Much like the soundstage and the set design on which this movie was shot, 'The Terror' is really nothing more than a thematic grab bag taken from popular horror features of the early 1960s. Even a good chunk of the camerawork was done by a few in the production team and pieced together later in the editing room. Although Roger Corman takes full credit as director, several sequences were shot separately by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill, and Jack Nicholson, each of whom didn't earn a title card next to Corman's but kept their respective credits as producer, writer and actor. This is partly the reason it's still remembered, because it's so surprising the film turned out as a relatively coherent whole.
Story goes that cinematic legend Boris Karloff still had a few days left on his contract with American International Pictures, so Corman took advantage by making 'The Terror' in less than a week. Corman had also just finished shooting 'The Haunted Palace' with Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Jr., so the timing was very convenient, hiring Leo Gordon and Jack Hill to write a script based around the available set. The results were a story that seems ripped right out of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, down to the restless soul of a deceased wife (Sandra Knight), a wealthy grieving husband (Karloff), a strapping youth of honor (Jack Nicholson) who solves the mystery and even the turn-of-the-century setting.
Coincidentally, Corman was already making a name for himself adapting Poe's work into matinee-priced movies, most of which starred horror idol Vincent Price. 'The Terror' is standard B-quality horror, and one which the "king of low-budget features" was very familiar with. The film is ripe with a creepy atmosphere and a Halloween aesthetic that's amusingly charming, thanks to the work of Daniel Haller and cinematographer John Nicholaus. The movie funnily comes across a like a hackneyed checklist of the supposed macabre and sinister. We have eerie stone castles covered in cobwebs, voices and apparitions coming from a nearby cemetery and a gypsy witch (Dorothy Neumann) living alone in the woods. Sure, it's still kind of cool to watch, but humorously trite nonetheless.
The other notable aspect of 'The Terror,' aside from the presence of Karloff and Corman's hurried cheapness, is the film being one of Nicholson's earliest acting roles as a leading man. Still six years shy of his big-break performance in 'Easy Rider,' the three-time Oscar-winning icon was at this time a struggling B-movie actor and made it big thanks to Corman's eye for talent. Who'd a thought working with Corman would lead to future Hollywood stardom. Actually, scratch that. A quick Google search will easily answer that query when names like James Cameron, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ingmar Bergman, Robert De Niro, Peter Fonda, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Dennis Hopper, Federico Fellini, and Nicolas Roeg suddenly popup alongside his.
But anyhow, back on topic. In spite of the mawkish dialogue and a plot impersonating Poe's fiction, Nicholson pulls off a generally good performance, outdoing even the great but melodramatic Karloff in several scenes. Dick Miller ('Gremlins') also adds a bit of weight as the Baron's butler, Stefan, and provides convenient exposition at critical moments. In the end, Roger Corman's 'The Terror' is a fun mix of colorful B-grade horror made on the spur of the moment, but not much else. It doesn't offer any spine-tingling chills or thrills, but it has moments of cool Halloween visuals. It's the sort of material aired late at night when no one is watching, like 'Elvira's Movie Macabre.' Oh, wait. She already did that during the show's first season revival.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Roger Corman's 'The Terror' comes by way of Virgil Films and HD Cinema Classics as a two-disc combo pack. The first is a Region Free, BD25 while the second is a DVD copy of the movie, and both discs are housed in a normal blue keepcase on opposing panels. The package also comes with a 6x4.5 postcard with the film's poster art. At startup, viewers are taken straight to the standard menu option.
Unlike their previous efforts, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1) of 'The Terror' from Virgil Films and HD Cinema Classics arrives with a more decent video presentation. Granted, the high-def transfer still shows clear signs of heavy digital manipulation and noise reduction, but at least it has slightly better resolution and definition than the movie's DVD counterparts. Viewers can clearly make out the finer details around the baron's creepy castle and the spooky cemetery. Facial complexions, on the whole, lack the natural texture we'd expect from a high-definition picture, but there are moments of visible pores and wrinkles suddenly appearing during the several close-ups.
Colors receive the biggest boost with very vivid blues, greens and reds while soft pastel hues are rendered boldly, adding to the film's eerie atmosphere. Blacks are generally strong and deep, but are often affected by moments of high contrast levels, which tend to blow out whites and sometimes mute the video's better aspects.
Overall, it's a barely passable presentation, but a small improvement on the distributor's part at providing Blu-ray releases of forgotten gems.
The audio options are limited and arrive in pretty much the same condition as the video. Listeners have the choice between a two-channel stereo and a 5.1 surround presentation, but they're both Dolby Digital legacy codecs. In either case, the mix shows its age with several instances of noise and very light pops in the background. Discrete effects are employed in the rears for a faux surround sound quality, but they generally feel phony and distractingly artificial. There is times also when the front design seems forced so as to broaden the soundstage. On the positive side, vocals are very well-prioritized and remain clearly intelligible. Dynamics are stable and nicely rendered with a mild low end for the few bits of action. In the end, the track is respectable but nothing impressive either.
Soon to become the standard of Blu-ray releases from Virgil Films and HD Cinema Classics, supplements are a wimpy, lackluster set. This combo pack might as well be a bare-bones release because nothing in the collection stands out. Other than the DVD copy of the film and a postcard, there's not much else to this package.
Roger Corman's 'The Terror' is best remembered for being filmed on recycled sets, using recycled plot elements, and featuring an early performance by a very young Jack Nicholson. The B-horror feature delivers the sort of matinee campiness we'd expect from a hurried, low-budget production, and it remains amusing precisely because of that fact. The Blu-ray from Virgil Films and HD Cinema Classic is another overly-digitized mess in the A/V presentation and comes with wimpy collection of supplements. The package is only for devoted, hardcore collectors of the genre and the director.