The Terror [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Film Masters
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (20th February 2024).
The Film

Having drifted far from the rest of his regiment and severely parched, Lieutenant Andre Duvalier (The Passenger's Jack Nicholson) is led to a fresh water source by mysterious beauty Helene (The Tower of London's Sandra Knight). Before he can speak to her, she walks into the sea and he nearly drowns trying to save her when he is attacked by a hawk. Andre comes to in the shack of witch Katrina (The Undead's Dorothy Neumann) who claims that there is no such girl and that he must have hallucinated the experience. Her seemingly mute handyman Gustaf (Vice Squad's Jonathan Haze), however, has a voice and tells him that Helene can be found at the castle of the Baron Von Leppe and that Andre must save her.

With no further help from Katrina who warns him away from the castle, Andre travels there and sees Helene watching him from a window. He imposes himself as a representative of the French government on the hospitality of the Baron von Leppe (The Mummy's Boris Karloff). The Baron also claims not to know any Helene; however, when Andre describes her to him, the Baron directs his attention to a portrait of his wife Ilsa who died twenty years prior. Despite the loss of Andre's horse which bolts in the night, the Baron is nevertheless eager to hasten Andre's departure with the help of majordomo Stefan (Chopping Mall's Dick Miller). Andre's continues to see Helene wandering the grounds and corridors of the castle. The Baron reveals to Andre the tragic story of the death of his wife and her lover and is positive that Ilsa is haunting him while Andre is sure that Helene is a flesh-and-blood living woman. Stefan, however, starts to suspect something much more sinister going on.

Although it was not an unprecedented move by producer/director Roger Corman to make a quickie second feature to take advantage of available locations or sets, The Terror is one of his most notorious productions in that it was started out as a three-day shoot with Karloff on the soon-to-be-struck sets of Corman's last Poe film to be shot in the United States The Raven – those sets having been built initially for The Pit and the Pendulum and modified throughout subsequent films in the Poe cycle by art director Daniel Haller – with a threadbare script by character actor/writer Leo Gordon and the intention of finishing the film with additional location scenes at Big Sur to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The staggered shoot ended up lasting nine months with seven other directors – including Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Jack Hale, Dennis Jakub who also doubled for Karloff in the climax, and actor Nicholson himself among others – contributing a few days here and there after some of Coppola's footage proved unusable and he was then shooting Dementia 13 in Ireland (Coppola would leave that film "finished" with an insufficient running time necessitating additional scenes shot by Hill).

In spite of a "too many cooks" situation, The Terror actually holds up well as less of a cohesive solo work than a pastiche of Corman's Poe films partially directed and overall supervised by Corman (whether or not one could describe any of the other directors-in-training's approaches as celebrating Corman's series, the director himself certainly steered the course of the film in the editing room). The themes of the Poe series come across with sort of narrative economy honed by both the director through his earlier effort and the viewer's experience of them and similar Gothic literature and films, the Corman series, particularly, The Pit and the Pendulum, having influenced a subsequent boom of regional American and more baroque European efforts in its wake. The film's central element of a woman who may or may not be dead, regardless of whether she is a ghost or a living being, as a tool or vessel of individual or dynastic destruction can be felt throughout the Poe series – including Corman's later British effort The Tomb of Ligeia – but feels most like a more serious take on the previous Corman/Karloff collaboration The Raven which used it to more comic ends. Karloff brings effortless gravitas even though he must not have known the outcome of the entire story – helped by his scenes having all been shot in the same short space of time – while the other actors' performances are subject to the inconsistencies of the spread out shoot and rewrites. Despite having to bring the action to a full stop in order to explain and clarify things before the climax – itself an inversion of the Poe cycle conflagration – and a surprisingly grim final shock that lent the film its Italian release title "La vergine di cera" (The Wax Virgin).

As with all of Corman's Filmgroup productions, The Terror was not registered for copyright and fell into the public domain where most of us saw it via television packages, slow-speed budget bin VHS editions, and low-quality DVD copies. In 1990, however, Corman did attain a copyright on an alternate version titled "The Haunting" by transforming it into an original work with new bookending segments directed by Mark Griffiths (Hardbodies) and shot on the sets of Corman's later Masque of the Red Death (directed by Larry Brand) and featuring Miller's Stefan relating the story in flashback to new characters played by Rick Dean (Island of Blood) and Wayne Grace (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter).


Although distributed by American International, The Terror fell into the public domain because of Corman's practice of not copyrighting his Filmgroup productions. Besides plenty of late night and early morning television screenings, the film has been regularly available throughout the various video formats including VHS editions from mainstream labels like Media Home Entertaininment and various LP/SLP budget bin sell-through editions, and those same masters made their way to public domain DVD (the aforementioned 1990 patchwork "The Haunting" only appeared on DVD abroad including the U.K.). A widescreen version appeared on the AMC cable television channel but the image quality was only a step above the PD editions and the film's Blu-ray debut from HD Cinema Classics was severely hampered by DNR. The Film Detective's subsequent BD-R edition came from the same master before DNR was applied, revealing that the former's 1.78:1 image had also been cropped from the original master's 1.85:1 framing.

We do not have any more information on the source of Film Masters' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen version apart from their statement of "new HD restoration from 35mm archival elements." It may be the same print material used for the earlier master – the negative is presumably long gone – but the improvement over The Film Detective edition may just indicate the advance in film scanning technology in fifteen years (if, we are to assume, that 2014 The Film Detective release's master was indeed what the 2011 HD Cinema Classics release looked like before DNR was applied). Some diffusion in front of the lens might have been used in the sunny exteriors, but grain reveals itself not only in the textures of of skin and clothes but also the bright sky backdrops which were previously just noisy and indistinct. A few long shots suggest either some 16mm patchwork or just some lazy focus (unlikely to be insufficient lighting for stopping the lens down more if they were using the same amount of studio lighting they needed for the sixties anamorphic lenses used on The Raven before it) while grain, of course, becomes coarser during opticals, as well as the film's stock footage from the Poe film – cropped from anamorphic Panavision unlike the significantly inferior Poe cycle-inspired anthology Gallery of Horrors which was lensed (albeit with unimaginative static blocking) in Totalvision to take advantage of some of the same anamorphic stock footage – which is sometimes significantly softer than the surrounding footage.


Audio options include English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks in which set audio, location audio, and some post-dubbing all come through clearly amidst crashing waves, thunder, and the scoring of Ronald Stein which lends the film some elegance even if it is not quite so grand and majestic as his accompaniment for Corman's The Haunted Palace. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.


Extras start off with an audio commentary by film historians C. Courtney Joyner and Dr. Steve Haberman who offer up a refreshingly appreciative view of the film given its history and tendency to dismiss it due to how it was often screened and what was known about its shooting history. They do quash the legend that Karloff did the film because he owed Corman another picture, noting that Karloff signed on to do the film even though he was skeptical that a good film could be made in three days, reveal that the credits drawings and animation were the work of Paul Julian who also did the title sequence drawings for Dementia 13 but was best known for his work at Looney Toons, and that the matte paintings appropriated as stock footage from the Poe films were the work of Universal visual effects artist Albert Whitlock (Cat People). They also attempt to point out just which scenes were shot by which director, and provide some recollections of the cast and crew.

"Ghosts in the Machine: Art & Artiface in Roger Corman's Celluloid Castle" (44:12) is a visual essay by film historians Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr discussing the film and its relation to the Haller sets as the culmination of that period of Corman's filmmaking career in which he developed an economic means of storytelling in conjunction with the audience through the use of formulaic elements that were shuffled throughout the series into new scenarios. They also discuss the influences of other filmmakers on Corman including Maya Deren and even Alfred Hitchcock, suggesting that The Terror in some ways is Corman's Vertigo.

Sadly, Film Masters has not included a scan of the original theatrical trailer as the 2023 re-cut theatrical trailer (2:10) makes use of the same footage from the film's HD master but its digital recreations of the opticals and text feel cheap (and they are indeed cheaper than the cost of those original film opticals).

