The Terror

JANUARY 7, 2008


I used to refer to The Terror as my "Bedtime Movie". I bought it on VHS for like 39 cents when I was 16, thinking it was some lost gem. “How can it be bad, with Karloff AND Nicholson?” I said to myself. “Stop talking to yourself!” replied the clerk at Suncoast. Anyway, a few attempts to watch the film over the next week all resulted in me falling asleep within minutes. From then on, whenever I had trouble falling asleep, I would put it in and let nature take its course (this is back when I used to be allowed to have a TV in the bedroom. Never get married, kids!). Until today, I had never seen the whole thing (I even re-bought the film on its own DVD and still never made it through, making this budget copy version the 3rd copy I have owned!).

I don’t know how the hell I used to fall asleep during the first 10 minutes though. In the first SIX SECONDS we are given a spooky castle, waves crashing violently on the shore, and Karloff walking down some stairs. OK that’s not very exciting, but the way the 3 shots are edited together is so rough and violent, it seems like it is. Over the next few minutes we’re also treated to Jack Nicholson throwing his compass away because it’s not working in the spot he’s in (which is like when a guy in an action movie throws away a gun when it runs out of ammo. They’re not disposable!!!); a near drowning or two, Nicholson yelling at a woman, a bird attack, Nicholson trying to punch said bird, and what I am pretty sure is Dustin Hoffman in drag:

There’s also a nifty opening credit sequence that features some animation, giving the film a bit of extra production value (this is a Roger Corman movie, so PV is welcome wherever it can be found). This credit sequence also features several future names, including Monte Hellman and Francis Ford Coppola (both of whom were among the many uncredited directors of this movie), and the odd listing of RICHARD Miller instead of the usual Dick. Miller is at his most serious in this movie (never cracks a smile or does anything amusing.... hell, his character isn’t even named Walter Paisley), which is perhaps why he used his full name. Also an animated dove, for some reason.

I hope I still have that old DVD, because the compression on this is the worst I have ever seen on these budget packs. There’s a lot of water in the film (always a tough thing for compression, even on otherwise respectable DVDs), which doesn’t help, but even in non-water scenes, it’s very pixely. The whole climax of the film (it’s actually considered trivia that this Corman film has a water finale instead of a fire) looks less like a film and more like a very unattractive mosaic:

As for the movie itself, I haven’t a clue. There’s a woman who may be a ghost, a Baron who may not be the Baron, Nicholson supposedly being in the French army, a witch with a bird she can control, a mute... it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the film was made up as they went along, with several directors shooting stuff more or less at random. At one point, Miller explains that Karloff’s character killed the real Baron and took his place, and now believes he really is the Baron. Didn’t anyone notice? Is his Baron title just sort of honorary?

Corman apparently spent some time just shooting all of the actors walking up and down stairs, figuring he could work it all into the film somehow (and he does! That first shot of Karloff makes sense now!). As was often the case with Corman, the film was shot over a few days, using sets that were about to be torn down. The result is as slipshod as you might expect from such a shooting design, but yet it’s still strangely appealing, with the nonsensical story always moving along, plus some occasional gore. The end of the film, featuring a melting woman (no idea) was on my Doorways to Horror game that I mentioned in another review. So you know it’s good.

There are lots of errors in the movie (including “stones” that float), but my favorite was the giant metal door. Karloff raises the thing using a chain. He ducks under it, and it immediately falls back down (since no one is holding the chain). Then Miller and Nicholson open it, but this time it stays open, for no reason other than the fact Nicholson has to run back outside a few moments later. As he does, the door dutifully drops back down as soon as he gets through. It’s like the world’s first automatic door (the movie it set in 1806). Amazing.

What say you?


  1. I used to have this on VHS, and I too could never stay awake through it. Interestingly enough, there was a documentary on the making of The Shining in which Nicholson revealed that he learned the practice of highlighting all his own lines in his working script from Karloff.

  2. That's a cool story for Jack about Karloff and all, but I have to say...

    Is that really that revolutionary of a tip? I mean, I highlighted all my lines in my high school plays, and I never even MET Boris Karloff! :)

    Add me to the list of those who never made it through this movie. However, I do know that Peter Bogdonavich's (Corman-produced) directorial debut, the excellent Targets, features Karloff as an about-to-retire horror star hosting a drive-in retropspective of his horror films, and the one they show clips from on the drive-in screen is The Terror. Apparently it was part of Pete's movie deal that he had to use at least x number of minutes from the Terror to save money.

    More thriller than horror, but it's a great film--really worth tracking down, and Karloff is amazing in it.

  3. Funny you fell sleep with this movie, the movie that has that effect on me it's Coppola's Dracula, after 16 tries to watch the movie (from the first time in the theater,going to vhs,cable,tv,and dvd)I just gave up, but I started using it for my insomnia, after many years still Dragon Wars has that use...

  4. Just reading through your reviews, and I agree--this one puts me to sleep fast.

    I've never been able to watch this movie from start to finish. I was finally able to finish it by doing this: I watched the first half and then fell asleep. I then watched the second half after I woke up.


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