure" to Von Leppe. Technically, though Ilsa is sort of both, since in life she's explicitly said to be the Baron's second wife. (I would guess that this detail came about because the actor playing Von Leppe was over seventy years old.) The original script is built upon the notion that Von Leppe was responsible for the deaths of his wife and her lover, though it's still rather confusing as to why Katrina, who appears to be a quite powerful witch, would wait eighteen years after her son's death and THEN finally conjure up the ghost of Ilsa to take vengeance upon the Baron. It's also pretty fuzzy logic as to why it takes Ilsa a full two years to break down the Baron, who isn't exactly having a lot of laughs during his golden years.
Corman's last-minute twist is that Eric, the former lover of Ilsa, was not killed in the struggle that took Ilsa's life. Instead Eric took Von Leppe's life and was so traumatized by the deed that he convinced himself that he was Von Leppe. Symbolically, the twist does have the effect of making Eric and Duvalier virtual doubles, since both are young men trying to steal an older man's wife. But in terms of narrative, Corman's addition makes the script insanely over-complicated. If the original Von Leppe was killed twenty years ago, and Eric has assumed his role with the unexplained compliance of Von Leppe's only servant (Jonathan Haze), what sequence of events led Katrina to believe that her son Eric was dead in the first place? And how does Eric pull off his imposture for twenty years, even with just one servant in his castle? AND if Von Leppe is really Eric, why doesn't Ilsa recognize him as Eric in the final confrontation scene between the two?
Corman clearly didn't care about plot coherence; he just wanted a gimmick that would theoretically pull audiences into the movie-houses. I tend to doubt that anyone who liked THE TERROR back during its original release was blown away by the "Big Reveal," though. The movie is at its best when it simply focuses on nearly surrealistic scenes of supernatural violence. I've mentioned the film's best scene, in which Helene walks into the ocean and thus obliges Duvalier to try rescuing her. Not only does she disappear while he's being battered by the surf, the falcon Helene shows up and tries to claw the officer's eyes out. The female Helene is sometimes, but not always, identified with the falcon, but they are once seen to be separate beings, which may just mean that they're both the occult pawns of Katrina. The other major scene, in which the falcon does manage to rip out Gustaf's eyes, is still compelling, even though it's never clear as to what motivates Gustaf to give aid to either Duvalier or to Helene, whom he must know is not really a living woman, despite his "possession" claim.
Still, THE TERROR may not make much narrative sense, it boasts some stunning scenes, and stands as one of Boris Karloff's more substantial parts in his last decade, with the exception of his voice-work for animation projects like MAD MONSTER PARTY and HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS.