It is the late eighteenth century, and Baron von Leppe (Boris Karloff) wanders the corridors of his castle on the French coast one night, alone but for the sound of the crashing waves and storms outside, until he notices a trail of blood on the paved floor. He follows this through the passageways, then reaches the door at which the trail stops: opening it, a mummified corpse falls out! The next day, a French soldier, Lieutenant Andre Duvalier (Jack Nicholson), rides along the beach, near exhaustion after being separated from his regiment. He falls from his horse, and is about to pass out when he sees a figure standing some way away - a mysterious woman...
What the stuff with the corpse surprising the Baron has to do with anything, well your guess is as good as mine, as it's never referred to later in the film when he appears again, but there is a reason why there is, shall we say, a disjointed feeling to much of The Terror. This is because it was the legendary production that director Roger Corman shot over a weekend when he had a bit of spare time, apparently because the tennis match he was going to play was rained off. He had just finished making The Raven, under time and under budget, and star Karloff was still under contract, so why not do another film?
In this case, the story behind it is more famous than the story the film actually maps out, probably because it's not the most coherent plot and was thought up by Corman, Leo Gordon and Jack Hill as quickly as possible to take advantage of the sets they had before they were taken down. Yet the detractors of this seem to believe that nothing worthwhile could have been made under these conditions, with its collection of directors working under Corman's orders, including Francis Ford Coppola, Hill and Monte Hellman theoretically conjuring up a thorough muddle.
However, if you watch it then you find that is does make sense in its dreamlike fashion, sure there are a couple of loose ends left hanging at the finale, but you only worry about that if you sit down and try to fit all the pieces together. Nobody was intended to mull over the finer points of The Terror with that amount of scrutiny after all, and it is fun to see a pre-fame Nicholson (who also reputedly directed bits of this) trade lines with Karloff and see if you can work out if they know what on Earth they're talking about or not. If nothing else, there's a neat atmosphere of decay and corruption amidst the attractive scenery and chilly stone halls.
The mystery woman is only slightly less of a mystery by the climax, and was Nicholson's then-wife Sandra Knight playing either Helene or Ilse, the ghost of the Baron's last wife who he has been pining for these past twenty years. But all is not as it seems, because there's a witch (Dorothy Neumann) who has some kind of hold over Helene that has you wondering whether the young woman is really a ghost what with the way she keeps on appearing and disappearing at the moments when Andre is trying to make conversation. Also along for the ride are Dick Miller as the Baron's retainer, a fellow who helpfully explains the twist in the latter stages, and Jonathan Haze as a hoarse-voiced unfortunate who tries to warn Andre about what he's getting himself into and meets a gruesome demise for his trouble. Also notable for ending not with the traditional Corman Poe cycle fire, but with a flood, there's a lot of padding here, but it is amusing and Ronald Stein's better than it needs to be score goes some way to holding it together.