Roger Corman’s The Terror is inappropriately titled for a few reasons. First is that it’s just a very common, generic title; it’s the most recent of six different English-language films with that title. (Presumably studios learned to be more specific afterward, but with the state of Hollywood today, I’m sure we’ll see a new The Terror by 2015.) Secondly, the movie isn’t exactly a terrifying film, and there’s only an occasional scare chord to suggest we’re supposed to be concerned. And thirdly, none of the characters in the film seem to be in a state of terror, mostly just concern, confusion, and anger. Even the Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe (horror legend Boris Karloff) who is the victim of the apparent haunting isn’t so much terrified as just morbidly depressed. It’s more of a supernatural-tinged mystery than a horror film, despite the implication of the title.
Karloff plays the central figure of the work, the Baron, but he’s the central figure in the sense that the plot revolves around him. The actual star of the work is a very young Jack Nicholson as the French Lt. Andre Duvalier. This wasn’t Nicholson’s first movie role, or even his first role in a Roger Corman film (it’s preceded by the classic original The Little Shop of Horrors and the lesser-known but still delightful The Raven). But it’s still interesting to watch the 26-year-old Nicholson in this role. While he’s Jack Nicholson, he isn’t yet Jack Nicholson, if you see what I mean; he hasn’t yet acquired the mannerisms and expressions that would eventually be present in all of the actor’s roles. There’s the occasional drawled sentence or Cheshire-cat smirk, but for the most part he’s playing a straightforward heroic leading man typical to this sort of film.
Six years later, he would star in Easy Rider and would never go clean-shaven again.
The actress in that image with him is Sandra Knight, who plays the third key figure in this film. The film is set in the early 1800s, and Andre has become separated from his regiment. Dehydrating, and falling off his horse, he is rescued by a woman who calls herself Helene (Knight). But soon after his recovery, she disappears, walking into the sea and vanishing from sight. Andre attempts to go after her, but nearly drowns himself, and washes back up on shore, exhausted again.
This time he’s rescued by a local elderly woman, Katrina (Dorothy Neumann) and her workman Gustaf (Jonathan Haze). When Andre talks to her about Helene, she is insistent that there is no girl. Of course, she also states that Gustaf is unable to talk, and Gustaf gets rather chatty, if in a whispery voice, when she’s out of sight. Knowing that something is up, Andre goes to visit the local castle and the Baron there asks him if the girl he saw is the one in a picture hanging on the Baron’s wall. It is, and the Baron informs him that it is Ilsa, the Baroness, who has been dead for the past twenty years, killed by the Baron himself in a jealous rage after finding her committing adultery. She has been haunting him for the last two years, though things had been quiet until then.
There the mystery begins, and shortly thereafter it derails. There are a lot of twists and turns in this film, but sadly they all fall into one of two varieties. There are those revelations that anybody can see coming a long way before they’re revealed, and there are those twists that nobody can see coming because they make no damned sense, or are thrown in purely to add shock value to a film that doesn’t have the structure to support such horror motifs. And it’s not helped by occasional inexplicable actions on the parts of the characters. At one point, the Baron’s butler Stefan (Dick Miller) is in a position to blow the whole thing wide open, if he’d just tell the Baron or Andre what he saw (and he knows what he saw is important). He never says word one about it, but otherwise is consistently portrayed as wanting to help the Baron. It doesn’t make sense from a character standpoint.
Classic Corman can be very hit and miss (as opposed to modern Corman, which is mostly miss), and sadly this, despite the solid performances from the actors, is a miss.