The legendarily muddled Roger Corman Poe-ish Gothic horror THE TERROR (1963) famously came together spur of the moment when, supposedly, Corman still had two days on Karloff's shooting schedule on THE RAVEN (1963). Not wanting to waste them, Corman shot some stuff of Boris walking around in what remained of the castle sets for THE RAVEN, trusting a film could be built around it with minimal effort and cost. He was right about the minimal, but that's the film's shaggy dog-eared charm. Francis Ford Coppola went up to Big Sur to shoot some exteriors, and then later, Jack Hill as writer and Monte Hellman as director came along to reshape, rework, and reconfigure, shooting in and around Playa del Rey, Leo Carillo Beach, and what was then the AFI. So there's a lot of hands in the mix here, with the final product being enigmatic as intentionally as possible while hitting all the traditional bases. The final product is more than the sum of its parts, but whose authorial voice is it that results when the 'more' is factored? Corman's usually wry, hip but never anachronistic Gothic "voice" isn't here, and Coppola's style isn't really noticeable any more than, say, Dennis Hopper's might be on THE TRIP), and Hill's balls-out stealth feminist drive-in moxy isn't there, but Hellman's vanishing point identity and existential narrative-dissolution is. And in the context of j subsequent enigmatic masterpieces, THE TERROR fits beautifully, perhaps even situating his two later acclaimed existential works THE SHOOTING (1966) and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) within a more immediately graspable mythic context then they might have if seen solely as examples of their respectively associated genres, and vice versa.
The Hellman style wasn't yet a recognizable 'thing' in 1963, but after seeing his more well-known works you feel it already formed in THE TERROR's dreamy 'edge of forever' shoreline, the ambiguity of relationships and the fluidity of identity, especially where "the woman" is concerned. Hellman's female characters tend to control the action around them almost unconsciously, yet they themselves are often void of distinct personae except as surfers of the oceanic unconscious, billed in the credits as "the woman" or "the girl." This anima ambiguity perfectly fits the ghostly figure played by Sandra Knight in THE TERROR as she appears to lost Cavalry officer Lt. Andre Duvalier (a young Jack Nicholson) at various points along the shore or cliffs, sometimes luring him to a would-be doom, or to maybe sometimes change into a falcon, or she was the falcon the whole time, or she's a ghost or a girl who thinks she's a ghost in the middle of an elaborate revenge. While you could lump that concept in with NIGHT TIDE, THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA, THE SEA WITCH, THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER, i.e. low budget films that use a girl and some waves as a low budget Bergman art-horror hybrid, you'd be selling the talent of Hill and Hellman short, who were coming in for the second half of a project begun by Corman as a straight Poe-ish Gothic, and surreally enhanced with an old witch who added the idea that the ghost might just be a hypnotized daughter (Hill and Hellman rather than twisting toward normalcy brought it farther out, into the suggested transmigration of souls, the transitory nature of the flesh, and the relentless corrosion of time's salty oceanic lash.
Part of the weird effect THE TERROR has on fans such as myself, is that it never seems to tell the same story twice. In order to understand how and why, you just have to dial your focus out and consider the film's post-release history, the differing hands at the helm being just one aspect. THE TERROR fell into Public Domain a long time ago, and ever since has shown constantly, first on local TV in the pre-cable era, then on $5 video tapes, then nearly every 100 movies for $10 DVD horror collection on the market. And since there's no quality control, the film often appears edited for time, with out-of-order (or missing) reels, faded color, cheap VHS tracking issues (carried over onto cheap DVD burns), scenes cut and added from different prints of different quality, etc. If you're a classic horror fan you've seen THE TERROR dozens of times, maybe never even intentionally... and seldom all the way to the end, making it perhaps the benchmark for what fantasy and horror fans call dream (or nightmare) logic. Because it's so atmospheric, and fun--especially considering Nicholson is so young and sometimes confused--it's endlessly re-watchable even if you're not really watching. You can fall asleep to it real easily, and dream your way right in.