As with their previous release of Beast from Haunted Cave, Film Masters has included an entire second feature with its own extras on a second disc. Although Little Shop of Horrors seems like an odd pairing with the Gothic The Terror, it is actually quite a fitting companion in that it too was a production initiated by Corman to take advantage of an available set with studio photography taking place over two days and location shooting over a single night; and it too features Haze, Miller, and one of Nicholson's earliest feature film appearances in a hilarious bit part that inexplicably won him top billing on some of the many PD label VHS and DVD releases of the film. Essentially a quick reworking of A Bucket of Blood, with "poet laureate of the drive-in" screenwriter Charles Griffith swapping the beatnik crowd for the eccentrics of Skid Row – in the way he had revamped his script for Naked Paradise into Beast from Haunted Cave and subsequently Creature from the Haunted Sea – and replacing Miller feeding his creativity with the blood of victims to Haze's Seymour literally feeding a fastly-growing carnivorous plant, the film retains the blackly comic tone but is much more entertaining in retrospect for its quirky characters and performances (particularly Mel Welles' Yiddish boss, Jackie Joseph's sweet love interest, Miller's flower eating customer, and Nicholson's masochist dental patient. The revamping follows through to a shocking exposure of the protagonist's deeds and a final amusingly grim reveal of his sad fate.

Also consigned to the public domain after its theatrical release – with rumors that the lack of copyright mean that Corman lost out big when the property was turned into a Broadway musical and the $25 million feature version – Little Shop of Horrors was well-represented in terrible shape on VHS and DVD including two colorized versions on Buena Vista's DVD of The Cry Baby Killer and a DNR-heavy Blu-ray from Legend Films. Film Masters' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 Blu-ray reveals that the widescreen framing is more considered than the familiar open-matte 1.33:1 framing despite the assumption that little care went into the framing of these quickies. This is easily the best the film has looked, with the sharpness and textures in the studio scenes benefiting from the flat, even lighting – with staging of the actors and positioning of props and dιcor in foreground, midground, and background lending compositions a sense of dynamism – while the night exterior shoot sports inky blacks and better rendition of highlights than the earlier transfers.

Extras start off with an audio commentary by film star Jonathan Haze, moderated by author Justin Humphreys in which the actor reveals that he knew Corman regulars like Griffith and Welles before actor Bruno VeSota introduced him to Corman who was running his office out of a restaurant and discusses working Corman's directorial approach as well as working with Welles on shooting the night location scenes later in the film without Corman – including making up the scene featuring the prostitute victim played by Welles' wife Meri Welles – and that his character's mother was played by radio comedian Myrtle Vail of "Myrt and Marge". Humphreys provides production anecdotes and factoids, revealing that Miller was offered the lead but turned it down because it was too similar to his role in A Bucket of Blood. He also offers up a poignant reading of the film contrasting Seymour's nurturing relationship with Audrey Jr. and his more draining relationship with his alcoholic and sickly mother.

The disc also includes "Hollywood Intruders: The Filmgroup Story - Part 2" (17:14) – part one being on the aforementioned Beast from Haunted Cave release – which focuses on Corman's and his brother Gene's productions Last Woman on Earth, Creature from the Haunted Sea, and the pickup The Devil's Partner (the latter two presented in another Film Masters' double feature).

The disc closes with a 2023 re-cut theatrical trailer (1:28).


Housed with the two discs is a twenty-two page booklet featuring Joyner's "Boris Karloff and the Long Shadow of Poe" – discussing Karloff's other theatrical and television Poe roles from the 1926 silent The Bells and the Universal duo of The Black Cat and The Raven to a Thriller take on "The Premature Burial" – and Mark McGee's "Faster! Faster!" covering the three day shoot of Little Shop of Horrors and the film's legacy.


Film Masters provide a tonally-odd yet strangely apt pair of The Terror and Little Shop of Horrors in what is likely the best presentations we may ever see of them.


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