Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Alfred Sole

Linda Miller - Catherine Spages
Mildred Clinton - Mrs. Tredoni
Paula Sheppard - Alice Spages
Niles McMaster - Dominick ‘Dom’ Spages
Jane Lowry - Annie DeLorenze
Rudolph Willrich - Father Tom
Michael Hardstark - Detective Spina
Alphonso DeNoble - Alphonso
Brooke Shields - Karen Spages

Genre - Horror/Giallo/Slasher/Drama

Running Time - 108 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
Alice Spages (Paula Sheppard) is a withdrawn 12-year-old girl who lives with her young sister Karen (Brooke Shields) and their mother Catherine (Linda Miller). Karen gets most of her mother’s attention, and Alice is often left out of the spotlight. When Karen is found brutally murdered in a church before her First Holy Communion, Alice is in the spotlight of suspicion, but is a 12-year-old girl really capable of such savagery? As more people die at the hands of a merciless killer, Alice’s family and the police don’t know what to believe.

The last time I watched 1976’s ALICE, SWEET ALICE, I was a teenager who didn’t really get or appreciate the vibe the film was throwing at me.  Even though it had a creepy looking killer and some cool murder sequences near the end, the underlying themes of the film went right over my head and I just found the film boring due to its slow burn and lack of thrills. Even though friends mention this film and I’ve seen others present clips of ALICE, SWEET ALICE to show why it’s a horror cult classic, I never bothered to rewatch the movie until recently. And while I don’t think it’s as scary or as great as others make it out to be, there is a lot going on with ALICE, SWEET ALICE that makes its worthy of attention by more than just the horror community.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE is a different film in its first half than it is in its last. The first half of the film is focused on the murder of young Karen Spages and how her family and community react to it. Through Karen indirectly, we learn about the players in this story and how her death reveals harsh truths that were kept hidden due to the Catholic religious upbringing the community upholds as law at points. This is the portion where we really know Alice Spages, Karen’s older sister and main suspect of her murder. Whether or not she’s the killer, we don’t find that out until the middle of the second half. But it’s easy to see why she would be a lead suspect via her strange behavior towards people and situations. She lashes out when she feels her mother, Catherine, is taking Karen’s side over hers. Children in the neighborhood make fun of Alice, which makes her meaner and more anti-social because of it. Even people in her building, like her creepy landlord and even her own aunt, look down on Alice because she doesn’t behave like a “normal” child would. Alice’s pastime of going down to her building’s basement and pulling out a creepy three-headed doll, lighting candles, and putting on a scary mask to freak others out [especially Karen and the maid of the local Father] doesn’t win her any points either. Alice obviously has behavior issues due to neglect by a mother who favors Karen over her, dealing with the separation of her parents and not understanding why it happened, and having to deal with family who see her as a nuisance rather than part of their circle. Alice also displays some psychopathic tendencies and does mean things to other without feeling any sort of sense of guilt in the process. ALICE, SWEET ALICE never really says it, but I think the film is giving us a look of a child dealing with mental illness during a time where that was considered quite taboo. This is especially true in religious circles, as good and evil were determined by your actions, with some believing mental illness was the work of Satan’s influence. Since the film occurs in the early 1960s, I’m sure many of the characters in the film dismissed the fact that anything was mentally wrong with Alice, feeling it was just a phase. In fact, many of the adults that care for Alice seem psychiatry as sort of a bad stigma, as if anyone getting therapy outside of church had to be considered insane. Even by the end of the film, we know Alice has issues that will only continue to get worse as she grows older, only because the people that she needs supporting her are too busy dealing with their own issues to help her. Some see Alice as a creepy child, but I kind of feel sorry for her because she’s stuck in a world of denial.

As for the other characters, it’s hard to like any of them. While that’s usually a bad thing in movies, it actually benefits ALICE, SWEET ALICE in giving us more suspects, as well as giving us a glimpse of a fractured family and a hypocritical community who uses religion as a way to justify things. Catherine, Alice’s and Karen’s mother, is a complicated woman who seems overwhelmed with dealing with two young girls who don’t seem to like each other at all, forcing to pick sides that will make the other upset [usually the goody-too-shoes Karen over the more abrasive Alice]. She also has to deal with a sister who tries to tell her what to do and how to handle Alice without knowing the situation. Her relationship with the girls’ father, Dominick, is strained because he moved on while she hasn’t, with both still having feelings for each other even though he’s married. Catherine is also oblivious to what is going on around her, being ignorant about Alice going on a slow path to self-destruction, living with a pedophile for a landlord, and not realizing until it’s too late why some members of her community look down on her family for some reason. In some ways, she’s a victim of circumstance, but also plays a big role in why her family is falling apart in front of her eyes and not doing much of anything to stop it from happening.

