Set in the early 1960s and filmed in Paterson, New Jersey, Alice Sweet Alice is one of the better shockers ever made with a religious theme.
The film was originally released as Communion, and then later rereleased as Holy Terror - in an effort to cash in on Brooke Shields' then newfound fame. Whatever the title, it was an impressive debut for director Alfred Sole.
In the house where their priest Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) lives, Catherine (Linda Miller) and her two daughters are paying a visit. The daughters are Alice (Paula Sheppard) and Karen (Brooke Shields) and they both attend the St. Michael's Parish's girl's school.
Karen is about to make her holy communion, and the Father has given her a gift, a crucifix. Karen is a beautiful girl - while Alice is strange and withdrawn...and takes to wearing her school's standard shiny yellow raincoat and a creepy translucent mask. Alice is extremely jealous of her sibling.
She takes a doll that their father has given Karen and then lures her into an abandoned building. Alice briefly locks Karen in a room and tells her that if anyone finds out, she'll never see the doll.
The day of the communion arrives. As all the boys and girls are filing in to receive it, a masked figure in the hooded school raincoat grabs Karen from behind and strangles her.
Dragging her into a back room, the
figure puts Karen into a bench compartment and pulls the crucifix off the girl's neck, before setting her on fire.
Smoke fills the church and a suspicious nun gets up to see what's happened. She opens the compartment and screams, making the sign of the cross. Members of the congregation run in, horrified. Karen's mother is inconsolable.
A funeral is held and Catherine's ex-husband Dominick (Niles McMaster) arrives to help her through her grief. Catherine's sister Annie (Jane Lowry), who loathes and mistrusts Alice, decides to stay with Catherine to keep her company. Over breakfast,
Annie implicates her niece in Karen's murder.
The dead girl's father is brought to the police station, where he is told that Alice should see a shrink. Dominick tries to call Father Tom, but the priest's overprotective housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton), won't put him through.
The Father picks up the phone and hears the exchange. He tells Dominick that the police took Alice's records from school and that he needs to talk to him. When they meet, the priest tells him about Alice's troubles.
Back at the apartment, when Alice drops a glass of milk on the kitchen floor, Aunt Annie yells at her and tells her that she should be in school. Alice puts on her yellow slicker and heads down to their landlord's apartment to give him the rent check.
Mr. Alfonso (Alphonso DeNoble) is a disgusting fat slob who sits in his filthy apartment all day in his soiled pants, listening to old music with his cats. Alice likes to taunt him, and this time he grabs her and tries to fondle her. She picks up one of his cats and throws it across the room before running out.
Down into the basement she goes, where she lights a candle and puts on her mask. Meanwhile, Aunt Annie is going out.
She heads down the stairs, when suddenly a masked figure below her stabs her repeatedly in her leg and foot. Screaming in pain and yelling Alice's name, Annie drags herself outside where she falls in the rain.
At the hospital, Annie cries to her huband that Alice tried to kill her. The young girl is taken in for questioning and observation by a psychiatrist. She is certified as a schizophrenic...prone to violent outbursts.
Meanwhile, Dominick receives a call from Angela, Annie's daughter. She tells him that she has Karen's crucifix and that she wants to give it to him. They are to meet in an abandoned building.
When he gets there, he sees someone in a mask and yellow raincoat. He chases the person into an empty warehouse. Ascending the stairs, the person stabs him in the shoulder. Dominick falls but recovers and
continues his pursuit.
The perpetrator hides and manages to hit him in the face with a brick. Dominick is tied up and pushed to the edge of an open window. Finally the person takes the mask off. It's Mrs. Tredoni, Father Tom's housekeeper! It looks as if she has been trying to frame Alice for the attacks by dressing as a little girl.
She yells that Dominick and Catherine are sinners, implying that they had Karen out of wedlock.
Mrs. Tredoni has Karen's crucifix, but Dominick grabs it off of her with his teeth. In a particularly gruesome scene, Tredoni breaks his teeth with a brick in an effort to retreive it.
She then pushes his body out of the window. During the autopsy, the crucifix is found lodged in his throat.
It's time for Sunday mass. Before Alice leaves to church with her mother, she stops by Mr. Alfonso's apartment and puts an open jar filled with cockroaches on his stomach as he's sleeping. Mrs. Tredoni
heads to church, packing a knife in a shopping bag.
First she stops by Catherine's apartment, possibly to kill her. She is wearing the St. Michael's Parish slicker and her mask. Mr. Alfonso wakes up just as she passes his door.
Believing she's Alice, he grabs her. Tredoni pulls out the knife and stabs him twice.
At the church, the police wait outside hoping to quietly apprehend Mrs. Tredoni after she goes up for communion. As she is about to receive it, Father Tom tries to calmly escort her out. She grabs the butcher knife and stabs the priest in the neck.
Bleeding profusely, he falls at the altar and into Mrs. Tredoni's arms. Alice walks up and grabs the shopping bag. In the final shot, she walks away and pulls the knife out of the bag...
Alice, Sweet Alice was a startling directoral debut for Alfred Sole and this is one of the few examples where a low budget enhances the overall feel of a film and contributes to its shocking power.
Catholicism is filled with images that are perfect for a horror film, if done well. And Sole delivers a masterful thriller, quite unexpectedly. Simply put, this one has nearly everything going for it...a realistic New Jersey setting and ominous religious themes.
Alice, Sweet Alice also features one of the scariest masked killers to come out of the genre. You don't need to see Bruce Campbell's face stretched cartoonishly out of proportion (achieved through a computer, no less) to be frightened. Just give us a yellow rain slicker, a semi-translucent mask and a hint of smeared lipstick, thankyouverymuch.
Sole co-wrote the sometimes confusing screenplay with Rosemary Ritvo and it is perhaps the film's one weakness.
The highly effective score was composed by Stephen Lawrence and he would go onto write for the decidely different world of Sesame Street.
The cast is mostly capable, if a little rough around the edges. Linda Miller, daughter of Jackie Gleason and who played Catherine, is at times overwrought. Character actress Mildred Clinton is chilling as Mrs. Tredoni.
And Paula Sheppard? She would later star in the New Wave cult classic, Liquid Sky. Playing a twelve-year old here, she was actually nineteen when she filmed Alice, Sweet Alice. It's an incredible performance, spooky in its nuances...an unforgettable portrait of wicked malevolence.