If Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee working together couldn’t save a movie, what hope do we have with the super team-up of Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller? Let’s find out!
If you’re familiar with American International Pictures during the 1960s, you know immediately what you’re in for as the API logo appears during the opening credits of The Terror (1963). Roger Corman was making bank adapting Edgar Allan Poe tales on a shoestring budget, casting horror icons like Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff on the cheap, and cranking them out on dodgy sets. And while The Terror isn’t technically a Poe tale, it can be considered an honorary member of Corman’s Poe cycle since the same methods were implemented in making it.
The Terror concerns Lt. Andre Duvalier (Nicholson), a French officer, separated from his unit. As he rides across the rocky, Pacific-looking coast of France, he encounters a mysterious young woman named Helene. She leads him to water, saying little about herself. An incident occurs that nearly drowns Duvalier, and he awakens in an old woman’s hovel, with Helene nowhere in sight. Looking for answers and better shelter, Duvalier pays a visit to the local noble, the Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe (Karloff), who dwells in the moldering pile of a castle with his servant, Stefan (a young Dick Miller who nevertheless looks exactly like old Dick Miller). Duvalier spots a woman in the castle’s window that resembles Helene, but the Baron assures him that the only woman to ever occupy the castle is his long-dead wife, Ilsa—who looks exactly like Helene in a painting hanging in the castle hall. Duvalier decides to hang around and get some answers, but digging into the past has a tendency of bringing things to light people would be better forgetting…
The Terror was filmed on the coattails of the much superior Poe film, The Raven. The movie recycles not only the set, but Karloff and Nicholson, and is a much dour film compared to the one with Peter Lorre walking around in a feather suit. The Terror is clearly in the Poe/gothic tradition with lost loves, terrible secrets, sealed crypts, voices in the night, and secret passages aplenty, but it’s hard to forget the California sun is burning bright just outside the studio building as Karloff and Nicolson stride across the API sets. Still, it’s a treat to see Nicholson at the beginning of his career and Karloff at the end of his, together. The streaming version I watched via Amazon is of terrible quality, unfortunately, delivering a muddy, blurred film as if the movie had been recovered from the flooded crypt of the film’s climax.
While The Terror has plenty going against it, there’s enough in its favor (including a certain Francis Ford Coppola as uncredited director) to save it entirely from the ashcan of Hollywood. I’m awarding it 2.5 skulls out of 5. Add an extra half-a-skull if you’re a fan of Corman’s cheap movie making and/or Dick Miller.