The girls’ father, Dominick, arrives when Karen is murdered, but is too busy investigating the situation when he should be caring for and consoling Catherine and Alice. While it’s obvious he cares about his family, he’s too focused on his grief to understand that his investigation is not making things better for himself or his old family who feel neglected them. Alice seems like a Daddy’s girl, but he never really pays her any mind for much of the film until things look bad for her and he tries to figure out what’s going on. There’s even a moment where he and Catherine take their frustration and grief and almost have sex, only stopping when his wife calls pressuring him to come home and making him tell her those three simple words. It’s awkward and just shows how messed up he is.

Then you have the supporting characters - like Aunt Annie, who is a shrill woman who tries to control Catherine’s life and treats Alice as a pest she would rather not deal with. Even after she’s attacked by someone who wears Alice’s creepy mask, Annie has no issue blaming her niece for it knowing it will strain her relationship with Catherine. Annie claims she loves Alice, but won’t do a thing to protect her. The landlord, Alphonso, is just a repulsive, filthy man who is infatuated with Alice - to a point where he even tries to molest her. He has no issues blaming Alice for everything even when he hasn’t seen any evidence of wrongdoing, probably wanting to get rid of the one person who sees him for who he truly is. The policemen also seem ready to pin everything on Alice with just the slightest of evidence, with some members of the force complimenting on her 12-year-old breasts in a disgusting bit of dialogue. Only Father Tom seems to be a likable character because he actually cares about the community and tries to give Alice the help he feels she needs, even though her parents are looking the other way. Tom’s maid Mrs. Tredoni is a bit weird, however, although she cares greatly for the church and especially for Father Tom. All these characters are severely flawed and use religion as a way to justify their actions and attempt to make things better within the community; not realizing that while it’s a great idea, it’s probably just making everything bleaker for everyone involved.

The second half of the film is more of your mystery-thriller portion, where truths are revealed and all the action plays out. Many have claimed ALICE, SWEET ALICE as a proto-slasher of sorts since it has a person in a creepy mask and costume targeting random people with a large knife. But if we’re being honest, the film is more of an Americanized giallo film, as the film is more focused on mystery rather than the shock factor of over-the-top deaths. The film has many twists and turns, making you wonder if Alice really did it or someone else is at play here to frame her for whatever reason. We get the reveal right before the film’s final act, making you realize why many believe this film is anti-religion. The person responsible uses their faith in God and Catholicism to give a reason as to why they commit the murders, believing confessing their sins in a way that it doesn’t implicate them, while making sure they eliminate any witnesses and take out the people their targeting still happens because they consider it an “act of God”. I do think there is some of that in the film, especially in this portion of the film. Religion is not treated as the best thing ever, considering how it’s not exactly fixing what’s wrong within this community. But I feel the film is more about the fracturing of family and home life, as well as the lack of supervision and aide towards those dealing with mental and emotional issues - whether that is anti-socialism, neglect, or especially grief over a lost one. The community goes to the church, hoping that will heal all woes. Maybe for some that does work, but for the main characters here, it seems to be the center of all their problems. Maybe that’s where the anti-religion belief comes from and I understand why some don’t feel comfortable with that.

Overall. I think the narrative of ALICE, SWEET ALICE is a strong one given all the layers that are at play here. It’s a film that takes its time with building up a mystery that leads into a memorable conclusion that will offend some people and please others. Some of the supporting characters don’t add a whole lot to the mystery, even though they reveal how despicable some of them actually are. In fact, I think the film had too many characters and probably should have been cut down. It wouldn’t have effected the mystery at all. And while I think the unlikable characters help the mystery, it doesn’t really help the entertainment value. Every film should have a couple of characters to root for and like. ALICE, SWEET ALICE doesn’t really have that going for it. But the themes of religion, family and grief are powerful enough to resonate for many even today. And I think the reveal of the mystery works better than it ought to.

