Director: Norman J. Warren
Writers: David McGillivray from a story by Les Young and Moira Young
From: Cult Cinema
A witch cursed the Garrick family centuries ago. Now, people close to the last two descendants of the family start dying in brutal ways.
One of the IMDB user reviews of this movie notes similarities to Argento’s Suspiria, and I think that’s a good starting point. Terror isn’t as strange as Suspiria or as visually ambitious, but they feel like aesthetic neighbors. The makers of Terror saw Suspiria and went, “that’s nice, but a bit much.” Where Suspiria’s bright and lurid with an unrelenting fable/nightmare logic, Terror mutes the colors and, when it doesn’t try to offer an explanation for what’s happening, tries to trick you into thinking there is one.
We open with a woman running through a forest pursued by a torch-wielding mob. She’s captured after stepping in a bear trap. The local lord and lady are alerted and arrive to watch the woman get tied to a stake. She calls on Satan to protect her and one of the townsfolk catches fire. Pretty nice man-on-fire, to be honest. She dies, but her ghost kills the lord and lady in their house and curses their family until the end of time. “THE END” flashes on screen because this has all been a movie within the movie.
Cut to the people watching the movie in the house where the film is set. The film’s been produced by James Garrick and the film is about his own family. The group breaks up to drink and chat and one of the friends says he can do hypnotism. As he starts, a wind rises outside and breaks a window. While James is looking for something to cover the hole, the friend hypnotizes James’ sister Ann. In the kitchen, James finds all the glassware broken including a pitcher that is sliced through, but still in one piece until he touches it. When he returns to the party, Ann is stuck in a trance. She takes the family’s ancestral sword from the wall and tries to kill James. She’s brought to and runs out of the house in horror. A friend follows shortly thereafter and is stalked and murdered with a blade by someone in the woods.
Are these supernatural murders? The work of Ann in a psychotic fugue? James attempting to drum up publicity for his film? The movie doesn’t do a good job of making you wonder. There are various victims, but the one I’ll highlight that demonstrates the problem with the film isn’t a victim at all.
So Ann lives with a bunch of other young woman in a hostel. The night of the murder, Ann comes home with blood all over her hands and is seen by her roommate. Later, her roommate mentions it to Ann, but Ann acts like she doesn’t remember. The roommate leaves, her car breaks down in the middle of the woods, and she finds an abandoned cottage. She finds a phone, calls a mechanic, someone arrives outside, and… it’s the mechanic who gives her a tow.
The bait-and-switch is fine, we’re used to that in movies, but what is the bait-and-switch trying to distract us from? Are we supposed to suspect Ann? There’s no way for Ann to be near her roommate or to have sabotaged the car. Are we supposed to suspect James? He’s less likely to be there than Ann. Are we supposed to think it’s the witch’s curse? Then why would people who aren’t part of the family be endangered? The people who die are, a family friend who’s a cousin (so curse maybe), a guy bothering Ann at work, a director who annoys James at the studio James owns, the actress from that shoot who lives with Ann, James’ co-worker at the studio, a cop trying to question Ann, and then James and Ann themselves because, surprise, it was the witch all along. THE END.
The movie doesn’t make sense on its own terms or in the sense of it trying to follow an Argento-esque nightmare logic. Characters appear largely to get killed and, since there’s no context for who they are to start with, there’s no sense of shock when they die. In fact, the whole time I kept wondering why these were the characters that died (when I was able to tell them apart). If it had been James doing it for whatever reason, that’d fit with the horror trope of “everything in the movie tells you it’s this person, but, twist, it’s not!” but it’s the witch’s curse. Why would the witch, whose only goal is to make the family suffer, kill people that antagonize or suspect the family?
To the movie’s credit, it’s a passable semi-gothic creepie. The cinematography is fine and the set-ups are strange enough. Once it abandons the pretense that there’s an actual killer committing the murders, the set pieces become much more interesting—one character is engulfed in film, another is threatened by a levitating car. It’s fine for a rainy afternoon or to have on in the background at a Halloween party. Since none of it lines up, you don’t have to pay close attention. Plus there’s a weird S&M-inflected stripper scene in the middle that’s odd enough on its own to be worth a few giggles. While the movie’s nothing fantastic, it’s watchable enough.