BOOTLEG FILES 384: “The Terror” (1963 horror flick starring Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson).
LAST SEEN: The film is available on several online sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only as a public domain title.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film was never registered for copyright protection.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely, since it is one of the most highly visible orphaned films of all time.
Not every brainstorm results in a superior endeavor, as witnessed with the strange and silly 1963 flick “The Terror.” What was hatched as an ultra-quickie effort to squeeze extra usage from standing sets and available actors would eventually spin out of control – only to return many years later to haunt its embarrassed creators.
“The Terror” was never supposed to be made – low-budget film wizard Roger Corman was actually in the midst of helming “The Raven” in 1962 at the cheapie American International Pictures studios when he realized that he was running ahead of his production schedule. Rather than waste the film’s sets and stars, he contacted writer Leo V. Gordon about slapping together a script for a hitherto unscheduled film. “I’ll shoot on this set for two or three days,” Corman reportedly told Gordon. “And, that way, you’ll only have to write the amount of script that we’ll need for those two days. We’ll stop the picture after three days and, at a later date, when we have a finished script, we’ll film the rest.”
Corman paid Gordon $1,600 to produce 60 pages of gothic horror material that could fit into sets for “The Raven.” The script was originally titled “The Lady of the Shadows” and Corman made a deal with Boris Karloff, one of the stars of “The Raven,” to serve as the new film’s nominal star. Karloff received a small fee and the promise of a $15,000 deferred payment once this new production earned back $150,000.
Corman had also hoped to snag Karloff’s co-star from “The Raven,” Vincent Price, but the horror great was already contractually obligated to appear on a lecture tour. Instead, Corman tapped another actor from the cast of “The Raven” to star opposite Karloff: Jack Nicholson, a young character actor who had small parts in earlier Corman works (most notably as the gleefully masochistic dental patient in “The Little Shop of Horrors”), was given his first leading role. At Nicholson’s request, Corman cast his then-bride Sandra Knight as the ghostly presence who haunts Karloff’s baron.
Unfortunately, Gordon’s first swipe at a script was a bizarre hodgepodge involving a mad baron in the early 19th century (Karloff) who is living in an eerie castle. The ghost of his dead wife, whom he murdered upon discovering she was unfaithful, haunts him. A French soldier from the Napoleonic wars who is separated from his troops (Nicholson, wearing Marlon Brando’s old costume from the 1954 “Desiree”) comes to the castle after seeing a young woman who may be ghost of the baron’s dead wife.
Since Corman only had Karloff for three days, he put the elderly actor through a rigorous series of scenes. Karloff was shot walking down endless hallways and climbing staircases, and he was submerged into a water tank for the climactic sequence that involved the flooding of the castle. Karloff was already in poor health when he began work on the production and was severely displeased at the direction he was receiving. However, Corman needed to get as much of Karloff as possible, since the film began without a completed screenplay and it was unclear how Gordon’s shaky foundation could hold up a solid horror film.
Once Karloff’s brief period on the set was over, Corman found that his contractual obligations prevented him from devoting more time to the unfinished production. Disregarding Directors Guild policy, he turned over the direction to three young creative artists who were rising their way through the American International Pictures structure: Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman and Jack Hill (who also worked on the screenplay with Gordon). Even Nicholson was given an opportunity to direct several scenes. However, only Corman received on-screen directing credit.
Even if one was unaware of the backstory of “The Terror” (as the film became known), it is hard not to notice that film is plagued with striking artistic inconsistencies. There are several scenes that are visually stunning – most notably an ethereal shot of the baron’s allegedly ghostly wife standing along a violent oceanfront and a jolting scene where a mysterious old woman hypnotizes the baron’s wife with a multicolored magic lantern. But elsewhere, the film is full of cheapjack moments – particularly a cardboard graveyard that is home to a blatantly bogus crypt.
There is also the problem of just where “The Terror” takes place. A number of scenes were shot along California’s Big Sur coastline, and the Pacific waterfront is easily recognizable. Yet the baron’s castle appears to be somewhere in Germany, which makes the coastline shots anachronistic. It also doesn’t help that Nicholson’s French officer speaks with a bland New Jersey accent or that the baron’s butler (played by Dick Miller) has a distinctive Bronx accent.
Nicholson would later acknowledge that “The Terror” was a mess, claiming, “I believe the funniest hour that I have ever spent in a projection room was watching the dailies for ‘The Terror.” But much of the problem came in Nicholson’s blank performance and monotonous line readings. Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich would recall, “I remember thinking that Nicholson was a bad actor because of that movie.”
However, Bogdanovich would use “The Terror” for his own purposes: he included scenes from the film in his 1968 production “Targets,” which starred Karloff in his last great performance (playing an aging horror film icon, naturally). But Karloff had few fond memories of “The Terror” – it took him three years before Corman paid him the $15,000 deferment that he was promised.
Corman never registered “The Terror” with the U.S. Copyright Office and the film has always been a public domain title. After Nicholson finally achieved proper stardom with “Easy Rider” in 1969, enterprising public domain distributors rediscovered the film. It has been one of the most highly duped films of all time, with numerous VHS and DVD releases on cheapo labels and presentations on Internet video sites. Corman tried to correct his mistake by shooting new footage for a 1989 video release with Dick Miller, but that version didn’t sell much.
Ultimately, Nicholson gave the best analysis of “The Terror” in a later-career interview: “It was incredibly bad.” Yup, Jack nailed it!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!