Monday, November 23, 2009

Targets (1968): or, Go On, Boris, Take a Bow

Part of the Boris Karloff Blogathon, sponsored by Frankensteinia! Click Here to enjoy all the other entries in this web-wide celebration of the Life and Career of Boris Karloff!

Cinema history is littered with stories of golden age stars who ended their careers on desperate, depressing notes, working in low-budget, zero-prestige dreck totally unworthy of their talents. In the horror genre--and the world of film generally--perhaps no star better exemplifies this phenomenon than Bela Lugosi, whose fall from superstardom into drug addiction, anachronism, and death on the second day of filming what was for decades held as "the worst film ever made" is the stuff of sad Hollywood legend. Fellow golden age icons Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine fared only slightly better, and the last great face of horror cinema, Vincent Price, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. It's almost as if something about the dark stories they brought to life in their heyday rubbed off onto the men beneath, cursing their final days with as much tragedy as they ever assayed on screen.

Even Boris Karloff, arguably the most talented and almost certainly the most successful legend of the Universal era, was not spared this cruel fate. Like many of his peers, Karloff did some excellent work even late in his career--How the Grinch Stole Christmas, anyone?--and lent his considerable gravitas and class to a slew of low budget horror films and television shows, often improving the material by several orders of magnitude by virtue of his unshakable sophistication and talent. But for all that, he still closed out his two-hundred film career in a series of z-grade Mexican mad-doctor flicks. Such efforts as Snake People and The Incredible Invasion (both 1971), though perhaps not without their peculiar charms, feature a game but clearly ill and exhausted Karloff, hobbling across the cheap sets and delivering lines in a sonorous but shaky voice, a mere shell of his former glory.

Which is why I say, "Thank God for Roger Corman," without whose legendary frugal and opportunistic showbiz know-how, today's film would not have been made. Corman had Karloff under contract for five days of shooting, and had already burned three of them on another project. Not one to let an aging horror star sit idle when there was unexposed film within reach, Corman told a young Peter Bogdonavich--then a fledgling, untried filmmaker with only one unremarkable film to his credit--that he could make any movie he wanted on two conditions: he had to use the two days Karloff owed him, and he had to use stock footage from 1963's The Terror (a previous Corman/Karloff collaboration that also starred a very young Jack Nicholson). Bound by those cost-cutting strictures, Bogdonavich and wife/cowriter Polly Platt came up with a film that can be considered a glorious and moving capper to Karloff's career: Targets (1968).

Boris, in Peril

Because they had only a few days to come up with a complete screenplay ready to shoot, Platt and Bogdonavich decided not to cast Karloff as a mad doctor bent on world domination or a Sadean aristocrat with a penchant for terrorizing bikini-clad girls. Instead, they decided to have Karloff play...himself! With the "you can't possibly mistake what we're doing here" moniker Byron Orlok, Karloff plays an aging horror star of the golden era, now forced to work in low budget schlock and live off the name recognition and status he built up in his glory days--a status that is clearly in steep decline.

Bogdonavich opens the movie with five minutes of footage from The Terror, like in the deal. We see the tumultuous climax of that film, with a younger but still none-too-youthful Karloff stalking through a gothic castle set, whipping his servant with chains, unearthing his beloved in her worm-eaten grave, and wrestling a diaphanous gown-clad spectre as the dungeon floods and the walls crumble around him. (For sheer "what a trooper" awesomeness, the only comparison is Lugosi's octopus-rasslin' scene in Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster.) The end credits roll, and the lights come up in a darkened screening room, where Orlok shakes his head sadly at the spectacle he's just witnessed, the depths to which his career has sunk.

"I'm telling you, Sammy, if Naschy gets a boob-touching rider, SO DO I!"

While the producer sings the flick's praises with dollar signs dancing in his eyes, he's already planning the Orlok's next project, a script he calls "a work of art!" written by fledgling director Sammy Michaels that he claims will be "a real departure for you, Byron!" Through asides between Sammy and Orlok's distractingly attractive young secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), we learn this is to be the director's big break, a chance to do the type of picture he's always wanted to do. It's about as meta as meta can get, since what we're watching is by all accounts the story of how the movie we're watching actually got made. The fact that Sammy Michaels is played by Peter Bogdonavich himself removes whatever doubt there could be left.

