Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer of Slash: Communion (AKA Alice, Sweet Alice)

More like a Hitchcock film or the British exploitation film Frightmare, Communion is nothing like what I’m sure those coming to the film late – with the idea in their head about what a slasher movie is supposed to be – think it is. In fact, the best way to describe Alfred Sole’s horror film (which is very good, by the way) is that it’s probably the closest thing America ever got to an honest-to-goodness giallo. The reason it feels more like giallo – which were essentially Italian slasher movies before we knew what slashers were (or, more specifically, before John Carpenter decided that it’s more effective – and more profitable – if teens are in peril instead of grown women) – is due to the tone and the pacing of the film which is very much of its time and perfectly encapsulates ‘70s, pre-Black Christmas/Halloween horror). Communion may not be as influential as Bob Clark’s film or John Carpenter’s film (or, if you want, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but it’s one of the true hidden gems of 1970’s American horror and arguably (and it’s an argument I would be willing to make) deserves to have a spot at the table of those two giants of the subgenre.

Communion (also called Alice, Sweet Alice upon the request of the filmmaker so audiences didn’t think they were going to see a religious film) opens with some of the creepiest credits I’ve seen in a horror film: an eerily redolent image of a young girl dressed in her first Holy Communion outfit. Her face is hidden by the veil, so we can’t quite see what’s going on, but since we know a little something about horror movies, we know that the face of this girl must look up to reveal a skeleton or something cheesy like that. Instead, director Alfred Sole establishes early that he’s here to try and make a legitimate piece of horror as the opening credits continue we can hear the faint rasps of the Hail Mary spoken with a spooky rapidity. As the Hail Mary’s get faster and faster in succession, the girl pulls the crucifix she has clasped in her hands up further into the frame to reveal that it is in actuality a blade as the steel glints in the light. It’s a helluva of an image to open on and appropriately sets the tone (as well as one of the key motifs of religious icons) for the rest of the film.

The film takes place in New Jersey in 1961 in a Catholic community. Kate (Brooke Shields…screen debut…blah blah blah) is getting ready for her first Holy Communion and is being lavished with attention and gifts by her mother, aunt, and the priests. This comes much to the chagrin of Alice (Paula Sheppard, who is quite fantastic as far as child actor’s go), Kate’s older sister, who no doubt is jealous of the attention Kate gets that, throws tantrums and bullies her younger sister (often scaring her in the process by wearing a creepy plastic mask and yellow raincoat) to the point where she has turned herself into the black sheep of the family. The day of Kate’s Communion comes, but before she can kneel at the altar to accept the sacrament, she is lured away to the back of the church by a whispering voice. At that moment, a figure dressed in the same yellow raincoat and creepy plastic mask attacks Kate, strangles her, throws her into a trunk, and lights her on fire.

The death of Kate is abrupt, alarming, and quite visceral (even though completely bloodless). While Kate is being strangled unbeknownst to the family and friends at the church, Alice kneels down at the altar to receive communion for the absent Kate. Her family is outraged (especially her Aunt), and this leads to the speculation where Kate is. When Father Tom finds Alice’s body in the trunk, everyone but him and Alice’s mother suspects that Alice is the one that committed the crime; however, days later, Alice’s aunt is brutally murdered in her apartment staircase, and Alice believes that she saw Kate committing the murder. And from this point on the film takes on the identity of a classic Italian giallo with a mix of shocking horror and a whodunit that doesn’t just throw red herring after red herring at you (like the worst gialli do); no, Communion cops to who the killer really is pretty quickly, and the mystery of whether it is or isn’t Alice’s deceased sister is well executed.

By using key images like the mask and raincoat (and all of the religious imagery), Sole is obviously fashioning his film after something like Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now; and I have to say, he does more than an admirable job here with his lofty attempt at an homage. There’s an energy to the story with oddball characters (some who OVERACT~!) like the morbidly obese neighbor (who has lots of cats) in Alice’s apartment; however, there are also throwaway characters like Alice and Kate’s estranged father who shows up after hearing of Kate’s murder. It has to be said, too, that Sole had balls making this movie. It was one thing to kill a child in a movie, but it was another thing entirely in early ‘70s horror to kill them in a church while they’re awaiting their first communion. The film was released in 1974, a year after The Exorcist, so perhaps I’m reading way too much into the religious imagery in the film (guilt and absolution seem the primary themes at play) – perhaps it’s nothing more than a reason to cash-in on the public’s demand for horror movies with a religious bent. But as mentioned above, Sole also wanted the title changes so people wouldn’t think that they were seeing a religious film.

Whatever the case, Sole crafted a beautifully haunting horror film that has a real sense of place (Sole grew up in Preston, and he lovingly shoots the setting) that reminded me of something like the later My Bloody Valentine. Everything about the film has a real feel of authenticity and familiarity to it. Also, Communion no doubt set the stage for future slasher films. Yes, it’s not as popular or revolutionary as something like Halloween, but Sole wisely used elements of the template introduced by the Italians and the highly influential Canadian slasher Black Christmas four years before Carpenter used them. Sadly, Sole never made another foray into the horror genre. He made the 1982 horror spoof Pandemonium, but that would be his last movie, for he would hang it up as a director and focus on being an art designer (he graduated from Florence, Italy with a degree in architecture) working mostly on television (most recently on “Veronica Mars”). Sole didn’t like Hollywood and “Hollywood didn’t like me,” he claimed. He mentions that one of his biggest mistakes was not sticking to an approach a la what John Waters and George Romero do: making movies locally with crews comprised of people he was familiar with.

Communion really is the best of both worlds: it’s got the grimy aesthetic of the early ‘70s exploitation horror film, yet it’s a strikingly beautiful and haunting picture with shots that aren’t jut slapped together. Sole’s camera moves (credit to DP’s John Friberg and Chuck Hall), something rare, indeed, for an exploitation-era horror movie. There’s panache here that accentuates the horror; we’re shocked by it because we aren’t expecting such things to happen in what appears to be such a controlled (and sort of stylish) and mannered horror film.  In every frame of the film, you can see that Sole really treated Communion with that attitude that it was more than just a cheesy horror movie. Each shot is established with a haunting beauty that never lets us forget about the religious elements driving the picture (I can’t be sure, but I would venture that 90% of the shots in the movie have some kind of religious icon in it). 

What I mean is this: there is a care and earnestness here to make a legitimate horror movie, yet it also makes the exploitation lover in me all warm and fuzzy because it is a film whose aesthetic feels very much of its era. Sole said he definitely was influenced by The Bad Seed, Hitchcock (there’s a nice “cameo” by Hitch in the scene where Father Tom stands outside in the rain by a building, you can see a poster for Psycho in the background), and Don’t Look Now – which the figure in the yellow hooded coat reminds the viewer of, not to mention that yellow reminds us of a giallo – and Communion more than lives up to its end of the deal as a worthy and loving homage to both Roeg’s film and the films of Hitchcock; it’s one of the best undiscovered secrets of 1970’s horror cinema, and it deserves to be rediscovered for reasons other than it just being Brooke Shields’ screen debut.


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