Sometimes when watching a film, a viewer can tell that the whole project barely held together. We viewers tend to hold that film is an artistic struggle carried out by a single individual. The director has a vision and a story they want to share. This is called the auteur theory of film, and is the main reason we heap praise on directors, at the expense of everyone else involved in a production. Less acknowledged is the reality that film is a business. As anyone who ever worked in an office can tell you, folks are just hanging on by their fingernails, hoping against hope that no one notices how much of the job is just faking it until it gets done. Here is director Norman J. Warren on his 1978 film, Terror:
[A] search for a story [in Terror] is in vain…There is no real storyline and very little, if any, logic. We had the money for a low-budget film, but no script and no idea of what film we wanted to make…we made a list of all the scenes we’d like to see in a horror film. We handed the list to writer David McGillivray, who incorporated the ideas into a ‘sort of story.’
That’s an excellent description of this film. There is a plot, involving an ancient curse set upon the Garrick family by a witch, but the plot is just a means to get from one death scene to another. It’s those scenes, fleshed out and very atmospheric, where this film truly lives.
Carolyn Courage plays Ann Garrick, a young actress. She and her movie producer cousin, James (John Nolan), have made a movie about the curse, which viewers see as a short film-within-the-film during the opening. That’s about the last coherent part of the movie. Afterwards, Ann is hypnotized and attacks James, in pantomime of the family curse, or something. It really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that viewers get their first death in the next scene. Then it’s back to following Ann around a bit as she tries to figure out what happened to her while she was in a trance. Then there’s another scary scene, followed by more nonsense exposition, followed by more murder. This pattern is repeated enough for the film to pile up a number of corpses, and then it ends.
That description makes it seem as if this movie is a waste of time. But it’s not. The plot is the thinnest of tendrils, but it’s the pastiche that is the thing. When the victims in this movie are stalked by their unseen killer, Warren and company create scenes of high tension, and high cliché. Dark shapes chase young women through pounding thunderstorms or dense woods. Is a slasher chasing these victims? We don’t know. In other death scenes, supernatural forces appear to come into play, as objects become animated and fly across the screen. While these vignettes of horror are well-done and satisfying, should one try and reconcile them with the plot, one will fail.
As a storytelling exercise, Terror is a joke. Its story can be dismissed by viewers as easily as it was by the filmmakers. As spectacle, there was much more that could have been done, even with a decent amount of blood and guts on hand.
Terror is a horror film for those, like myself, who have taken a deep dive into the genre. When one tires of watching The Shining yet again, it’s to the obscure corners of horror where one goes. New blood, new body parts, new bimbos (Tricia Walsh gives a darling performance in Terror), the same old death but done well. That is the value in finding a film that few eyes have seen in the decades since its release. If one is lucky, they will be entertained along the way. That’s Terror.