Memories of "Alice, Sweet Alice"

I mentioned in my introductory post to this series that I grew up on a steady diet of horror movies, many of which I saw after cable television came to our small town in upstate New York around 1990.  Each week when the TV guide arrived in the Saturday newspaper I would read through it, making a note of any movie categorized as “Horror.”  They were mostly low-budget films from the 1970s and early ’80s, many of them of poor quality, but I devoured them indiscriminately, especially in October when the cable channels ran them in the weeks leading up to Halloween, and on idle afternoons during summer vacation. 

It was a rainy summer day when, channel surfing, I found Alice, Sweet Alice (dir. Alfred Sole, 1976) on one of the lower cable stations.  I can distinctly recall the listlessness of those summer-vacation afternoons when, sick of drawing or video games, I drifted through the house in a kind of haze.  Outside, the air was heavy and wet—somewhat like one imagined it felt in the film, set in a perpetually gray and drizzly Paterson, New Jersey.  For some reason, I kept tuning into Alice for brief moments and then turning the channel, or perhaps leaving the room altogether; I have no memory of having caught anything more than isolated glimpses of the film.  But what terrifying glimpses!  A little girl in a yellow rain slicker wandering through an abandoned building, suddenly confronted by her sister, dressed in an identical yellow slicker and wearing a chillingly hideous mask, like the face of a mannequin; the younger girl’s dead body being dragged along the floor of a church by her murderer; another confrontation in a dark, abandoned building, that same masked face lurking in the shadows; finally, in what proved to be the last image of the whole film, a long, dreamy tracking shot in which the older sister, seemingly catatonic, reveals that she has hidden a butcher knife in the shopping bag clutched to her chest.  Disconnected, the images haunted me more than they probably would have done had I actually seen the whole film beginning to end. 

Now, having done just that, I maintain that these moments are more powerful on their own than they are in the context of the film as a whole, which is too long and which is hampered by an overly complicated, borderline nonsensical plot.  Is plot fatal to the horror genre?  The power of horror films may lie not in their success at telling stories but rather in their ability to conjure up single images so highly charged that they risk traumatizing the viewer who isn’t prepared to confront them.  As a narrative film Alice, Sweet Alice is deeply flawed—and yet, in its way, its images gave me one of the most sensuously terrifying memories of my childhood.  I remember turning away from the television screen and going to my bedroom window, looking out at the rain-soaked lawn, where a light fog had begun to settle, and feeling as if I was in a dream.  If I didn’t have the images of the film as proof, I might not know that I wasn’t in one.

The final shot of Alice, Sweet Alice: the knife concealed in the shopping bag.

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