For the most part, video stores are dead, save for a handful around the world (read Kate Hagen’s excellent and extensive piece for an idea). Luckily, I work at Best Video, one of the last remaining vestiges to the golden days of renting, where streaming meant perusing shelves in hope of finding the last copy of whatever your parents wouldn’t let you catch in theaters. Each and every day I stock the same old shelves so those out there looking to romanticize renting can do so, often finding myself absently surfing the horror section; a 1,000 film wall that hides some of the genres greatest (and worst) contributions.
So I decided to take on the task, a journey if you will, of combing through every single title within the horror genre at work, A to Z. This is that journey, and as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand films begins with a single scream…
Oh, and follow #AtoZhorror on Instagram and Twitter @reelbrew for every terrifying pit-stop! Enjoy!
Alice Sweet Alice (1976)
Alice is a sweet girl – as the title intriguingly indicates – but she’s also incredibly troubled. Or so this seductively sleazy little slice of horror wants you to think. It’s a film that arrives on the blade of 1974’s Black Christmas, a seminal slasher that, along with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, helped carve out the sub-genre that would eventually be known for killing in the name of promiscuity.
Here, the camp grounds filled with co-ed counselors is replaced with the Catholicism of Paterson, New Jersey, where everything consecrated is upended when a nine-year-old is murdered between the church pews. It’s a setting that couldn’t be more different than the wreath adorned sorority house or Texas butchery of its predecessors. Yet its unending grime and accompanying horror can be felt for miles, miring the senses like a line of cattle to the slaughter, or church goers to mass.
When Karen (Brooke Shields) is murdered, minutes before her own communion, all signs point to her sister, Alice (Paula Sheppard), a young girl with a propensity for Halloween masks. Her mother Catherine (Linda Miller) and estranged father Dominick (Niles McMaster) believe that Alice is innocent, but Catherine’s sister, Annie (Jane Lowry) and the police think otherwise. As a seemingly little girl adorned in a yellow raincoat wearing a mask is seen attacking those close to Karen, it becomes apparent that Alice may be telling the truth, or even more troubled than they thought.
Few films carry with them the feeling of religious smut the way Alice Sweet Alice does. Director Alfred Sole, excommunicated from the Roman church for his 1972 adult film Deep Sleep, peppers the film with enough iconography to make the Virgin Mary weep. For film scholars, it’s what connects it to Italian giallos, though for the church, its what makes the film anti-Catholic. And in contrast to the killers raincoat, the film remains open and exposed, relishing the depravity of its religious skewering, which remain as offending as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist; two films that depict a bloodied cross in the throws of sin.
Yet Alice Sweet Alice isn’t smut, despite being collectively banned during the video nasty craze of the 1980’s, which saw 72 films stripped and censored by the Video Recordings Act of 1984. Far from it. Soles, along with editor Edward Sailier and composer Stephen Lawrence, create consciousness out of depravity, ushering in a genre that would too often be dragged for its immoral leanings. The film asks not what this little girl did, but in fact, what she didn’t do. Smut never asks questions, just as pornography never asks one to feel anything other than pleasure. With Alice Sweet Alice, we are given themes and motives, characters and history, all strung together by questions that form a piece of art, one that happens to carry with it a large knife.
That isn’t to say Alice Sweet Alice isn’t an at times disgusting and shocking film, because it most definitely is. A little girl is choked to death before her body is burned within the church, a woman is brutally stabbed in a startling moment that evokes Psycho‘s infamous shower scene, a man is beaten with a brick before being pushed to his death, and a landlord is attacked right outside his apartment. All acts that are shown as bluntly as the films religious symbols, drawing shocking comparisons between the presumed innocence of the church, and the known sins of a killer.
Except its surprises come wrapped around a who-done-it mystery, evoking the police procedural’s at the heart of giallos, which were making waves across the Mediterranean with the likes of Dario Argento and Sergio Martino. The films numerous questions, both moral and religious, pose a dilemma to those who would label it as obscene, as they look to reveal not what the film believes but what the viewer thinks. It’s what makes the slasher genre so provocative; its ability to blur the lines between reality and imaginary. We believe what we see, while contemplating what we understand within a genre that looks to reveal the truth behind its violence. In doing so, Alice Sweet Alice excommunicates from the objectivity of smut, unveiling itself as one of the most irreproachable slashers in cinema history.