Orlok's had enough, however, and announces that he's retiring from the movies, effective immediately. Tired of appearing in movies he feels are beneath him and depressed at the downward trajectory of his career, Orlok is ready to walk away from the whole circus, leaving the producer, his agent Eddie, and the young director in the lurch. When Sammy tries to talk him out of it, Orlok is firm in his resolve. "Sammy, you're a sweet boy, but you can't possibly understand what it feels like to be me! I'm an antique, out of date ... an anachronism! The world belongs to the young! Make way for them--let them have it!"

As they argue in the street, we suddenly see Orlok through the crosshairs of a high-powered rifle--a jarring, unsettling image. Pulling back we find Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) testing the scope on a gun he intends to purchase. With his crew cut, smart suit, polite friendliness and gee-whiz good looks, Bobby is the very image of the clean, upstanding American youth of the 60s. But when he buys the rifle and takes it out to his car to add it to a veritable arsenal he has stored in the trunk, we start to see there's a hidden disturbing depth just below the All-American Boy surface.

Matt Damon in the inevitable remake

We follow Bobby home, past a drive-in advertising a personal appearance by Byron Orlok scheduled for the following evening. Bobby also passes an oil refinery whose towering tanks he watches meaningfully as he drives by in his Mustang, the most all-American of American cars. Back home, we learn Bobby and his wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan) live with Bobby's parents, in a house full of gun racks, gun magazines, and hunting and GI photos of the old man. Bobby calls his father "Sir" and bows his head dutifully for prayers before the evening meal, but the way he stalks around the empty rooms, an unreadable but slightly sinister gleam in his eye, speaks volumes.

Back in Orlok's hotel room, it becomes clear that the old man is determined to wallow in bitterness, actively trying to alienate his agent and secretary with his curmudgeonly self-pity. He even refuses to honor his contract for the personal appearance at the drive-in, causing the longsuffering Eddie no end of dismay. Karloff's performance here is nothing short of brilliant--his smooth, bitingly satirical delivery of his dialogue somehow captures Orlok's despair and anger without ever becoming too mean--you can see that he's a good man, a kind man, who just happens to be at the end of his rope. Of course the audience's prior knowledge of Karloff's off-screen persona helps a lot here, but that's all part of Bogdonavich's master plan, and it works wonderfully.

Back in suburbia, Bobby tries to open up to his wife about the demons that are haunting him. "I don't know what's happening to me," he tells her. "I get...funny ideas." But while Bobby's clearly struggling to articulate the impulses even he doesn't fully understand, his wife barely listens, putting him off with pleasantries and a good night peck on the cheek. Bobby stays up all night, smoking in the dark and gazing ominously at the gun on his bedside table as the plan forms in his head...


What we have in Targets is a movie that's not so much a horror film as a film about horror--specifically, it's changing face in the post-Charles Whitman era. (For those yet to study the incident in American History, Whitman was the gunman in the infamous Texas Clocktower Shootings--wiki article here.) Whitman's crime is referenced many times in the film, though not always directly. For instance, when Orlok laments that his type of horror "isn't horror anymore!", he cites as evidence a newspaper headline about a youth having shot down a group of innocents in a supermarket. When Bobby climbs to the top of a refinery tank and sets out his arsenal in preparation for the beginning of his onslaught, the parallels can't be ignored. Add to this the fact that Tim O'Kelly's Bobby bears more than a passing resemblance to Whitman himself, and the connection is clear. Horror no longer wears diaphanous gowns and rotting Victorian clothes--now it wears a crew cut and a smile and carries a high-powered rifle.

After picking off several motorists from his perch at the refinery and also murdering a worker who surprises him on the stairwell (Note to Flying Maciste Bros.: dummy death!), Bobby flees the scene, eluding the police by pulling into the drive-in theater where Orlok is scheduled to make his appearance. As luck would have it, Orlok has decided to show up for the PA after all, thanks to a drunken bender with Michaels the night before and the pangs of his conscience. It's here that Orlok and Bobby's paths finally cross, as the young man takes up a position behind the screen and begins picking off the audience while the movie plays. It all comes to a head when Jenny is shot and an enraged and probably in-shock Orlock heads behind the screen to confront the next generation's version of horror.

"I was scaring the crap out of kids like you when your daddy was in diapers!"

