First Communion: the girls of St. Michael's Parish have been decked out in their little white dresses and veils. The boys look like miniature grooms. At the critical moment, little Karen Spages, a favourite of Father Tom's, cannot be found.

Mother Superior smells something burning in the rectory. The killer has set the girl's body on fire. Religious statues bear mute witness. Her crucifix, a very special gift from the Parish priest, cannot be found.

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) also saw release as Communion and Holy Terror. The multiple titles reflect inadvertently the film's schizophrenic, Jekyll-and-Hyde nature. Alice combines solid, Hitchcock-influenced shots with hack direction and choppy editing. It boasts complex, creepy characters played by mediocre actors. The music combines blatant theft from Psycho with church organ and low-budget horror soundscapes. It's a forgotten movie that presaged and influenced the slasher genre, a film recalled, when at all, as both a dark gem of overlooked horror and an Exorcist-inspired piece of 70s shlock.

It features fairly brutal killings, especially for the era. Blood flows freely; people die slowly. Quite a few people. Clearly, St. Michael's has more than its share of problems.

Later posters and home video packaging insist that Brooke Shields stars in this film. One might be led to believe she's the titular Alice. While it represents her feature film debut, she appears in only a few scenes. She whines so obnoxiously as doomed young Karen that many viewers must welcome her death, which sets the plot in motion.

Suspicion falls on Karen's overlooked sister, Alice. Her guilt seems so obvious that we assume she must be a red herring. As the film develops, we begin to wonder. Alice is a seriously disturbed child. We keep hearing about the trouble she's caused in school, though we only receive hints regarding what that might be. We also see pieces of explanations for her disturbed and often cruel behavior. She doesn't help her case much by insisting that her deceased sister is behind the subsequent killings.

Alice owns the Halloween mask associated with the killing (a riff replayed by numerous later slash 'n' scream flicks). She also wears the killer's distinctive yellow raincoat, but it's a part of St. Michael's standard uniform. We learn that a lot of people in the Parish wear these, even when it's not raining.

Is Alice troubled enough to be, at the tender age of twelve, a cold-blooded serial killer? The question hangs over the movie and, if the eventual revelations make a kind of sense, the script leaves much unexplained.

Paula E. Shepperd gives a memorable performance as the troubled little suspect. She's not perfect, but she conveys a strong sense of a disturbed adolescent, with doll-like face and enigmatic eyes. She would later play the perverse Adrian in the 1982 cult film Liquid Sky. If she never became an actress of note, she can at least claim two of the most memorably bizarre roles in fringe cinema.

If Sole directed Brooke Shields to whine, he apparently instructed everyone else to overact as much as possible. A significant portion of the film consists of people screaming and yelling. Linda Miller manages as the unfortunate mother, when she's not required to chew scenery. Unfortunately, the script requires her to consume a couch or two. Jane Lowry plays obnoxious Aunt Annie with such histrionic, screeching excess that some viewers may be tempted to stop watching. Rest assured, Aunt Annie will be silenced.

Rudolph Willrich turns in a decent performance as cool priest Father Tom, who seems just a little too close to divorced Catherine Spages and a little too fond of young Karen. Something may be amiss here. Of course, he just may be setting an example, reaching out to a woman whose particular past would raise eyebrows in this conservative community. The script gives him little enough to do, and questions about his character never receive answers. Mildred Clinton seems suitably off-kilter as the more-Catholic-than-the-Pope manse housekeeper Mrs. Tredoni, but she's called upon to play a key role in the film's final act and she’s not entirely up to the task.

Several of the minor roles belong in bizarre films of their own, including Mary Boylan as the devout Mother Superior and Peter Bosche as the decrepit Monsignor. Former star Lillian Roth, returning to the screen for the first time since the 1950s, makes a brief appearance as a pathologist. It’s an odd near-final role for a woman who once worked with the Marx Brothers and Cecil B. DeMille.

The landlord, an effeminate-voiced, morbidly obese man with a perverted attraction to twelve-year-old Alice also proves memorable. He listens to old records and dotes on his cats. His sweat pants bear a nearly-permanent stain of (I hope) urine. Alphonso DeNoble brings a weighty presence to the role, but he cannot act. Like much of the film, he disturbs us yet ultimately falls short of expectations.

The filmmakers had an eye for twisted detail. Look carefully at one particular fresh corpse and you'll see a kitten lapping up the flowing blood. Catholic icons have been used to good effect, especially in the first killing. The locations throughout combine the mundane with the sinister.

Other aspects of setting don't quite gel. The older-model props and cars (the funeral home has some great old Cadillacs) and the photo of Kennedy in the police station indicate the film takes place in the early 1960s, but much of the 1970s leaks in unaltered. Several of the male characters wear haircuts curiously out of place. The pious Italian-Catholic community seems remarkably unconcerned about Catherine's status as a divorcee who conceived her first child out of wedlock—- scandals relevant to the story.

The pacing keeps with the rest of the film. It's terribly uneven, especially after we learn the major twist. I try to be forgiving with low-budget films. In the end, however, I didn't particularly like Alice, Sweet Alice. It nevertheless has retained a considerable fan base, and devotees of low-budget horror may want to check it out. It falls far short of what it might have been, but it stands as one missing link between 70s exploitation and the slasher films that have since splattered the genre.

Director: Alfred Sole
Writers: Rosemary Ritvo and Alfred Sole

Linda Miller as Catherine Spages
Paula E. Sheppard as Alice Spages
Rudolph Willrich as Father Tom
Niles McMaster as Dominick Spages
Mildred Clinton as Mrs. Tredoni
Jane Lowry as Aunt Annie DeLorenze
Alphonso DeNoble as Mr. Alphonso
Michael Hardstark as Detective Spina
Brooke Shields as Karen Spages
Gary Allen as Jim DeLorenze
Tom Signorelli as Detective Brennan
Lillian Roth as Pathologist
Patrick Gorman as Father Pat
Ted Tinling as Detective Cranston
Mary Boylan as Mother Superior
Peter Bosche as the Monsignor

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