Actors usually don’t just step into million-dollar roles, they most likely have had to work their way up. Sometimes, they even have to start in horror movies. Everyone knows how Johnny Depp began his career in A Nightmare on Elm Street and how Jennifer Aniston’s first movie was Leprechaun, but even the too-cute and equally talented Brooke Shields made her big screen debut in a horror movie way back in 1976 when she appeared in the cut-rate supernatural slasher Alice, Sweet Alice.
Set in New Jersey in the early sixties, Alice, Sweet Alice is about a pair of young girls, twelve-year old Alice (Paula E. Sheppard from Liquid Sky) and ten-year-old Karen (Shields), who live with their mother, Catherine (Night of the Juggler’s Linda Miller), in a slummy little apartment. Alice is a troubled child, picking on her sister and causing trouble for her mother. When Karen is murdered at her own communion ceremony, everyone believes that Alice is the culprit because she mysteriously ends up with Karen’s veil. While Catherine and her estranged husband, Dominic (Niles McMaster from Bloodsucking Freaks), deal with one dead child and the possibility of the other being a murderer, Alice starts seeing a figure in a yellow rain slicker and a translucent mask wandering around that she believes is Karen, back from the dead for revenge on the sister who tormented her. Meanwhile, people continue to get assaulted and killed, and witnesses claim that the perpetrator wears the same yellow slicker and mask that Alice sees roaming the streets. Catherine and Dominic have to figure out if Alice is running around killing people, and if not, then who is?
Originally called Communion, Alice, Sweet Alice was directed by Alfred Sole (Pandemonium), who also wrote the screenplay along with first-and-only-time screenwriter Rosemary Ritvo. Sole came up with the concept of the rain slickered killer after seeing Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece Don’t Look Now, but the film also draws visual influence from the Italian giallo films of artists like Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Alice, Sweet Alice is a clever combination of a melodramatic slasher and a mean-spirited creepy-kid movie, all wrapped up within the package of a Hitchcockian (or at least De Palmian) whodunit with a serious contempt for organized religion.
Although she had done a couple of television shows previously, Brooke Shields was an unknown when she appeared in Alice, Sweet Alice. Shields is the Janet Leigh of Alice, Sweet Alice. Actually, she’s more like Drew Barrymore in Scream, as her character is killed off in the first act. Despite Shields only being in the film for the first fifteen minutes or so, Alice, Sweet Alice has been repackaged and remarketed with her name above the title several times to exploit the starlet’s eventual success, some re-releases even changing the title to Holy Terror in order to further confuse audiences. Her role in the film may be small, but Shields plays a pivotal character, as her murder sets the events of the whole film in motion.
Like any good slasher, much of Alice, Sweet Alice unfolds like a mystery, with the identity of the killer unknown to both the characters in the film and the viewers in the theater. The movie really wants the audience to believe that Alice is the killer; it shows Alice with a similar rain slicker and mask, and establishes motive by showing how Alice bullies Karen before her death. Without spoiling anything here, the killer is identified fairly early, right at the beginning of the third act, letting the characters deal with the situation during the climax and resolution of the film. So, at that point, Alice, Sweet Alice, shifts from mystery to thriller, allowing it to go for pure scares rather than simmering suspense.
While Alice, Sweet Alice is full of shocking scenes, there are a couple of them in particular that are downright horrifying. The first is Karen’s murder. The killing takes place in a church (literally at Karen’s communion), and the audience is shown the yellow-slickered masked killer strangle Karen from behind. It gets worse when the killer hides the body in a bench before lighting it on fire. The entire congregation is alerted to the girl’s death when the stench of her burning flesh inevitably makes its way to them. The second terrible scene occurs when Alice is accosted by the family’s pedophile landlord and she is forced to kill one of his cats to get away. Mercifully, the film cuts away without showing the kitten’s actual demise, but the sound effects and the man’s reaction leave little doubt in the viewer’s mind as to what happened to the poor creature. Alice, Sweet Alice shocks its audience by committing the two cardinal sins of filmmaking; it kills both a young child and an innocent kitten.
The soundtrack for Alice, Sweet Alice was provided by composer Stephen Lawrence (Bang the Drum Slowly). The music sounds like a mashup of synth-y slasher music and eerie religious horror music, sort of like what you’d get if you stuck the themes to Halloween and The Omen into a blender together. The score fits the supernatural church splatter theme of the film perfectly; the soundtrack to Alice, Sweet Alice should really be considered one of the legendary horror scores of the seventies.
Thanks mostly to the one-two punch of 1980’s The Blue Lagoon and 1981’s Endless Love, Brooke Shields would become a pre-pubescent heartthrob just a few years after the release of Alice, Sweet Alice. But, like so many other Hollywood A-listers before her, Shields got her start with a horror movie, and fans of the genre will always remember her as the little girl who died at her own communion.