Can you follow the plot of the 1963 horror film, The Terror?
If so, congratulations! You’ve accomplished something that even the people who made the film have admitted to being unable to do.
The film opens in 19th century Europe. Andre Duvalier is an earnest French soldier who has somehow gotten lost in Germany. Andre is played by a youngish, pre-stardom Jack Nicholson. Nicholson, that most contemporary, sarcastic, and American of actors, is thoroughly unconvincing as an idealistic Frenchman from 1806. Obviously unsure of what do with the character, Nicholson delivers his lines stiffly and does what he can to downplay the naturally sardonic sound of his voice. This is probably the only film where Jack Nicholson is a “nice young man.”
Andre meets a mysterious woman named Helene (played by Sandra Knight, who was Nicholson’s wife at the time). Helene appears to live in a castle with the Baron (Boris Karloff) and his servant, Stefan (Dick Miller, who makes no effort to come across as being, in anyway, European). However, Helene bears a distinct resemblance to the Baron’s long-dead wife, Ilse, who the Baron killed after discovering her with another man. However, a witch in the village claims that Ilse’s lover was her son so she put a curse on the Baron and the presence of Helene is a part of that curse. However, Stefan claims that the Baron isn’t actually the Baron and and that Ilse’s husband isn’t actually dead. However….
Yes, there’s a ton of plot twists in this movie, which is probably the result of the fact that the film was shot without a completed script. In fact, the only reason the movie was made was because Roger Corman had access to Boris Karloff and a castle set that he used for The Raven. When he discovered that he could use the set for two extra days, he shot some random footage with Boris Karloff and then he tried to build a movie around it. As a result, the cast and the directors largely made up the story as the filmed.
Yes, I said directors. While Corman shot the Karloff scenes, he no longer had enough money to use a union crew to shoot the rest of the film. Because Corman was a member of the DGA, he couldn’t direct a nonunion film. So, he assigned the rest of the film to one his assistants, an aspiring filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola shot the beach scenes and, in a sign of things to come, he went overbudget and got behind schedule. Coppola was meant to shoot for three days but instead went for eleven.
Though Coppola shot the majority of the film, he got a better job offer before he could do any reshoots. Coppola suggested that a friend of his from film school, Dennis Jakob, take over. Jakob shot for three days and reportedly used most of the time to shoot footage for his thesis movie.
Still feeling that the movie needed a few extra scenes to try to make sense of the plot, Corman then gave the film to Monte Hellman and, after Hellman got hired for another job, Jack Hill. Hellman would later go on to direct films like The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop. Jack Hill would later direct Spider Baby and several other exploitation films in the 70s. Reportedly, on the final day of shooting, even Jack Nicholson took some time behind the camera. It was Nicholson’s first directing job. (Nicholson, for his part, has often said that his original ambition in Hollywood was to become a director and not an actor.)
So, yes, the film’s a bit disjointed. The plot doesn’t make any sense. Nicholson shows little of his trademark charisma. But Dick Miller has a lot of fun as the duplicitous Stefan and Boris Karloff brings his weary dignity to the role of the Baron. Oddly, even though the Baron’s scene were shot before the script had even been written, they’re the ones that make the most sense. It’s a messy film but it plays out with a certain hallucinatory style. It’s a piece of Hollywood history and a testament to Roger Corman’s refusal to waste even two days of shooting. If you’ve got a star and a set for two days, you’ve got enough for a movie!