Storm-lashed rocks… Lightning over the castle. The Baron stalks the deserted corridors, “an old man and his decaying memories.” He operates a candelabra-switch to enter a secret door. Descending into the catacombs, he follows a trail that leads to a cobwebbed skeleton. While Andre Duvalier, a disillusioned officer in the Napoleonic army, torn loose from his regiment, meanders his horse along the beach sea-edge following his fluctuating compass. Sick, lost both physically and spiritually, he passes out, waking as the foam laps his face, and he sees a mysterious woman in the tide. She directs him to a stream of clear water from the mountains… then vanishes.
The stardom he’d enjoy with Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces lay years into the future when 26-year-old Jack Nicholson appeared in this zero-budget Roger Corman flick. “It’s enjoyably atmospheric,” concedes The Observer’s film critic Philip French, adding “the story of the production is more exciting than the film itself.”
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In fact, it was hurriedly shot by six directors – five un-credited, including Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, and Nicholson himself, who were forced to shoot the film on a five-day turnaround. The semi-improvised script evolved on a rolling basis as part of the process, with plot twists and details added, and adapted with little regard to cohesion or continuity.
The gothic goings-on centre on an isolated castle in 1806, supposedly on the shores of the Baltic, but actually filmed around Big Sur, using spare footage and sets left over from Corman’s previous movie The Raven, even as they were being dismantled. With the star, and the sets in place, Corman simply shot spools of Karloff walking up and down corridors and descending staircases, film later seized upon and fleshed out by other hands. The macabre torture credit-paintings hint at a Poe preoccupation and despite the artificiality of the trappings, and against the odds, the result is effective in a morbid Poe-sick fashion with a horror more psychological than splatter. Drained greys, whites and pale reds evoke the mood. As though this is a Universal classic incompletely colourised, or maybe that’s just an effect of the ageing film stock?
Despite their difference in years, both Andre (Jack Nicholson), and the Baron (Boris Karloff), are weary figures, tormented by guilt and remorse, their obsessional themes of grief and bereavement all the more disturbing for being genuine touchable states. Andre’s aristocratic father was beheaded in revolutionary Paris. The Baron and his manservant Stefan live alone in self-imposed isolation. He, too, has seen too many soldiers. Returning home after fighting in the Polish campaign he found his wife Ilsa with a lover. In a jealous rage he killed her as Stefan disposed of the lover. The Baron has never recovered from her death, “his illness is not of the flesh,” as Stefan explains.
In penance he’s not set foot outside the castle since. Behind Karloff’s great immobile stone edifice of a face there’s always been the lurking suggestion of a hidden universe of inexpressible sorrow: seldom more so than here, when his infirmity and arthritic movement is increasingly apparent. Both he and Andre are haunted by the same vision of luring beauty, Helene to Andre, Ilsa to the Baron, extending a promise of healing love, forever beyond reach. In repeated tantalising visions Andre finds Helene again, and follows her across a bizarre series of disconnected landscapes, before she walks into the sea and vanishes. A symbolic bird escapes and flies free.
Later he glimpses her at the castle window. Then his horse is spooked by a vision of her in the castle’s graveyard. When he wakes he imagines he sees her again, but the image shifts to one of an old woman. The wandering soldier has been rescued by the taciturn Gustaf, and recuperates in the forest home of the witch Katerina. They deny knowing ‘Helene’. “There is no girl,” warns the old woman, who refuses to recognise the drawing he’s done of her. Although he wakes in the night to see the symbolic bird devouring a dead mouse. He follows it into the forest – to find Helene by the stream. Again he is lured away by her… until Gustaf demonstrates she is leading him into quicksand. Later, Gustaf himself encounters Ilsa/ Helene on a spit of rock by the sea from which she has emerged, and he explains to Andre that to free her he must seek within the castle. Neither an avalanche nor the witch’s warning fail to discourage him.
He follows the coastline to see the castle seemingly disconnected from the earth by cloud, rising like some fantasy concoction. The Baron is interrupted from ‘his devotions’ to open the door. Andre is reluctantly ushered into the relics of his noble house, only to find more confusing visions. Andre follows the Baron after overhearing him in conversation, yet he is alone. Wandering the castle Andre hears her luring voice appealing for help. Returning to his room he is startled by a glimpse of her, and then finds his drawing of her ripped in two. He sees mysterious light and movement beneath the locked door of his room, but he emerges to find nothing. Armed with his pistol, he explores, and finds the rusted tomb of Baroness Von Leppe… who died 20 years ago.
He forces the Baron to divulge his tale. The symbolic bird flies above. Andre determines to leave the castle, but is hailed by Gustaf, who is promptly driven to his death by the bird, his eyes torn out he goes over the cliff. With his dying breath he urges Andre to go back, her soul cries out for release. Meanwhile, in another story-strand, Stefan seeks answers at the house in the forest and sees the witch mesmerising a girl using a handheld coloured device, its revolving lenses projecting a flashing ripple of psychedelic colours. Perhaps this is the real flesh-and-blood girl she is hypnotising to become the vision haunting both Andre and the Baron? When he threatens her, Katerina first reveals that her son, Eric, was Ilsa’s murdered lover – and that the Baron will pay with his immortal soul. Later, it seems no, it was the Baron who was killed, and Eric took his place. So Eric is the Baron, although in his hallucinating confusion he has become the Baron. If that’s true, wouldn’t she know? Is she inadvertently conspiring against her own son? Or maybe, if the ‘Baron’ has never left the castle since, she doesn’t realise? Confusing? Only if you over-think it…
Gothic always functions best as dream-logic supernatural suggestion rather than rational narrative. Turn off your critical mind, glide on its elements, and it works. Remorse, guilt and tragedy conspire. Returning, Andre finds the girl beside the misty chapel, and they embrace. He appeals to her that they can escape together, in Paris the dead cannot reach them. “Love me, and there is no fear,” he tells her. But as he goes to retrieve his horse, thunder and lightning rake the sky, and she’s gone again. Seeking through mist and tombs he finds only the old woman and the circling bird. He’s too late, she tells him. She’s already made her pact with the devil. Andre watches as she’s struck by lightning and incandesces into flame.
Back in the castle he stalks the Baron through the secret doorway into the crypt beneath. The Baron is pleading to Ilsa’s cold tomb, “my love, my love, I’m weary, my soul cries out for release.” She appears to him, purportedly the spirit of Ilsa which “your unholy sin gave over to the dark powers,” telling him they can only rest when the sea enters the crypt and they lie together in eternal sleep beneath the waves. He cannot, he daren’t; his soul will be damned. But he smashes open the sluice in final desperation. The stone crypt fractures and begins to break up as the roaring seawater deluges in. Andre arrives in the nick of time, rescues the girl and carries her out into the night. No phantom? Perhaps he’s rescued the hypno-manipulated Helene? He embraces her, kisses her, but looking back, she dissolves into slime. Confusing? An excerpt from The Terror is featured in an on-screen sequence in Peter Bogdanovich’s fine Targets (1968), in which Karloff plays the part of an ageing horror-movie star reminiscing over his long career. In that context, suddenly yes, it all makes sense.