In only his second feature, Bogdonavich directs with an amazing amount of flair and confidence. The opening half hour is a miniature master class in visual storytelling, as the director is able to generate an immense amount of suspense and foreboding with just a few well-placed images and creative transitions. He uses color to great effect too, choosing all warm yellows, browns, and oranges for Karloff's scenes, all cold blues and whites and greens for Tim O'Kelly's. The lack of a score for long stretches (only car radio and drive-in movie music are used) adds to the suspense. On the DVD commentary Bogdonavich gives a great deal of credit to his famous mentor Samuel Fuller, who did a full rewrite of Bogdonavich and Platt's original script and refused screen credit for it. However, the young director was obviously paying attention and learning the right lessons, as his later career would show. (For you movie buffs, Bogdonavich's next feature after Targets was The Last Picture Show, for which Bogdonavich received several Oscar nominations.)

Making a virtue of the strictures Corman placed on him, Bogdonavich uses the other ten or fifteen minutes stock footage from The Terror in the movie's incredibly tense climax, slowly building the suspense as audience members are picked off one by one while the rest of the moviegoers sit and watch obliviously. Bogdonavich doesn't pull any punches either--scenes showing children bleeding in the arms of their weeping mothers, and another of a young boy in shock looking at his father's dead body in the seat beside him, are more than a little hard to take. The fact that the movie still resonates so strongly today is either a testament to the director's skill, a sad comment on present-day society, or a little of both.

The young director was blessed with an excellent cast as well, chiefly in the form of Karloff and Tim O'Kelly. Playing a slightly more curmudgeonly version of himself, Karloff is an absolute joy to watch, and his chemistry with Bogdonavich the actor and with Nancy Hseuh as Jenny is real and engaging. He also gets a chance to do some dry British comedy, as when he spars with a beatnik radio personality prior to the public appearance (Beatnik: "Mr. O, I must have dug your flicks like four zillion times! You BLEW MY MIND!" Karloff [extremely dry]: "Obviously."), or when an exasperated Sammy takes his script and storms to the door, threatening, "I'm gonna go offer this to Vincent Price!" On the dramatic side, highlights include the reportedly ad-libbed 'bedtime story' Orlok tells in lieu of an interview (an Arabian folk tale about the day Death came to the marketplace), and his wordless confrontation with Bobby behind the screen. (Two words: BORIS BITCH-SLAP!)

Do. Not. Fuck. With. Boris.

For all the Karloff magic, though, the movie would not have worked without the frankly amazing performance by Tim O'Kelly as the inscrutable killer. Some viewers with an axe to grind might point at the gun-worship in Bobby's home as a political statement on Bogdonavich's part about 2nd Amendment controversies, but the quiet, disturbed intensity O'Kelly brings to the role gives you the sense that he'd be out there shooting even if his dad collected stamps instead. It's an impulse even Bobby doesn't understand, and there seems to be no explaining his rampage--which in the final analysis is perhaps what makes it so terrifying. Sadly, O'Kelly only made a couple more films after Targets before disappearing from the movies completely.

The supporting cast is great too--Nancy Hseuh is fabulous as a capable woman who knows how to handle her slightly childish old charge, and Bogdonavich carries his role well. One performance I enjoyed a great deal this second time around was Arthur Peterson as Orlok's agent Eddie, who with very limited screentime and dialog creates a believable, touching, slightly tragic character about whom I would have liked to know more.

If Boris had followed Orlok's lead and retired after Targets, it would have been a glorious, fitting end to a long and wonderful career. Of course Bogdonavich points out on his informative commentary that this was the one difference between Orlok and Karloff: "Boris never for a moment considered not working." Karloff's subsequent Mexican z-graders did nothing to diminish his legend either, and even in the most atrocious fare he was able to lend an air of class and sophistication that was almost magical. Still, Targets is a fabulous movie, a grand curtain call for one of the true greats not only in horror cinema, but in American film as a whole.

Here's to you, Mr. Karloff

3+ thumbs. See it--you owe it to yourself, and to Boris. Come on, think of all he's given you! Is it too much to ask?

A few more images from Targets (1968):

"No, seriously--you're wearing THAT?"
The Junk in Bobby's Trunk

Ladies Love Cool Boris

Maynard G. Krebs makes a cameo

A Coke and a Smile

Chilling x 2
3-D Can Be Deadly

Is Boris Karloff gonna have to choke a bitch?


T. R Xands said...

Last foto caption made my life.

Yay, a Boris Karloff blogathon! More reason to go watch Black Sabbath again. I'd heard of Targets but really not gotten too many reviews on it when I was thinking about renting/purchasing, I guess I just wasn't looking hard enough or something. I think now I'll give it a try this weekend if I can find it, you know, to avoid the family on Thanksgiving.

Samuel Wilson said...

