Terror (1978) *˝
If we’re in a generous mood, we might think of it as a form of truth in advertising. People had been making horror movies for a long time by 1978. If, that late in the game, you can’t think of a more interesting or evocative title for yours than Terror, you might as well be announcing to the world that you made it without benefit of a single original thought. And indeed Terror shows every sign of having been slapped together from odds and ends of the last three fright films that producer/scenarists Les and Moira Young saw— which, at a guess, were Suspiria, a lame Exorcist knockoff, and an even lamer late-model witch-burner from Continental Europe. At first, I had to marvel at the idea that David McGillivray (whom I know primarily from his work with Pete Walker at the high point of the latter’s career) had it in him to write a script as limp, saggy, and disheveled as this one. It started to make sense, though, when I noticed that “story by” credit for the Youngs. That would tend to imply that McGillivray’s job on Terror was to whip the incoherent plot handed to him by the producers into something at least minimally filmable, and he did clearly manage that much. He just couldn’t turn it into anything that made much sense, or that someone who demands more from a horror movie than a few impressively staged murders would find actively enjoyable.
Terror starts off with the witch-burning. An extremely grubby woman (Patti Love) flees through the forest by night with a torch-bearing peasant mob in pursuit until she is finally brought to bay with the help of a leg-hold trap. Inevitably, she has been accused of witchcraft and Satanism, and equally inevitably, she is to be burned at the stake. It’s apparently not just the mob that wants her, though, but also Lord and Lady Garrick (William Russell and Mary Maude, the latter from Crucible of Terror and The Finishing School), the local seigneurs. We never do find out just what she’s supposed to have done to the Garricks, but I’m sure it wasn’t good. I’m also confident that she actually did it, because what goes on when the mob tries to light her up unmistakably betokens genuine infernal power. Indeed, even once the witch’s executioners do manage to get her properly burned, it isn’t enough to stop her charbroiled ghost from putting in an appearance at the baronial manor to kill both Lord and Lady Garrick, and to pronounce a curse on all of their descendants unto the extinction of the family line.
Nothing we just saw is quite what it seems, however, because none of it actually happened— or, it did, but not necessarily the way it was presented. That prologue, you see, was really the final reel of the latest movie from independent producer/director James Garrick (John Nolan), in which he has dramatized an old family legend. It might be going too far to say that James believes the story, but he plainly accepts that there’s some truth in it. If nothing else, there’s no denying that his is a lineage of short-lived, accident-prone people. The new film hasn’t been released yet— in fact, Garrick’s editor, Philip (James Aubrey, from Lord of the Flies and The Hunger), isn’t convinced he’s quite finished with it. Rather, the occasion for the screening is a party James is throwing at his ancestral chateau, to which he has invited among others his cameraman, Gary (Michael Craze, of Satan’s Slave and The Exorcism of Hugh); Gary’s actress girlfriend, Carol Tucker (Glynis Barber, from Invaders of the Lost Gold and Edge of Sanity); and Anne Garrick (Carolyn Courage), a cousin from out of town whom he met only a week ago. Gary fancies himself a hypnotist, and once the screening finishes up, he proposes to entertain the other guests by putting Carol into a trance and making her do tricks. It’s a hoax the couple have pulled at any number of similar gatherings, and James for one is thoroughly sick of it. Therefore he’s most amused at first when his cousin volunteers to be Gary’s next subject, and the jeering of the crowd essentially forces the bogus mesmerist to give her a try. A funny thing, though: Gary may be a phony, but the trance into which Anne lapses is indubitably the real thing. And because Gary obviously didn’t really put her into it, he has no control over her while she’s under. That becomes a major problem when Anne paces robotically across to the fireplace, takes down the wall-mounted sword which James identified earlier as the instrument of many an ancestor’s demise, and attacks James with it. A sound bitch-slapping restores Anne to her senses, but it’s too late by then to salvage the party.
That’s only the beginning of the night’s miseries for James and his circle, though. While walking home through the woods on the Garrick estate, Carol is waylaid and stabbed to death. Meanwhile, Anne— who already had no memory of the incident with the sword— realizes when she arrives at the hostel where she’s been staying that she doesn’t remember coming home, either. Consequently, she also has no idea why her hands are all covered with blood. She might tell her roommate, Suzy (Sarah Keller), that she cut herself on something at the party, but nobody bleeds that much without a noticeable wound, and Anne hasn’t got one of those. You think maybe that’s Carol’s blood? James starts to wonder much the same when he hears the bad news the next day, although in his case, it’s the party-wrecking sword-swinging that sparks the misgivings. He seems also to imagine that the police will consider him a suspect, for he starts behaving with a strange secretiveness at work, and unapologetically screws over a fellow director (The Beast in the Cellar’s Peter Craze) to whom he had previously agreed to rent space in his studio for the day. Evidently Garrick is concerned about the possible public-relations fallout of having Bathtime with Brenda shot on his property. “Brenda,” incidentally, is really Viv (Tricia Walsh), another of the girls who board at Anne’s hostel, and a coworker of hers at the rather depressing strip club where seemingly the whole population of the house waits tables. That becomes significant a few nights later, when a particularly slimy regular known as Phil the Greek (Chuck Julian, of Spaceflight IC-1 and Scream for Help) gets killed in a remarkably nasty way after being ejected from the club for molesting Anne. Most of Anne’s housemates begin turning suspicious eyes in her direction after that, and soon they too are being stabbed and mutilated to death. Those murders quickly bring the police around to the hostel, and it takes them no time at all to conclude that the dead girls were probably right about Anne. The official attention accomplishes nothing in the long run, however, but to get a cop killed, too.
