Losing My Religion: Unhallowed Irreverence in ‘Alice, Sweet Alice’

Alice, Sweet Alice 1976 Movie - Film Essay

Revenge porn is tired; revenge horror is wired.

Before Alfred Sole made the American giallo classic Alice, Sweet Alice, he made his feature directorial debut with the erotic Deep Sleep, which got him ex-communicated from the Catholic Church. Sole’s next film was a multi-layered retort, fulfilling one of the hallmarks of the giallo genre: calling out the hypocrises and sins of organized religion. Alice Sweet Alice came forth in 1976, when North American society was still reeling from the prior decade’s social upheaval. Eight years earlier, Rosemary’s Baby declared “God is dead!” Sole’s filmmaker contemporaries, Lucio Fulci and Antonio Bido, each made giallos featuring a killer priest, Don’t Torture a Duckling and The Bloodstained Shadow, respectively. It was a time when the sheep questioned the shepherd, and wondered if he might be a wolf in disguise. These attitudes embroidered themselves into Rosemary Ritvo and Sole’s screenplay as a blasphemous depiction of both Church and the family unit as dangerously incompetent.

Alice, Sweet Alice’s opening credits are, at first, a picture of piety. A young girl in full communion regalia whispers Hail Marys and Our Fathers on the extreme right side of the frame. Amid the uncannily sweet composition from Stephen Lawrence, her prayers become more rushed and fervent until she reaches a high murmur: “Now is the hour of our death, Amen.” She raises her crucifix to reveal a glimmering dagger-like blade as the credits roll. With Alice Sweet Alice’s intro, Sole shuns subtlety and opts to go full-bore with the juxtaposition of murder and one of the world’s most powerful religious institutions.

Paterson, New Jersey: 1961. The titular 12-year-old Alice Spages (Paula E. Sheppard, doing a stellar evolution of The Bad Seed’s Rhoda Penmark) is a menace who does not get along with her sister Karen (Brooke Shields, in her debut role). Alice taunts Karen in a yellow raincoat and doll mask, steals her things and threatens bodily harm if she crosses her. Their mother Kate (Linda Miller) seems to favor Karen, which Alice sees and resents, causing her to lash out even more. After Karen is slain during her first communion ceremony by a mystery assailant (who wears the same coat and mask), Alice becomes suspect number one.

Alice, Sweet Alice Communion Movie Film

Religious representation is embroidered throughout John Lawless’ production design: portraits of Mary, crucifixes and dogmatic paraphernalia infuse every sequence, creating a visual language that casts Catholicism in an unfavorable light. The most damning scene is early on in Alice, Sweet Alice. A choir singer intones a song of sanctification and soul-saving, pleading on behalf of the little lambs about to receive their sacrament for their Lord to shelter and protect them. All the while, Karen is brutally choked by a masked figure in a yellow raincoat, her frail body stuffed into a pew and set aflame as Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) offers the body of Christ to each young girl in the procession mere feet away. Editor Edward Salier works his own divine magic, cross-cutting images of a forlorn crucified Jesus with the girl’s strangling; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are either powerless or indifferent to the execution of an innocent young girl.

Holy Terror (one of Alice, Sweet Alice’s more apt alternate titles) stains the immaculate image of the American brood. Following Karen’s death, her mother is left to pick up the pieces, mourning her child and handling the problematic other while the killer remains at large. The girls’ father Dom (Kate’s ex-husband) arrives via train to provide support. Sole sneaks in some clever imagery, looking up at Dom coming down a grand staircase at the terminal and presenting him as his own subverted Holy Father, descending from on high to address his non-nuclear family. The unit itself is broken. The heads are divorced from one another, though Kate still keeps a photo of the couple in happier times framed on her desk. Dom has remarried, but nothing is sacred; a moment of emotional vulnerability draws a passionate embrace and locked lips, broken only by a phone call from Dom’s wife. When it turns out that clergy caretaker Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton) is the killer, it seems unexpected — but upon  a re-watch, her bitterness is hiding in plain sight like Ash’s sinister motives in Alien. In Mrs. Tredoni’s eyes, Dom is a “pig,” Kate is a “filthy whore.” Their purity is hollow and she shall not suffer it. Dom’s body is later found, bound and beaten in a pile of rubble.

In Alice, Sweet Alice, the little old lady is not the only one obsessed with impurity. Lawless’ production design strikes again during a hospital scene following the attack on Alice’s Auntie Annie (played by a thrilling Jane Lowry going into full Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? hysterics), working to present crosses as tokens of oppression. As doctors inquire about the attack, an inconsolable Annie drops the bomb. With a plain crucifix mounted on the wall above her hospital bed, she assumes the role of Inquisitor and accuses Alice of being the masked assailant. Kate’s voice trembles with rage at the thought of her sister accusing her daughter of attempted murder. Bookended on opposite walls by crosses, the desperate mother claims that the true source of Annie’s resentment lies in the fact that Kate was already pregnant when she wed Tom. She was impure, and thus the subject of her sister’s ire. It’s the opposite dynamic of the Cain and Abel parallel between Karen and Alice; Alice stole her sister’s communion veil and her toy doll, pristine symbols of cleanliness and godliness. Of the pair, Karen was “the good one,” and Alice lashed out in constant anger against it until the day came when Karen wasn’t there to torment any more.

