From little things do big things grow, as the sage said. The number of prestigious Hollywood careers that got their beginnings in Roger Corman’s B movie stable is staggering, from Ron Howard and James Cameron to Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne and Martin Scorsese.
If you don’t know your vintage grindhouse history, you’ll be surprised and delighted to add Jack Nicholson to the list. In this 1963 howler starring an aged Boris Karloff, Nicholson stars as Duvalier, a young soldier in Napoleon’s army in the 19th century (speaking his trademark drawl that sounds nothing like French), separated from his company and lost along a desolate and rocky coastline.
When he meets a beautiful woman who promptly disappears into the waves, Duvalier is as shocked a she is smitten with her. Spying signs of her here and there in the forest and along the beach, he finds his way to a castle owned and occupied by a wealthy Baron (Karloff) who’s locked himself away from the world following the premature death of his new wife decades before.
The woman he’s been chasing, it seems, is the ghost of the Baron’s dead wife. What’s more, she’s under the spell of a local witch and Duvalier eventually discovers she’s being sent to torment the Baron into killing himself to atone for an ancient sleight.
If you only know Corman for his extreme shlock like Caged Heat or Humanoids From the Deep, this is a more sedate and serious affair (also directed rather than produced by him). It’s no less cheap than any Corman movie and despite the title it’s a melodrama and a mystery story – surely audiences in the early 1960s didn’t find this kind of thing terrifying?
But it’s fun to see a 20-something Nicholson hone his craft, with 80s movie icon Dick Miller as Karloff’s butler is thrown in for good measure.