American Pop Classics Part 2: THE TERROR (1963)

(This is the second part in a series about films from American Pop Classics. To read the first part, click here.)

I have a vivid memory of seeing The Terror when I was a young child, and it scared the shit out of me. The Terror is one of those rare films that feels as if you’re watching a nightmare channeled on to a television screen. Before the title sequence there is an odd scene in which Boris Karloff, as Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe, is tracking a trail of blood through a house. The trail leads him to a door smeared with blood, which he pulls open to find a corpse. A piercing scream is heard as the corpse pops into sight, which is only on screen for a few seconds before the movie launches into the opening credits. The scene is never explained, but it’s an effective scene nonetheless. The film’s nature seems to follow a sort of dream logic, where things happen for no discernible reason at all, and you just have to roll with it.

The Terror follows a French lieutenant, played by a very young and yet-to-be-famous Jack Nicholson, in the 17th or 18th century. He’s gotten separated from his regiment and is wandering along a beach on his horse, lost, tired, and hungry. After encountering an ethereal woman named Helene who ignores his plea for help, he meets an old woman living nearby, with a supposedly mute man. Nicholson asks her about the ethereal woman, and the old lady insists there’s no one like that living in the area. A trip to the Baron’s castle eventually leads him to some answers. She was once the wife of the Baron, who’s been dead for decades. That hasn’t stopped her from haunting his castle and the surrounding countryside.

The whole sordid tale of her demise is also revealed: The Baron caught her in bed with another man. He went into a rage and strangled her to death. His servant Stefan, played by Corman regular Dick Miller, took care of the man, killing him as well.

It becomes clear there is something off about this story, and a much bigger mystery is lurking in the castle. As the truth begins to surface, it is revealed how horrifying and twisted the story of the castle truly is.

The whole movie is dripping with gothic trappings; mostly in the form of foggy graveyards, mysterious family crypts, and extensive eerie shots of the many hallways and secret passages of the castle.

Aside from the shocking opening sequence, the one other scene that really freaked me out was the demise of the mute man. The man isn’t even really mute, he can talk, but only in whispers, which simply adds to the weird nightmare logic. As the mute man waits atop a cliff for Nicholson to pass by on his horse, he is attacked by a hawk. It swoops down and literally tears his eyes out. It’s the scene after when you can see him stumbling around like a zombie, eyeholes running red with blood, before he falls off the cliff that made me shit my pants. For some reason, eye trauma in movies, disturbs me greatly.

The artwork on The Terror’s DVD cover is pretty good, including original poster art, and the DVD transfer is very watchable, with a 1:78:1 or 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer even. The Terror is available remastered in a DVD/Blu-Ray combo, which I believe American Pop Classics is distributing now.

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