Again, though, there’s more here than meets the eye. The early slayings were depicted slasher-style, with ultra-tight closeups on the murder weapons serving to obscure the killer’s identity. Viv’s death, on the other hand, is shown from a slightly greater distance— great enough to make it clear that there’s nobody holding the knife that takes her apart! And the police constable who dies while Anne is making her escape from the hostel gets run down by his own car, which plainly no one is driving. Meanwhile, Anne isn’t even on the premises when the epidemic of violent death spreads to the Garrick studio, claiming both the porno director and Philip in ways that defy rational explanation. That can mean only that the Garrick curse is real after all, and that the long-dead witch’s spirit has at last decided to administer the coup de grace to the clan now that it is represented solely by James and Anne.
There’s a gaping hole through the center of that premise, though. The witch’s grudge is against the Garrick family specifically, and we are told early on that her curse is supposed to apply only to lineal descendants of the Garricks who instigated her execution. Anne isn’t one of those, though, as she is explicitly stated to belong to a collateral branch of the family from James’s. She ought to be exempt on that score from supernatural persecution— and that goes double for the victims in the killing spree that begins with Carol’s murder, not one of whom has any apparent connection to the witch’s long-ago burning at all. Nor does Anne herself have any cause to wish Carol dead, however incriminating her blood-soaked hands and missing memories might be. Furthermore, the need to cover up her culpability for Carol’s death is the only thing that could provide her with anything like a motive to kill anybody else except maybe Phil the Greek. Consequently, all of the time and energy spent implicating Anne is completely wasted, and the suggestion that the witch merged somehow with her during her trance does nothing but to muddle the story further.
After all, it does appear to be Anne— in body, anyway— who commits the initial crime, and her behavior at the climax is explicable only if we assume that the witch is directly guiding her actions for part of it. But Viv’s death establishes incontrovertibly that the witch has no need of a material body to carry out her campaign of slaughter. Why bother with possession if you can already move knives, panes of broken glass, reels of film, and camera dollies around by telekinesis, and commandeer a police car via interdimensional remote control? You can’t even reasonably say that the witch was hoping to wreak vicarious vengeance on Anne by framing her for a slew of murders, because if that were the aim, then facilitating Anne’s escape from the law by killing the would-be arresting officer would obviously be exactly the wrong thing to do. The only interest being served by hijacking Anne’s body is the filmmakers’ interest in generating bogus suspense and uncertainty to maintain audience investment in a movie that doesn’t deserve any. If I’m right in suspecting that Les and Moira Young had Suspiria at least partly in mind when they plotted out Terror, then they learned all the wrong lessons from it. In Argento’s movie, it’s the how that doesn’t make any rational sense, which is perfectly okay when there’s black magic involved; once we’re introduced to the Mother of Sighs and her coven, however, the why falls securely into place. In Terror, by contrast, I can see no reason for anything that happens between the first fifteen minutes and the last. There’s nothing inherently unworkable about disguising a witchcraft movie as a slasher film, but for it to succeed, the witches need a rationale both for behaving like slashers and for choosing the victims they do. This witch has no motive for either.
Oh— and about that remotely-driven police car… How the fuck does a woman who was burned at the stake in the 17th century know how to operate an automobile, anyway?! That’s not even the best “Say… wait a minute!” moment in Terror, either. The best comes at the very end, when the witch finally manifests herself visibly to both James and Anne. She looks just the way she did when she decapitated Lady Garrick at the close of the prologue, Patti Love all blackened and crispy, and at first you probably won’t think anything of that. If you don’t, though, it’ll mean that you’ve temporarily forgotten the very same thing that the filmmakers did: the prologue was never supposed to be an authentic portrayal of the events at the root of the Garrick curse. Rather, it was the conclusion to James Garrick’s movie inspired by those events. The witch we saw, in other words, was an actress that James hired; the real witch who comes calling on the last of the Garricks at the climax ought to be somebody else altogether!
Unfortunately, Terror suffers from an even more serious defect than the aforementioned critical failures of story logic: it’s boring. The two flaws are related, however, for the main thing making Terror boring is the fact that the plot never really seems to be going anywhere— precisely because there’s so little semblance of cause and effect. The lack of practical congruence between the murders and the witch’s curse isn’t just something that becomes evident in retrospect, nor is Anne’s absence of motive any less immediately obvious. Whatever resolution Terror might offer in the end is unmistakably foredoomed to be total bullshit, if indeed it will deign to offer any resolution at all. That being so, the whole midsection is mere wheel-spinning, and McGillivray, the Youngs, and director Norman J. Warren are all powerless to make it seem otherwise. Even the biggest set-pieces— even Philip’s travails at the hands of four animate defective prints of Saturday Night Fever— feel as devoid of purpose as the inexcusably prolonged false scare involving Suzy and a tow truck driver, because they have every bit as little to do with the ostensible main conflict. Nothing that happens for the bulk of the film matters in the end, and none of it shows any sign of mattering even at the time.