The opening sequence involving a hilariously cheesy skull sets the tone for this forgotten piece of cult cinematic history.
Oftentimes a movie set can resemble a military operation. Much planning is required for the mobilization of cast and crew, who work as a unit to achieve the mission objective. Sometimes though that ethos goes out the window, and the troops are called into action at a moment’s notice.
This is what happened for The Terror in 1963, a very low budget Gothic horror with a soldier as the main character.
Jack Nicholson played the Napoleonic soldier and Boris Karloff the ominous figure who dwelled in the shadows of an old castle. If the scenario looks familiar, it’s because producer/director Roger Corman used the same set he had constructed for Edgar Allen Poe adaptation The Raven.
In fact, Karloff and Nicholson were part of that production also. When the notoriously canny Corman realized he had the castle setting for another few days, he decided to shoot another picture before the carpenters arrived to dismantle it.
Writers Leo Gordon and Jack Hill were asked to put together a workable script in double quick time. But with so little wriggle room, what did they come up with…?
The leading men were convinced to stay, along with Dick Miller, a stalwart of Corman’s team. Corman had a pre-existing deal with Nicholson, but bringing former Frankenstein’s Monster Karloff aboard proved a trickier proposition.
It’s speculated that Karloff took the gig for financial reasons. However, his experience was not a happy one.
As quoted in the 2016 book The Essential Jack Nicholson by James L. Neibaur, the screen legend remarked that “He (Corman) nearly killed me on the last day. He had me in a tank of cold water for about two hours… [The sets] were so magnificent… As they were being pulled down around our ears, Roger was dashing around with me and a camera, two steps ahead of the wreckers.”
Karloff may have been put out but developed a sense of humor about the situation, adding “It was very funny.” He maybe wasn’t so amused when the producer said his deferred fee would be deferred a little longer due to the film not earning enough money.
Furthermore, Dick Miller returned to his role of manservant Stefan three decades later to film new material. As The Terror was in the public domain because of an error in the credits, Corman hoped to copyright this revised version.
According to the book Faster and Furiouser by Mark Thomas McGee (1995), Miller said the Nineties Terror resulted in the biggest payday he’d received from his friend and boss.
This type of juggling act wasn’t exactly unusual behavior for Corman. While trying to shoot a film as the set got taken down was cutting it fine, even by his standards, he was renowned for his prolific output and cost-cutting sensibilities.
Despite causing those who worked for him aggravation, he remained much loved. The 2011 documentary Corman’s World saw tributes being paid not only by Nicholson, but the array of Hollywood talent who got their break toiling on his dime.
A young Francis Ford Coppola handled exterior shots for The Terror, and audiences may not have been introduced to the likes of Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, John Sayles and others had Corman not hired them.
Ultimately was this rush job and curio of American cinema worth the effort? Classic Horror states “The script, which was largely improvised, is to be commended for maintaining a fair sense of mystery for the first two-thirds.”
Unfortunately, the gamble fails to pay off in the closing act: “the story holds its own until the end when it tries to have one twist too many.”
“A flood destroys the castle and kills Von Leppe. (Sandra Knight’s) Helene/Ilsa’s spirit is freed while her face melts away (in a very unconvincing effect).”
The Terror may have ended with a whimper rather than a bang. Yet even today it’s a symbol of the enterprising spirit that became an essential part of American independent film. And for any Roger Corman fans or fans of cheesy cult horror, it’s a definite must-see.