Alice, Sweet Alice Communion Movie Film

Or was she? For all of Alice’s devil-may-care attitude, once Karen died, her sister lived in terror of righteous retribution. Once the foul landlord Mr. Alfonso (Alfonso DeNoble) suggested that “the dead have ways,” Alice feared that her sister might come back and take revenge for years of mistreatment. In her basement stash, Alice keeps religious paraphernalia: a swaddled baby doll (stolen from her sister), a wooden cross, candles — her own personal altar. The most important item is the most benign: a black and white photo of her dad, which she thumbs lovingly — hallowed be His name. It’s one of only two moments in Alice, Sweet Alice when the girl’s heart appears to soften (the other as she begs her mother not to leave her at a mental care institution). She dons a grinning mask. Moments later, Anne is attacked in the stairwell by a figure wearing the same mask and the same yellow coat as Alice. The figure flees. Tom enters the building and comes into the basement to see his wayward daughter holding up the pilfered doll as one would hold a crucifix up to a vampire, shielding her eyes and sobbing for her sister to “Just take it!” Dom’s appearance, then, was The Second Coming to the young girl. He offered not punishment for her sins, but salvation and grace. As such, Dom’s gruesome death (tied up, beaten in the face with a brick, pushed from several stories high onto the concrete wasteland below) becomes a symbolic assertion. For the flock in Sole’s world, fury and vengeance rule — and good intentions will not be rewarded.

Mrs. Tredoni works functionally in Alice, Sweet Alice as both misdirect and a killer — on her own, she’s a severe but God-fearing old woman, the last person anyone would suspect. Mrs. Tredoni is often surrounded by photos and statuettes of Jesus and Mary. Once she dons the mask and becomes God’s wrath incarnate, there’s still a sense of warped purity about her. The white gloves Mrs. Tredoni wears, as she carries her blade, are not only a fun play on the giallo staple of black leather gloves, but they also act as an extension of the warped sense of virtue that emboldens her to kill. Mrs. Tredoni embodies Catholic rigidity wrought extreme, to the point that “there is a reason for everything.” God took her daughter on her first communion, she says to an increasingly nervous Kate. Brandishing a kitchen knife and carving into a fish, Mrs. Tredoni explains how God has a plan for everyone, and only takes our loved ones to teach hard lessons. In practice, she becomes the proto-John Doe killer of David Fincher’s Se7en, doling out her own brand of justice for the perceived sins of her targets. In Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film, film scholar Shelley F. O’Brien posits that the likes of Mrs. Tredoni and other pious killers in giallo film “represent the more repressive aspects of the Catholic doctrine, for example, attitudes to the expression of sexual desire.” By showing what the furious crone kills for, Alice, Sweet Alice depicts an interrogation of the Church and everything it stands against.

Alice, Sweet Alice Communion Movie Film

Contrary to the works of Fulci and Bido, the clergyman in Alice, Sweet Alice is portrayed more traditionally, as a man of honor and grace. Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) treats both sisters with compassion, though he’s only seen gifting trinkets to the golden child of the pair. The affection extends to the girls’ mother, so much so that while he doesn’t break any celibacy vows, it’s clear that he adores Kate. The audience sees it, and — unfortunately for the priest — so does Mrs. Tredoni. Her veneration for the dogmatic teachings of the Church distills into a zero-tolerance policy for anyone threatening to corrupt said teachings. So when Sole brings the narrative full circle with a final communion scene, he once again mixes the blood and body of Christ with actual bloodshed at the altar. Surrounded by police, the jig is up for the senior murderess. She doesn’t care; she just wants to receive her wafer. Father Tom denies her the Host, and she loses it. But you give it to the whore!” she screams, pointing back at Kate. Within seconds, her knife has plunged into Father Tom’s neck, baptizing him in his own oozing blood. As Mrs. Tredoni cradles the dying Father Tom, the image recalls the pietas seen in so much Christian art: Mary, holding the body of Jesus in her sorrowful arms. It’s a parting shot lobbied at the Church and every pearl of pureness it clutches to its chest like so many beads on a rosary.

Alice, Sweet Alice’s attitude is an unforgiving one. What, Sole asks, is the difference between Alice, who hurts because she’s sociopathic, and the zealous Ms. Tredoni, who hurts out of righteousness? Each is monstrous in their own right. With all of the disgust Sole associates with the traditions and rituals of the Church in his film, it’s unlikely he’ll be invited to attend mass anytime soon — not that he’s worried about being cast out from the flock; as foul landlord Mr. Alfonso offers to a sneering Alice: “Well, you die, they put you in the ground and it’s all over.”

Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.