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Go Axe Alice
on May 10, 2007
Director Alfred Sole's independently-produced cult classic, 'Alice, Sweet Alice' (1976), which is also known as 'Communion,' is a flawed but fairly unique and psychologically interesting horror film. While potentially murderous children were not an unknown in American cinema at the time of the film's release (1956's 'The Bad Seed' introduced young Patty McCormack as a smiling, blond, and pony-tailed killer), when combined with a cast of characters which includes a filthy, morbidly-obese, and sexually perverted landlord (Alphonso DeNoble in a high camp performance that almost ruins the film), a neurotic, nervous, and controlling aunt (Jane Lowry), and a variety of religious fanatics, 'Alice, Sweet Alice' certainly stands out from the dozens of low-budget horror films of the period.
The film, which takes place in a working-class New Jersey neighborhood in 1961, creates a near-suffocating atmosphere of underdeveloped consciousness. Most of the characters are relatively uneducated, only moderately socialized, and live in an ugly, claustrophobic urban world of frustration, disappointment, superstition, and strict obedience to Catholic dogma and ritual.
'Alice, Sweet Alice' is rather astute in its vision of an inner-city environment in which sociopaths, psychopaths, psychotics, and neurotics are the norm rather than the exception: only Alice's much put-upon mother (Linda G. Miller), Alice's remarried and disenfranchised father (Niles McMaster), and handsome, cheerful Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) appear mentally stable and healthy. Almost everyone else is both a victimizer and victim in some way, or, like Alice's cousin, Angela (Kathy Rich), a fat child who can't stop stuffing food into her mouth, hardly more conscious than a goldfish.
Much of the film is seen from the perspective of Alice (Paula Sheppard), a psychopathic 12-year old who enjoys tormenting other people in any number of sadistic ways, and who enacts a number of strange rituals of her own devising in the cellar of the sprawling multi-family house in which her family lives. But, the film asks, does Alice's psychopathology necessarily mean that she is the petite killer, dressed in the same bright yellow rain slicker and spooky semi-translucent mask that are Alice's oddball trademarks, who is brutally attacking people in her immediate vicinity?
Alice may be a psychopath, as a clinician later explains to her parents, but Alice is also a victim of her environment and of her family's history, which may or may not explain the often cruel and predatory state of her psyche. 'Alice, Sweet Alice' ultimately works effectively because Sole allows the viewer to vicariously experience Alice's vulnerability, confusion, and doubt as well as her viciousness.
Sole and co-writer Rosemary Ritvo made the unfortunate choice allowing their film to reach one of its pivotal climaxes midway through, a decision which takes quite a bite out of the story's forward momentum.
The killer's eventually-revealed motives are so complicated, weakly presented, and loosely scattered over several scenes that the viewer is forced to make a concerted effort to understand the plot in the manner in which its producers intend. Some of the rampaging killer's actions and behavior while wearing the raincoat-and-mask-costume are simply impossible to square with the killer as we have come to know him or her over the course of the film.
Such an approach might have been successful in the hands of a more capable director, but to make the killer's motivations and activities genuinely convincing, 'Alice, Sweet Alice' should have included one more solidly-written expository scene. Even the killer's physical stature seems to fly in the face of the haunting tiny figure the viewer has repeatedly witnessed.
There are other scenes which also defy believability, such as when Alice's father, Dominick, receives a telephone call for help from a young relative. The voice the viewer--and presumably Dominick--hears is so high-pitched, unnatural, and bizarre that it's impossible to accept that this previously rational, level-headed adult actually thinks he is speaking to the party in question.
In the next scene, which was clearly inspired by the climax of Nicholas Roeg's 'Don't Look Now' (1973), Dominick, in an effort to provide assistance, ludicrously chases a small, continually fleeing figure in a yellow raincoat. Thus, when Dominick suddenly finds himself the hunted and not the hunter, cinematic justice for his foolish behavior seems to have been served.
Lastly, a very brief interlude in which Alice has ostensibly come to believe that Karen's ghost is responsible for the attacks is woefully underdeveloped.
The badly-paced, often undisciplined 'Alice, Sweet Alice' has been compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but the only Hitchcock film it even remotely resembles is 'Frenzy' (1972), a late and uncharacteristic Hitchcock indeed. Nonetheless, for an independent writer-director's first mainstream effort, 'Alice, Sweet Alice' is as remarkable as some of Dario Argento's lesser productions from the same relative era, such as 'Cat O Nine Tails' (1971) or 'Four Flies On Grey Velvet' (1972).