Director Roger Corman's 1963 gothic mystery/thriller The Terror is a flawed film but its performances and production design make it a worthwhile venture. Set in 1806, the story centers on André Duvalier, a French soldier (played by a very young and very American Jack Nicholson) who finds himself stranded on a beach, where a mysterious and beautiful woman calling herself Helene (Sandra Knight) appears seemingly out of nowhere and leads him to fresh water before disappearing again. Quickly falling more than a little in love with this apparition, he becomes obsessed with finding her again and his investigations soon lead him to the castle of the eccentric and introverted Baron von Leppe (Boris Karloff). It doesn't take long before André's stay at the Baron's castle plunges him into even deeper mysteries and horrors.
To understand much of this film's appeal (as well as its downsides), it might be best to understand its unusual origins. Following his rather liberal adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" and "The Haunted Palace" produced earlier that same year (far superior films by the way), Corman didn't want the film's beautifully elaborate sets to go to waste. Since he had some time (and money) to kill, he quickly conceived of a brief plot outline and convinced Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff, both of whom had just finished working with him on The Raven, to stick around long enough to shoot another film in a matter of days. The result is a film that is beautiful to behold, but which at times understandably feels rushed and awkward, despite a story and climax that manages to be surprisingly unpredictable. Although considering how little planning went into this movie's production, it's a small miracle that its flaws didn't end up being more pronounced.
Right from its opening, The Terror treats us to an artistic and dramatic opening credits sequence which does the required job of engaging us early on. The majority of the movie's dread is that of an atmospheric and foreboding nature, thanks in large part to the aforementioned set design which is engrossing. Classic uses of mists, cobwebs, vast halls and drawing rooms, hilltop medieval castles, etc, all succeed in paying tribute to the earliest roots of the genre, while simultaneously transporting us to this otherworldly time period. The use of atmosphere as the film's main source of unease creates the sufficient contrast to make its few moments of violence and gore all the more effective.
The performances throughout are solid. Karloff shows us why his name remained a mainstay in cinema for decades beyond his career-defining turn as Frankenstein's creature in 1931. He completely sells the character archetype of the tortured, haunted, and slightly hysterical Baron. Fans of 80's cinema will be pleased to see a young Dick Miller (of Gremlins, Terminator, and Little Shop of Horrors fame) who steals several scenes as the humorously hostile butler, Stefan. In 1963, a 26-year-old Jack Nicholson apparently hadn't fully developed the unorthodox on-screen persona he would later become known for. André Duvalier is the standard, square-jawed, Caucasian romantic hero, a character who is only notable because we now know where Jack Nicholson's career and screen presence would soon morph into in the few short years following this film. Sandra Knight performs well in what little material she is given, her character serves as the catalyst that drives the overall plot, but the actress playing her is never really given room to showcase what talents she might have.
The main aspect in which the rushed nature of this production becomes apparent is in the dialogue, which often comes across as clumsy and forced without any natural flow, resulting in characters that are difficult to connect with and a movie that feels like it drags on, especially during the second act, despite its brief 80 minute runtime. Another instance in which the film's rushed production, and low budget, become apparent is in the its aesthetic. I've stated the set design and costume design are impressive, and that's certainly true, however, they might have been even more impressive had the film stuck to black & white, which was still common at the time. Instead, the color quality and tone throughout the film is inconsistent, which is often distracting.
In summary, certain elements, such as the overall design of the film, and Karloff's performance, make for a mostly enjoyable flick, but a rushed production and unpolished script kept it from being a beloved cult-classic like so many other of Roger Corman's gothic films produced during this period in his career.
Note: The following trailer features significant spoilers: