As a connoisseur of Catholic horror films, it's refreshing to find one that isn't focused on possession or the Antichrist. Rather, Alice, Sweet Alice finds its horrors in the earthly religion that is supposed to foster faith, but in this story ends up doing the very opposite.
In a blue-collar East Coast town at the beginning of the Kennedy presidency, Mom Katherine takes her daughters Alice (Paula Sheppard in a remarkable performance) and Karen (Brooke Shields in her movie debut) to the church rectory. There they meet with handsome Father What-A-Waste, I mean Father Tom. From this opening scene we sense things are not as they should be. For one thing, Katherine seems a bit too familiar with the priest, calling him just plain "Tom." And both Katherine and Father Tom blatantly favor Karen over older sister Alice, who we also learn has recently been denied Holy Communion. But this preferential treatment may not be as unjustified as it seems, for Alice soon proves that she is in fact a hostile child, constantly in trouble at school, who steals things from her younger sister and likes to terrorize people by dressing in her school rain slicker and a semi-translucent mask.
On the day of Karen's first Communion, the girl is strangled to death by a figure in a - you guessed it - rain slicker and semi-translucent mask. Suspicion falls on Alice. The massive familial and societal dysfunction swirling around Alice - her mother vacillates between denial and defensiveness, her violently passive-aggressive aunt all but accuses Alice of her sister's murder, and the men in her life are absent (her father), ineffectual (Father Tom), or predatory (the grotesque landlord, who has to be seen to be believed) - only alienate Alice more and deepen her mental imbalance. And soon more attacks take place...
When it comes to the slasher subgenre, I'm partial to films that break the standard template, and Alice, Sweet Alice does just that. Director Alfred Sole makes the most of his clearly low budget, using location shooting and unknown actors to give the film a very realistic feel, while at the same time bringing considerable visual style and some memorably creepy visuals to the film. There are attacks and killings, but they're brutal, ugly affairs, and the victims aren't pretty teens to be leered at beforehand.
What makes Alice, Sweet Alice most interesting is its setting, at a very transitional time in Catholic America. The first Catholic President is in the early days of his term, but the reforms of Vatican II have yet to take place: Mass is still said in Latin, women still wear hats or other head coverings in church, and there's a certain distance between the Church and its followers. And yet religion seems to bring no consolation to the characters, whose lives are filled with dysfunction and petty rivalries. It's telling that Alice is repeatedly denied Communion, just as she fails to get help from her family or faith for her obvious emotional troubles.
The acting is for the most part a bit broad, but the one standout is Paula Sheppard as Alice. Sheppard plays Alice as a girl with a flair for the dramatic and who struggles under the restrictive society she's in, who only knows how to attract attention in a negative way. She does indeed get attention, but little to no understanding, and by the end of the film it's clear how much damage that's done.
The low budget shows its seams, and the screenplay's a bit clunky at times. But it's effective, nasty, and intelligent (also sincere - I bet my next paycheck that Sole, who also cowrote the screenplay, grew up in a setting much like the movie's). But it's definitely worth watching, particularly if you are interested in a different kind of slasher or in the treatment of religion in films.
The DVD transfer leaves a bit to be desired and the audio's a bit muffled, but there's a commentary by Sole and the film's editor.