The Terror (1963) poster

The Terror (1963)


USA. 1963.


Director/Producer – Roger Corman, Screenplay – Leo Gordon & Jack Hill, Photography – John Nickolaus, Music – Ronald Stein, Art Direction – Daniel Haller. Production Company – Filmgroup.


Jack Nicholson (Lieutenant Andre Duvalier), Boris Karloff (Baron Frederick Victor von Leppe), Sandra Knight (Helene), Richard Miller (Stefan), Dorothy Neumann (Katarina), Jonathan Haze (Gustaf)


Lieutenant Andre Duvalier, a Napoleonic cavalry soldier separated from his regiment, becomes captivated with Helene, a strange woman he encounters along the German coast. He thinks that she might be trying to lead him to his death in the surf and quicksand traps. He is granted lodgings at the nearby castle of the aging Baron von Leppe. When Helene appears in the castle, the Baron is certain that she is his wife Ilsa who died twenty years before. Andre also discovers that Helene is under the hypnotic control of a mysterious old woman who lives in the woods on the estate and that the old woman is plotting revenge against the Baron.

The Terror is a film from the legendary B-budget director-producer Roger Corman. As Corman’s reputation goes, Corman has four days extra shooting time left on the sets for his Edgar Allan Poe film The Raven (1963) so with his legendary entrepreneurial skill he used the extra time to make another entire film. Corman does tend to be the author of his own legend and at least capable of magnifying stories as to his own B-budget canniness, so one must regard this story with a certain dubiousness.

The Terror was later completed by reportedly everybody from a young Francis Ford Coppola; its co-writer and later director Jack Hill of Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1968) fame; Monte Hellman, the director of Two Lane Blacktop (1971); and even the young Jack Nicholson, who have all claimed to have worked on it – although it should be pointed out that Roger Corman is the only one credited as director on the finished film.

(l to r) Dick Miller and Baron von Leppe (Boris Karloff) in The Terror (1963)
(l to r) Dick Miller (back to camera) and Baron von Leppe (Boris Karloff)

For such a hurried whim with so many cooks in the broth, The Terror is a surprisingly good film. Although it is an original work, it uses many of the tropes that Roger Corman set up with his Edgar Allan Poe films – the tortured mood; people haunted by the crippling weight of past events; mysterious castles and their doom-laden residents; the innocent traveler who stumbles by; mystery women.

There is a particularly good opening with Jack Nicholson meeting the mysterious Sandra Knight on a beach and she trying to draw him out into the surf and maybe or maybe not drown him; their subsequent meeting where she tries to draw him into quicksand; and the revelation that she is supposed to be Boris Karloff’s dead wife. Roger Corman sustains the mood particularly well here.

The opening unfortunately is of little relevance to the rest of the film – we are given no explanation why Sandra Knight is trying to lure passing strangers to their doom. Nor does a pre-credits teaser where Boris Karloff wanders the castle and finds a skeleton in a closet have anything to do with the rest of the film. Even though they are second hand, the Raven castle sets still look impressive – in fact, the film probably makes much more atmospheric use of them in fact than The Raven itself did.

Jack Nicholson as young Napoleonic officer Andre Duvalier in The Terror (1963)
Jack Nicholson as young Napoleonic officer Andre Duvalier

The plot eventually does become increasingly improbable, particularly the revelations the denouement holds, which surely strains even the credibility of this genre’s propensity for melodramatically twisted psychological motivation. Not the least of which is when we are asked to believe that 76 year-old Boris Karloff is the son of 49-year-old Dorothy Neumann.

Roger Corman’s other genre films as director are:– Day the World Ended (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Not Of This Earth (1957), The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Journey to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), The Undead (1957), Teenage Caveman (1958), War of the Satellites (1958), A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Wasp Woman (1959), The House of Usher/The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), Last Woman on Earth (1960), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), Tower of London (1962), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Raven (1963), X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), The Trip (1967), Gas; or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1970) and Frankenstein Unbound (1990). Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011) is a documentary about Corman’s career.

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