The title has sort of entered the film-buff lexicon, hasn't it? When an old war-horse in apparent decline pulls off a brilliant late performance,someone is going to call it his or her Targets. As a blog-appropriate example, Rojo Sangre is Paul Naschy's Targets in some estimates. That's a tribute to what Bogdonovich and Karloff accomplished, and your review reminds me that I have to finally catch up with The Criminal Code someday.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@T. R Xands: definitely seek this one out. It's a great piece of filmmaking over and above Karloff's performance, though of course that only makes it that much better. Bogdonavich's commentary is worth listening to also.

@Samuel Wilson: Rojo Sangre is DEFINITELY Naschy's TARGETS! An argument could be made for Vincent Price's THEATER OF BLOOD being in the same subgenre, except of course that Vincent went out with a bang in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, many years later. I've never seen THE CRIMINAL CODE either, but the clips in TARGETS make it look fantastic.

JamiSings said...

Last caption - genius.

And of course now I want to see this movie and God help Hollywood if I like it and they do remake it. I'm ready to start a coup as it is to stop craptastic remakes. Complete with blazing torches and pitchforks.

The Duke of DVD said...

Brilliance, as usual Vicar! I loves me some Karloff, as evidenced by the menacing statue I have of him in one of my gardens. (note: it keeps moles and gypsies away)

Is it just me, or does the person opposite Boris in your screencap about "scaring the crap out of kids" look like Jimmy Carter?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Jami--They certainly don't need to remake this one; I'd rather they get to work on a Karloff biopic starring Jeremy Irons. I've always thought he could NAIL the role, and the resemblance is not a small one.

@The Duke--you may be right; after all, you look NOTHING like Jimmy Carter!

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

This is one my favorite Karloff films. I like to pretend that it's the last one he made, having seen "Isle of the Snake People" and heard tell that it's the BEST of the Mexican films he shot scenes for.

Great article and the cut-lines made me laugh (which is what I get for web-surfing while my class is taking an exam....)

Jenn said...

Does it get much better than meta-Boris? I don't think so. You know, I always wondered what it was like for actors to play meta-versions of themselves, like Courtney Love playing a strung out junkie lunatic in that Larry Flynt movie. Or the other examples mentioned (Naschy's ROJA SANGRE - god, I feel for the man in that movie! - and Price's THEATRE OF BLOOD).

Lovely and hilarious as usual.

prof. grewbeard said...

i'm right there with you on this one, nuff said! your review BLEW MY MIND!...obviously.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks, V., for reminding me of this one, and for a damn fine kickoff entry in the B.K. Blog-a-thon.
Since childhood, Karloff in Frankenstein was my favorite film performance. The movie ignited my love of horror films, and the Universal catalog became my bible. For years I couldn't consider anything that wasn't a B&W gothic from the 30s or 40s as being a "true" horror movie.
Years later, it was Karloff again (with Peter Bogdanovich, of course) who showed me that an even greater horror could be the kind that lived next door, and that he scariest monsters were of the human breed.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Steve Miller--thanks for the comment! I've seen SNAKE PEOPLE, and I think it does have a few things going for it if you're a lover of the MAD, but it's definitely nowhere near Karloff's best. TARGETS, on the other hand, is. Also, are you the teacher of this class? If so, I find the fact that you're surfing MMMMMovies during exams strangely cool and awesome! :)

@Jenn--It's hard to get better than Meta-Boris, this much is true. According to some of the other Blogathon entries, apparently he did a commercial for A-1 Steak Sauce in the 60s. Definitely have to find some video of that--the mind wobbles!

@prof. grewbeard--Crazy, Daddio! ;)

@Geo--Thanks for the kind words! As you know, I also cut my teeth on the Universal horrors, and it was a real pleasure for me to find this example of one of the stars of those flicks acting so well, so late in his career. Lon Sr. was the Grandaddy of them all, Lon Jr. the tragic knight, Lugosi the Dark Prince, but Boris--Boris was the KING.

George said...

Shudders. If Matt Damon's in the remake...who plays Karloff...uh, Orlok?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@George--Jeremy Irons!

Disclaimer: to my knowledge, there is no remake planned. I would be all about a re-release, though.

Nate Y. said...

Karloff's bewildered last line just sums this movie up: "Is that what I was afraid of?" Bogdanovich's point is clear -- real-life monsters are cowards. We're allowing ourselves to become afraid of the afraid.

Emily said...

Love this review! I was really glad to see this film mentioned in Shock Value, but I have to say, you do such a great job of explaining so much about what Targets does. Good on ya!

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