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? It portrayed the story of Frank Morris, the only prisoner that ever managed to break out and flee that notorious island of captivity. 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…
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 screen portrayed by Clint Eastwood. 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 imagine, the film does in fact have more in common with the genre’s traditional template than A Nightmare on Elm Street or Child’s Play do. Once stranded on the island, the maniac stalks the victims in the typical fashion and kills using the devices that we have seen many times before. All of the murders include some gore and the effects are surprisingly good. It’s just a shame that the actors couldn’t keep up their end of the bargain, because the dramatics are so unrealisticly OTT that they make the gore effects look clumsy. 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 though 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 the part. He’s a charming rouge in the crime scenes, but evil and as I mentioned, sadistic, in the others. It’s a bit of a strange tone because we should really be rooting for 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, 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 offensive to Natives of USA. 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 most easily murdered of the lot. It was an awkward way to handle an ambitious characterisation. There is a final girl that faces up to the boogeyman, but there was nothing really exceptional about her. In fact, she could have been any number of the cast members. None of them were 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 assist him, which immediately destroys their appeal.
I guess that the acting is ok-ish from the youngsters and Aldo Ray is just plain Aldo Ray. Now that’s not a bad thing, because he is blessed with a screen presence that means characters become him, not that he becomes his characters. This is not a method actor that we are talking about. In fact, much like Clint Eastwood, he is the same in everything that we watch him in, it’s just that watching him is so damn fun. The best performance of the bunch though came 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 Oscar winner, but she was starkly convincing as the lovesick gangster’s mole. To be fair, she 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 and it shows. The photography is grainy and the amusing pan-pipe-alike score sounds undeniably cheap. Also, check out the electric keyboard Halloween rip-off over the opening credits that sounds like it was recorded in a junior school or something. The entire production just has an overwrought feeling of amateurism, 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 of 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 that he slaughtered and if it wasn’t for the same lead character, you’d think that you’d been watching 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, in reality, 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.
Alcatraz drags a lot in places and it’s too jumbled to be great, but I quite enjoyed my time spent with it and it is certainly authentic. Aldo Ray carries most of the runtime on his shoulders, which makes up for the lackadaisical work in other places. Recommended if you like them cheap and gorily cheerful…
Final Girl √