Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Communion (1976, USA)

a.k.a.: Alice, Sweet Alice, Holy Terror.
(Spoiler alert.) Catherine Spages (Linda Miller) is a divorced mother raising her two daughters during the Kennedy years. Twelve-year old Alice (excellently acted by the 19-year-old Paula Sheppard, who disappeared from the face of the earth after having simulated lesbian sex in the 1982 cult favorite Liquid Sky) is a dislikable problem child highly jealous of her beautiful and perfect little sister Karen (Brooke Shields). Karen, about to go through first communion, is given a rosary by Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) and bought a new communion veil and dress by her mother. On communion day, Karen is murdered and has her rosary stolen by someone—shades of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973)—wearing a yellow slicker and oddly disturbing mask known to belong to her older sister. As Alice then takes Karen's place in line wearing the new communion veil, a nun follows the smoke being blown into the congregation by a fan in an adjoining room and finds Karen's strangled and burnt body. Needless to say, all suspicions fall upon the petulant and moody Alice, who claims she simply found the veil on the floor. In addition to the fat, pedophilic landlord Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble from 1976's Blood Sucking Freaks), who likes to loll around in piss-stained pants cuddling his kittens and listening to old Showboat tunes, one of Alice's loudest accusers is her Aunt Annie (Jane Lowry). Aunt Annie is soon violently attacked on the stairwell while leaving the Spages's walk-up, and from her hospital bed the emotionally scarred Aunt Annie now tearfully screams her accusations even louder. As a result, Alice is sent to an institute where the psychologist (played the forgotten flapper Lillian Roth in her first film appearance in 37 years) diagnoses her as a menstruating schizo prone to violence. In the meantime, Alice's father Dom (Niles McMaster, also of Blood Sucking Freaks) shows up to support his ex-wife and prove his daughter's innocence. When someone claiming to be Aunt Annie's daughter Angela (Kathy Rich) calls him and says that she has the missing rosary, Dom ends up at an empty warehouse where he is soon murdered in an excruciatingly violent manner, but not before he manages to swallow (!) the rosary. It is here that the murderer is revealed, as are her motives for both the killings and why she seems to be framing Alice, motives based on some psychologically twisted concepts of Catholicism and guilt… Through her father's murder, Alice is proven innocent and released. The police are now tapping completely in darkness when the unhinged murderer finally decides to pay a visit to both Alice and her mother, but misses them by mere seconds when they go to church. Confronted by Mr. Alfonzo, who thinks her to be Alice wearing a mask, the murderer kills the fat slob and escapes, but not before being recognized by the police. The final confrontation occurs in the Father Tom's church where, though Alice survives, the viewer is left knowing that the troubled young girl's last vestiges of sanity have been destroyed and she is doomed to eventually continue the killer's work…

Communion—better known as Alice, Sweet Aliceis one of those films that has a relatively bad reputation but that no one seems to have actually even ever watched. Even the four sentence blurb in the 1998 edition of Leonard Maltin's bible to mediocre cinematic criticism and plot description, in which the question is posed "Does 12-year-old Alice kill her sister, parents, aunt, etc?" supports the argument that he has never even seen the complete film, since the aunt is only injured and only one parental figure enters the pearly gates. And, actually, the question of whether or not Alice commits the various violent acts is rather secondary, since the actual identity of the murderer is revealed halfway through the film. (The murderer proves to be the only secondary figure that in any way can come into question when one keeps sex and size in mind.)
Perhaps, had Communion a somewhat better pedigree, its limited reputation would be better, for it is very interesting and well made film. But it pedigree is hardly auspicious. Director Alfred Sole's only previous directorial credit at the time the film was made was the mob financed porn chic movie Deep Sleep (1973) starring the ubiquitous Jamie Gillis and his sausage. For his next cinematic attempt, Sole took the path of many an unknown filmmaker and moved into the realm of low-budget genre films. In his hometown of Patterson, New Jersey he co-wrote (with Rosemary Ritvo, who has since done a disappearing act) and directed a for-the-time relatively bloody little suspense film named Communion.
As is the fate of most products made by unknown filmmakers and featuring a cast of nobodies, the film was quickly shelved after it was finished, and it lay gathering dust in some vault somewhere. (The biggest name in the cast in 1976 was Linda Miller, known only for being the daughter of Jackie Gleason. In the meantime, she has since become known as the mother of Jason Patric.) A few years later, as we all know, one of the movie's supporting actresses, the eleven-year-old Brooke Shields, suddenly gained massive infamy from her role as a child prostitute in Pretty Baby (1978) and her nekked photos in Playboy. Sole's film was pulled down from the shelf, dusted off and sent to drive-ins and inner-city flophouses across America as Alice, Sweet Alice "starring" Brooke Shields—despite the fact that she gets choked to death and baked in a church 15 minutes into the film. (It should be mentioned, however, that Brooke Shield's fifteen minutes in this movie are the most convincing that she has ever filmed.)
Of course, while such mercantilism is common in the film industry, it seldom leads to good reviews or a stellar reputation, so Alice, Sweet Alice—and its eventual edited video release as Holy Terror—was stamped as a sleazy, low-budget slasher flick and ultimately disappeared, seldom referred to in any tone but a derogatory one, primarily by people who had obviously never seen it in the first place.
But don't be put off by Alice, Sweet Alice's unjustifiable bad reputation. Even when watching the exceedingly cheap video-transfer of Video Treasures 1986 release (found at some thrift shop for a buck), Alfred Sole's underrated low-budget labor of love is easy to recognize as a creepy, disturbing, thickly atmospheric and highly effective religious thriller with occasionally explosions of violence. Highly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, Sole's oft unnerving movie features an array of realistically flawed and frequently dislikable characters caught in a repressive Catholic working class hell in which religion is based less on love and forgiveness than guilt and suffering. As Sole paints it, in the Catholic community of 1960's New Jersey atonement seems much less an option than death.
Actually, fans of Emmanuelle tropical island sleaze might have some fun with Tanya's Island
(1980), Sole's next filmic project. Although almost unwatchable, the film does have the dubious plus point of featuring an ape-obsessed Tanya played by an unknown named D. D. Winters—who later gained limited fame as the Prince-groupie called Vanity—getting it on with a hairy primate.

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