The direction by Alfred Sole is pretty good, with flashes of style every now and then. Sole does a great job with his pacing, giving ALICE, SWEET ALICE a simmer feel before hitting you with a random murder sequence that will disturb some people. I think these are the moments where Sole excels at, because they’re shocking without hitting you over the head with it. Watching a young girl get strangled inside of a church during her Communion is still a disturbing aspect of any film, especially when the murder of children is still considered risqué even in today’s society. I could only imagine how audiences felt about Brooke Shields dying on screen and then getting burned inside of a trunk back in 1976. We also get a lot of people getting stabbed, especially in the final act in one of the more memorable moments of any horror film I could remember. There’s also a scene involving a jar of cockroaches that’s just messed up near the end as well. I also liked the shots of actors inside the church location, as it always felt claustrophobic inside the area due to the many close-ups throughout these scenes. We also get a lot of religious imagery, almost making it seem these people are trapped within the idols that fill up their faith. It seems Sole was putting his own beliefs within the visuals, as Sole considered himself an “ex-Catholic”, making church seem like a place where one would feel trapped by the teachings of a religion they don’t believe will make things safer or better. In fact, anytime there was a church scene in this film, only bad things would happen inside.

Other than that, ALICE, SWEET ALICE has the look and feel of a 1970s TV movie or soap opera. Besides what I mentioned and the look of the killer’s creepy mask, there’s not much style in the film. Some may say the film looks drab and boring visually, but I think Sole did a good enough job to convey what he wanted to say. I don’t think it’ll compete with any Italian giallo, but it’s fine for what it is.

Where I have my biggest issues with ALICE, SWEET ALICE is with the acting. Now, I know that acting in the 1970s has a different feel and presentation compared to films of the 2010s. But I think some of these actors were really overdoing it, to the point where I couldn’t take the actors seriously within the context of the story. This is particularly true of Jane Lowry as Aunt Annie, who was so melodramatic in her delivery that I thought she felt she was in a different movie not called ALICE, SWEET ALICE. Her acting would work wonderfully in some daytime soap opera, but in a serious horror film, it took away from the story. I even thought Linda Miller as Catherine had some of these moments as well, hamming it up a bit too much as if we wouldn’t understand her point-of-view without it. But she evened it out with subtle moments that worked in the film’s favor. I guess I would also add Alphonso DeNoble as the perverted landlord in this mix, as he was creepy in a stereotypically caricature sort of way. I don’t know if his off performance was intentional, but I found it hard that no one in this community - especially those living in his building - wouldn’t look at this dude and not see “SEXUAL PREDATOR” in big neon letters. I think a more subtle performance would have worked a lot better to surprise the audience that the guy was really a pedophile.

As for the rest of the acting, it was fine. Paula Sheppard is pretty great as Alice, conveying a child who isn’t all there in the head and has behavior issues that need to be addressed sooner than later. Sheppard was actually 16-years-old playing a girl four years younger, which actually added to the level of understanding the different emotional beats she had to play in order for the character to work. I totally bought her act and I’m surprised she didn’t get to have a stronger career after this. Brooke Shields would become a major star a few years after this film was released [leading to two more releases to capitalize on her budding fame], but she doesn’t really leave much of a presence in this film. She does an okay job as the sister Alice is jealous of, dying way too quickly within the film to make any sort of impact acting wise. But hey, it was a good start for Shields and led to bigger and better things along the way. I also liked Mildred Clinton’s performance as Mrs. Tredoni, the maid. She had a snarky attitude that made me chuckle, as well as great emotional beats where you kind of feel sorry for her, while wondering why she’s protective of her boss. Speaking of him, Rudolph Willrich is also pretty good as Father Tom. He’s one of the few likable and sensible characters in the film, which Willrich portrays perfectly. I felt the acting was a mixed bag, but the mystery was strong enough for me to get over it for the most part.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE isn’t as good as its reputation would make you believe, but it’s still a solid horror film that is worthy of anyone’s time. While most of the characters won’t win anyone over, the themes of family dissolution, not understanding behavior issues and mental illness, as well as possibly negative statements on Catholicism help build a well-told Americanized giallo mystery that will definitely create an opinion or two on the messages the film is presenting to the audience. Albert Sole’s direction keeps a nice slow burn pace until the memorable murder sequences pop up, while building a bleak overlook of a community crumbling due to their own ignorance and using religion to justify everything and anything in order to move on with their lives - not realizing that they’re just trapping themselves because of their unwillingness to look outside of their faith. The acting, especially by young Paul Sheppard as Alice, is mostly good, while others are way too melodramatic and hammy to take seriously within a well-told horror-drama. While not really scary or one of the best horror films ever created [as some people have claimed], ALICE, SWEET ALICE is still worthy of its cult status and definitely should be a film on your radar if you’re looking for a horror film that has something interesting to say, whether you agree with it or not. 

3 Howls Outta 4

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