|Young Jack with then-wife Sandra Knight - THE TERROR;|
Middle Jack with Maria Schneider - THE PASSENGER
|Karloff, making three movies at once just by standing there|
So, yeah, there's a lot of contradictions and cross-current enigmas, but that's when semiotically inquisitive post/modernists like Monte Hellman come alive. And the final cumulative impression of THE TERROR when you finally do see the whole film, after all these centuries, on remastered Blu-ray, sober as a judge, at a beauty contest, with a cracked AA chip he's trying to bet in a poker game, is a weird bittersweet reverie on death, memory and how film disintegrates when washed in a salt water flood tide lapping up against moldy stone.
|from top: TERROR, SHOOTING, TERROR, SHOOTING, TERROR, SHOOTING|
Mystery thy name is Hellman Woman
|Sandra Knight as ?? ("Helene / Isla The Baroness Von Leppe") - THE TERROR (1963)|
|Millie Perkins as ?? ("Woman") - THE SHOOTING (1966)|
|Laurie Bird as ?? ("the Girl") - TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)|
The plot of SHOOTING involves Warren Oates as a tough as nails gold miner laboring at he and his brothers' claim in the middle of the Utah Nowhere. One of his brothers has rode on out of there like blazes after maybe running over a kid or something the night before Oates returns - it's never entirely clear. So when a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) shows up offering to pay royally for his service as a guide across the desert to a nearby town (where the brother may have went), Oates agrees to handle it, but is he the one who did the thing she's going to go avenge, whatever it is? Is he really going to let them shoot his brother? The vagueness of motivations is clearly intentional, which makes us wonder if the TERROR's was too. Which came first, a love of open-ended existential landscape wanderer identity-collapse (fueled maybe by Antonioni's 1962 film L'ECLISSE), or the need to situate Corman's low budget and off-the-cuff 'shoot first make sense later' raw material in some kind of framework? Did Julian Schnabel break a dish by accident, and decide to use it in a painting, or did he break the dish on purpose?
|"The Patients and the Doctors" (detail - c. Julian Schnabel)|
|THE SHOOTING: In nice remastered form|
|Average blurriness for PD dupe: THE SHOOTING (1966)|
|Average blurriness for PD dupe: THE TERROR (1963)|
What initially appears to simply be a surface effect that is not a feature of this world rapidly begins to suggest otherwise: that the decay we see twisting faces, burning bodies, and cutting holes in the world is not just the effect of time on nitrate film stock, but rather an inherent feature of the world itself rupturing the imaginary divide between then and now. The ravages of time apparent on this film are also the decay inherent in the world it depicts, and a part of the world that produced these images." - Michael Betancourt [Dread Mechanics: The Sublime Terror of Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) - Bright Lights 1/14/15)In other words, it moves into Hellman existential country, the dissolving coherence of the image mirroring in nitrate clouds Hellman's vanishing point ambiguity. I'd add that the Blu-ray of DECASIA itself might be factored into this. Very old celluloid after all decays in very trippy ways which on Blu-ray are impossibly beautiful, abstract in ways no lifetime spent on After Effects or Final Cut could match. The compromise of the media formats of lesser quality in the century between the nitrate of the '10s and the Blu-ray of the other '10s aren't as aesthetically gratifying: streaky, not aesthetically pleasing or artsy in the DECASIA sense. In fact there's just such a video! VHS GeneraTion LOss! It has its own weird poetry...this is my generation!!
But even that wouldn't be complete
the madness doesn't end there
for THE TERROR
would be used again,
by Peter Bogdanovich.
It's what plays on the drive-in
during the Aurora-esque
proving that, once begun,
Post-Modernism can't be stopped
like an ever-
permutes long past
until vast truth
to the Big Sur Prometheus
groaning in sloshing in crevasses
deep like stab wound shadows into mossy rocks
if you have the stereogram-staring patience
and the right fusion of meditation, psychedelics