Few filmmakers understand the importance of economy like Roger Corman. The exploitation auteur has directed over 50 films in his career and produced over 300, his low-budget epics famously giving directors like Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and Francis Coppola their first break as well as financing the U.S. distribution of classics by Bergman, Herzog and many others. The stories behind the breakneck production of Corman's films are often more famous than the movies themselves; making very cheap films for a distribution system that nearly guranteed a project, Corman frequently saw an unused set or a few extra days in his shooting schedule as reason enough to conceive and shoot an entire film. Sometimes, as with Little Shop of Horrors (shot in two days), the hectic pace would result in an offbeat, irreverent classic that never stops to second-guess itself. 1963's The Terror is less successful; born out of Corman's realization, near the end of production on The Raven, that both a castle set and Boris Karloff would be available for two more days, it actually took an additional nine months for Corman and four other directors, including Coppola, Monte Hellman and star Jack Nicholson, to make it remotely comprehesible. The result is an uneven and somewhat nonsensical film, though it's a testament to Corman's talents that it's a very watchable mess.
Nicholson plays Andre Duvalier, a French lieutenant (ha!) separated from his regiment and wandering the coast (of?) when he meets a mysterious young woman (Sandra Knight) who disappears as he is attacked by a bird. Andre's quest to find the young woman leads him to a castle occupied only by the Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff) and his manservant Stefan (Dick Miller). Duvalier uncovers an old mystery involving reincarnation, mistaken identity and other tropes left over from Corman's superior Poe films. But it doesn't really matter what the movie is about - Corman spent much of the two days with Karloff shooting the actors walking down staircases and across corridors, figuring he'd be able to piece it together later. The lack of a functional plot might not matter if it were interesting to watch the actors play off each other - just last week I saw The Big Sleep, a great movie with a lame plot. Unfortunately, Karloff phones it in and Nicholson has yet to find his rebellious onscreen persona - he's surprisingly bland and uncomfortable on-camera. Even the usually dependable Dick Miller is given little to do. The result is a movie that is consistently almost interesting and frequently suggests better movies.
Still, The Terror reminds of what separates Roger Corman from B-movie peers like Ed Wood and Phil Tucker. Even at his worst, there's a basic understanding of classical narrative filmmaking and a decent attempt at creating atmosphere. Though I was never really engaged, I was also never bored, and at 80 minutes, the movie knows when to quit. The final scene also delivers one memorable image that made me wonder if Stanley Kubrick saw the film before The Shining. The Terror, for its many problems, is the work of a real filmmaker (five, actually), and it's probably as good as a movie constructed out of establishing shots could be.