The Great Unwatched #2: The Terror

Another week, another Boris Karloff movie! Until now, The Terror has been one of those films I have seen bits of, an opening here, an action sequence there, a trailer over in the corner. Perhaps not the best way to see a movie, but this scattered viewing approach somehow seems appropriate in this one case; in more ways than one, Roger Corman’s 1963 film, is a patchwork film. Famously produced in order to make use of a number of standing sets from Corman’s last production The Raven and to captilalise of a deal that allowed him to use veteran horror icon Boris Karloff for another day, the resulting film makes little sense, betrays its hastily assembled roots but in the end still ends up providing a fun viewing experience.

The story of The Terror‘s construction has been told before but it is probably worth telling again as it must be unique in the history of film production. Always eager to save a buck in making his films, Roger Corman was keen to take advantage of the fact that actor Boris Karloff still owed him a number of shooting days as a result of the filming of a previously contracted film coming in early. To make his star, crew and some impressive standing sets the director had to act quickly and so had some hasty scenes drafted up and got to work for two days shooting sequences involving the veteran horror star without a clear idea of how the whole thing would fit together. A lot of coverage was shot with Karlof and his main co-stars, Dick Miller and Jack Nicholon. When time ran out, the rest of the script was pieced together and because Corman had other commitments, other directors including rookie Nicholson, veterans Monte Hellman and Jack Hill, as well as an aspiring young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola, were drafted in to complete the picture. Although Karloff’s scenes may have been completed in two days, the rest of the film was assembled over the course of nine months!

I’ll attempt what they eventually ended up with the best I can. The year is 1806, and on a secluded beach, Andre (Jack Nicholson), a lost and dehydrated French soldier, is rescued by a beautiful young mystery woman named Helene who may or may not be a ghost/falcon. Soon after meeting him, she walks into the sea and vanishes. After trying to rescue her, Andre himself is rescued by the powerful, raspy throated Gustaf and an old woman who appears to be his guardian/keeper and who may or may not be a witch. Both deny all knowledge of any girl, even when she continues to reappear to lure Andre into ever more certain danger. Gustaf tells the soldier that the answers he seeks may be found at the castle of a man who may or may not be the Baron Von Leppe (Karloff). Making his way to the castle, Andre discovers that Helene happens to be the spitting double for the Baron’s dead wife, who was murdered at the hands of her husband some twenty years ago when she was discovered to be having an affair. Despite the protestations of the Baron and his faithful servant Stefan (Dick Miller!), Andre intends to get to the bottom of the matter and win the heart of the beautiful Helene. Phew, and that isn’t even half way!

At one point near the end of the film, Jack Nicholson grabs Dick Miller by the collar, pins him against the wall and demands, “Where’s the Baron!?” On cue, Miller spills his guts and explains the whole plot to the protagonist which is incredibly cathartic to any audience who has been sitting open mouthed throughout this tangled mess of a storyline!

Somehow, though, The Terror still manages to entertain. For starters it retains the general mise en scene of Corman’s recognised classic Poe adaptations, taking advantage of stock effects shots, sets and an imaginative behind the scenes team. In fact the script reads like the writers, asked for something similar in a hurry, randomly tore pages from the author’s complete works, threw them in the air, and kept what landed on the table. We have, haunted women, lovers driven mad with guilt and remorse, villainous birds and decaying corpses. This all combines for a rather hokey effect, in no way truly comparable to great works like Richard Matherson’s adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher or Charles Beaumont‘s version of  The Masque of Red Death. Still, despite it’s ad-hoc production, the film is watch-able and even includes some genuinely eerie moments and an ending that I certainly didn’t see coming.

I have a huge amount of respect for what Roger Corman was able to achieve with the frequently limited recourses available to him and one truely great thing to come out of The Terror was the director/producer’s ability to get even more work out of his star. Seeing that Karloff still owed him a couple more days shooting, Corman charged a young Peter Bogdanovich with the task of assembling a film out of:

a) Twenty minutes of Karloff outtakes from The Terror.

b) Twenty minutes of new footage shot on the days Karloff owed Corman.

c) Thirty minutes of footage shot over three days without Karloff.

Bogdanovich didn’t quite stick to these rules, he retained hardly any footage from The Terror, but the film he made, Targets, remains one of my all time favourites. It features an elderly horror actor, played by Karloff, who tires of making pap for low budget producers (represented by clips from The Terror!) as he comes to realise that his brand of gothic horror can’t hope to compete with the truly horrific events unfolding on the streets of modern America. A parallel story stand features a series of seemingly unmotivated killings perpetrated by the very picture of wholesome America and by the end of the picture the two worlds violently collide.

Targets is one I’m sure I will get around to writing about some day. To tide you eager beavers over until then, here is one of my favourite sequences.


6 Responses to “The Great Unwatched #2: The Terror”

  1. Well-written piece, and I look forward to reading more of this series. “The Terror” sounds rather more like “The Raven” (has its attractions but a bit limited) than “The Masque of the Red Death”, which is a really gripping fusion of “The Twilight Zone”, “The Seventh Seal” and multiple Poe stories. (one of which I write about here:

    I definitely need to see “Targets”… You do occasionally get these oddities of cinema history where a seemingly minor film begets a greater one; of course, Orson Welles’s later directorial career was financed by many workaday acting jobs.

    Speaking of late period Karloff, have you seen “The Sorcerers”? Extraordinary film…

    • illegibleme Says:

      Your first sentence begets the fact that you are a teacher, Tom!

      The Terror actually made use of the sets left over for The Raven, in fact that was possibly the main reason it was made. I do love the Corman/Poe cycle.

      I have seen The Sorcerers, and agree that it’s a very good film, but personally I don’t think it’s a patch on Targets. I implore you to seek it out.

      Thanks for visiting!

  2. 😉

    “Targets” must be good then. I might have a bit of a Bogdanovich season; never seen any of his and there are one or two among my unwatched.

    David Thomson on it: ‘Karloff is barely disguised as Byron Orlok, the mandarin of horror, eighty years old, leaning on a stick and a lovely Asiatic secretary, his skin a blend of Califorinian tan, jaundice, and the old parchments of Gothic castles.’

  3. It’s intriguing to see how the names come together. Karloff, Hill, Nicholson, Bogdanivich and Coppola all involved in the same project? (OK, two films, but essentially all the material is intertwined.) For the young Nicholson, Coppola and Bogdanovich it must have been a seminal experience. The story of the films being made is almost worthy of a screenplay in its own right.

    • illegibleme Says:

      Thanks for reading. Just as a side not, I know that there has been a script about the making of Corman’s The Trip circulating for a few years. The last time I read about it, Joe Dante was trying to get it financed as a feature.

      • Sounds interesting. As a fictionalised piece, though, it would strike a certain postmodern note: a film about the making of two films that arose out of a contractual hangover, with pieces of one of the films being recycled into the second. Add in some more cynical business dealing and knowing references to some other gothic horror/art house films, some sequences where a shot is re-edited in different ways to very very different effects, etc., and it could work out well! It could even be marketed as ‘a cynical piece of postmodern exploitation’ for added impact (brushes off an old guide to writing film treatments…)

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