Combustible Celluloid Review - The Terror (1963), Leo Gordon, Jack Hill, Roger Corman, Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight, Dick Miller, Dorothy Neumann, Jonathan Haze
Combustible Celluloid
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With: Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight, Dick Miller, Dorothy Neumann, Jonathan Haze
Written by: Leo Gordon, Jack Hill
Directed by: Roger Corman
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 79
Date: 06/17/1963

The Terror (1963)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Baron Lands

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This amazing movie features Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff, is directed by the great Roger Corman, and credits a young Francis Ford Coppola as "Associate Producer." Yet, it's one of the worst movies ever made. But once you know the story behind the movie you can't help but love it.

There is a great story behind every Roger Corman movie, but this one is my favorite. Corman is perhaps the most successful B-movie maker of all time, and he is as well known for cutting corners as he is for giving newcomers a chance. The Terror began in 1963 when Corman had wrapped another film, The Raven, which starred Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and young Nicholson. He had rented a castle for the shoot, and typically, had finished two days early.

Never one to waste any money, he decided to shoot a second movie in two days, using the castle, as well as Karloff, who still had two more days on his contract. (Corman had done a movie once before in only two days, the classic The Little Shop of Horrors, so it was technically possible.) Nicholson also agreed to stay on.

Corman called his screenwriters and ordered them to find some castle scenes, any castle scenes, they would fill in the rest later. So they shot frantically for two days in the castle.

Karloff did his best Karloff, and Nicholson traipsed around not knowing exactly what he was doing. Then it was time to give up the castle, and Karloff went home.

Corman took the footage back to New World and couldn't make heads or tails of it. The more he worked it over, the less the movie made sense. But Corman never gave up once he had money invested.

He sent four location directors out to shoot footage in the woods. One of these was Coppola. (This was not long before Corman gave Coppola the money to shoot his first feature, Dementia 13.) Coppola went out with Nicholson and dreamed up a shot that would really win Corman's favor. He had the cast and crew catch butterflies, which took about four hours. He put them all in a net just to the side of the camera. In the shot, the butterflies were supposed to fly in front of the camera just as Nicholson rounded a corner on his horse. The shot worked as planned, except that, just as Nicholson's face became visible, the actor made a face at the camera. The shot had to be scrapped. Coppola and Nicholson have never worked on a film together since.

In another behind-the-scenes story, Nicholson's wife Sandra Knight, who plays the ghost, apparently grew more and more pregnant as the weeks rolled on. In once scene, Nicholson has to carry her up a flight of stairs, and you can see him struggling.

So the finished film begins with Nicholson riding around on a horse, wearing the uniform of Napoleon's army. He has been separated from his unit. How, we don't know. He comes across a girl bathing in the ocean. She begins to seduce him, and then disappears. He rides on to the castle and tells the Baron (Karloff) about the girl he has just seen. The Baron tells Nicholson that he doesn't know about any girl, but that his wife has been dead for some time. And the portrait of his wife looks just like the girl. That's about all that film historians have been able to figure out regarding this movie. From there, Nicholson runs around the castle and the woods, being quite rude, and trying to figure out what's going on, just like everyone else in the audience.

Legend has it that, aside from Coppola and Corman, three others pitched in to direct certain shots. Nicholson was one; he would go on to direct three films of his own over the course of the next 25 years. Jack Hill was another; the following year, he would make the cult classic Spider Baby, and then go on to work with Pam Grier on a series of exploitation movies. (I interviewed Hill once, however, and he denied that he had worked on this film.) Also on board was Monte Hellman, who had directed Beast from Haunted Cave for Corman, and would go on to make great films like The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop.

Finally, years later, when Corman was mentoring a new, young filmmaker, Peter Bogdanovich, he allowed Bogdanovich to use footage from The Terror in his first feature. That feature became Targets, which is one of the best movies of the 1960s, starring Karloff in one of his final and most touching roles.

The Terror has been available in public domain tapes and DVDs for years, and these days fans can even watch it for free online. But it was always meant to be shown in Vistascope, and the aspect ratios have been wrong. Now, in 2011, HD Cinema Classics has released a new Blu-Ray, which is the first time I've seen the movie mastered in widescreen. However, I'm not sure how accurate the presentation is. This disc simply mats the top and bottom of the public domain version, although the framing never appears to be chopped or missing any crucial information. Perhaps this is the way the original format worked (I have been unable to find much information on this). Regardless, even if the Blu-Ray isn't pristine, it's great to see this legendary movie in a fresh way. (It comes with a bonus DVD version as well.)

In 2023, Film Masters released what could be the ultimate edition of The Terror, a Blu-ray that claims to have been mastered from the original 35mm elements. And, indeed, it looks better than I've ever seen it, with both a DTS 2.0 and mono audio track. C. Courtney Joyner and Dr. Steve Haberman provide an enthusiastic commentary track, and there's a 45-minute visual essay on Corman's career, as well as a new trailer. A second disc comes with none other than the aforementioned The Little Shop of Horrors, which also looks fantastic, and also includes the DTS 2.0 and mono audio mixes, plus a new trailer. Justin Humphreys and star Jonathan Haze provide a commentary track for this one, and there's a 15-minute "Part 2" documentary on Corman. Along with all that, we get a 24-page booklet with essays by Joyner (on Karloff) and Mark McGee (on Little Shop). This is Highly Recommended.

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