Terror on Alcatraz 1986 Review
Terror on Alcatraz 1986
Directed by:Philip Marcus
Starring: Aldo Ray, Sandy Brooke, Victoria Porche Ali
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
The slasher genre is often mocked for its lack of originality, but there’s no way that you could level that accusation at this underplayed entry from 1986 –
Remember the Clint Eastwood film, Escape From Alcatraz, which portrayed the story of Frank Morris, the only prisoner that ever managed to break off of that notorious island? Well this is in effect a continuation of what he would have got up to if he had survived and carried on with his criminal activity outside of a concrete cell…
Now the Alcatraz escape of 1962 is a topic of much interest across the world and recent files have been released by the FBI that suggest that a raft was found on the island opposite with footprints leading away to freedom. A car was also hijacked locally that same night. Did the prisoners go on to build new lives under false identities? Well if they did, they certainly left behind a great story and I guess that we will never know for sure.
If the film versions of the jail-breaking legend offer a realistic account of his true persona, then Frank Morris seems to have changed a bit since we last saw him on the screen. These days, he is a woman-beating sadist who, in a really mean-spirited scene, puts a cigarette out on his girlfriend’s breast. We learn that he needs to return to Alcatraz to find a map that leads to a bank vault that will solve his financial woes. Instead of breaking in at night, he heads over on a boat with a group of youngsters and disappears in to the corridors whilst they are given a guided tour. Six of the kids (supposed to be teens, but they’re older than me) decide to spend the night in the jail for a cell block party, but little do they know that the psychotic Morris has found a meat cleaver and has murder on his mind…
Whilst the above narrative seems to be as far away from a typical slasher as you could possibly imagine, it does in fact have more in common with the genre’s traditional template than A Nightmare on Elm Street or Child’s Play. Once stranded on the island, the maniac stalks the victims in the usual fashion and kills using the devices that we have seen many times before. Almost every murder includes some gore and the effects are surprisingly good, but it’s just unfortunate that the actors make the deaths look more cheesy than they are by the over the top-ness of their dramatics. One girl flinches a hand long after she had been drowned, whilst another guy whines like he is being tickled when he has a machete four-inches deep in his cranium. The director makes good enough use of the awesome prison location and listening to the guide prattle on about its history was actually quite interesting.
There are two separate threads to the plot, which shows that the screenwriter was ambitious when he put this together. One involves the slasher killings and the other concentrates on Morris’ plans for the heist. The thing is, they don’t really flow side by side and Aldo Ray comes across like two different personalities depending on what part that we see him in. He’s a charming rouge in some scenes, but eviil and as I mentioned earlier, sadistic, in others. It’s a bit of a strange tone because we should really be rooting for one of his intended victims, but the most intriguing personality is most definitely Frank, our antagonist. We never really care too much about the cannon fodder that he slices and dices and it’s hard to put a finger on why. They’re not your typical slasher movie clichés and each has a strong personality. There’s an overweight coke head, an Alcatraz obsessive who knows more about the prison’s history than the tour guide and a Native American, whose portrayal could be considered a tad offensive. He is a bit of an idiot and blames the ‘white man’ for everything, but dresses up in army paint in order to have a showdown with the loon and is the murdered easily straight after. It was a kind of clumsy way to handle his characterisation for me. There is a final girl, but it could have been any of them to be honest. No one was given enough dialogue or screentime to stand out as a player that we wanted to survive. They are written to be extremely shallow and leave one of their number to die without even trying to help him, which takes away any audience sympathy that might make them appealing.
The acting is ok-ish from the youngsters and Aldo Ray is just plain Aldo Ray. Now that’s not a bad thing, as he is blessed with a screen presence that means characters become him, not that he becomes characters. This is not a method actor that we are talking about; much like Clint Eastwood, he is the same in everything that we watch, it’s just that watching him is so damn fun. The best performance for me was from Sandy Brooke, who is a bit of a slasher heavyweight having been in both Sledgehammer and Bits and Pieces. She may not be an awesome actress but she was really good as the lovesick gangster’s mole. Totally believable and stole every scene that she appeared in.
Despite a great location and an experienced lead, Terror on Alcatraz is a lower than low budget feature. The photography is quite grainy and the amusing pan-pipe-esque score is very cheap. Oh and check out the electric keyboard Halloween rip-off over the opening credits. It also can’t help but feel amateur especially with the pedestrian direction and nonsensical script. As I said earlier, the two plot lines don’t really match and this is most evident when the killer falls off an Alcatraz cliff in to the freezing water below, but emerges in the next scene, fully clothed, unscathed and back on the San Francisco shore ready to raid his fortune. He never mentions once back in the city the eight or so victims he slaughtered and if it wasn’t for the same lead character, you’d think it was two different flicks. In reality, Frank Morris was closer to Einstein than he was Al Capone. The guy had an IQ of 133, which is touching on genius. The thing is, the script makes him come across as a bit of a mindless thug and despite his numerous spells in the slammer, he was everything but that. It’s worth noting the curve-ball ending, which is bizarre, but extremely un-expected. I’d love to hear a screenwriter commentary and how he would explain some of these plot ‘twists’ away, but the fact that this is not on DVD by now, means that it probably never will be.
It drags a lot in places and it’s too jumbled to be great, but I quite enjoyed Terror in Alcatraz and it is a different slasher offering. Aldo Ray carries most of it on his shoulders, which makes up for the lackadaisical work in other places. Recommended if you like them cheap and gorily cheerful…
Final Girl √