"All the good movies have been made"
It’s high time I mentioned the late great Boris Karloff here in Cult Corner. Following his appearance as the creature in Universal’s Frankenstein movie of 1931, (perhaps THE most iconic and easily recognisable movie monster in cinema history) Karloff undoubtedly was the leading figure of horror movies in the 1930s and 40s, and still regularly appeared in genre films and TV series up to his passing, at the age of 81 on Feb 2, 1969.
He was such a prolific worker, that his last films were still being premiered in the early seventies, though in his latter years, he was crippled with arthritis and had to spend his time inbetween takes wearing an oxygen mask.
So with his legendary status and a huge body of work to choose from, why am I introducing Karloff with Targets, rather than something from the Universal Studios glory years?
It was made at the end of his career, and though he would appear in a further five films after this, (one of them, Curse of the Crimson Cult, co-starring with Christopher Lee) Targets is one of Karloff’s most important films. It was very controversial in its time, it still packs a punch today and is certainly one of Karloff’s most poignant performances.
It’s also one of director Peter Bogdanovich’s first movies. Prior to this, Bogdanovich, who would be nominated for 2 Oscars in his career to date, was working for Roger Corman on a B movie called, incerdibly, Voyage To The Planet Of The Prehistoric Women. I’ve never seen it, but would like to, for the title alone.
The story goes that Corman gave the young Bogdanovich (who also appears in the film) a shot at directing. There were 2 conditions. Stock footage from an earlier Karloff/Corman movie called The Terror (1963) had to be used, and Karloff himself had to be used, because he owed Corman a few days shooting under his contract.
Out of those humble beginnings came a film that surpasses the sum of its parts and is, in effect, Karloff’s farewell to the horror genre as old horror passes the torch to a (then) entirely new type of horror. The trappings are different, but the effect is the same.
Karloff plays virtually, himself in everything but name - Byron Orlock is an elderly horror movie star, realising he’s at the twilight of his long career. He wants to retire. "The world belongs to the young - let ‘em have it" he says as he announces "The Terror" as his last film. The days of greasepaint monsters are over, he feels he’s an anachronism in today's world, stating that his films, once frightening, are now regarded as high camp. He reluctantly agrees to one last public appearance - at the premiere of his film at a drive-in movie theatre.
Over in another part of town, we meet Bobby Thompson, (Tim O’Kelly) a young Vietnam veteran, married, living in the suburbs with his young wife and his parents. The family is the very picture of white suburban America, they’re clean cut, respectful, they say grace before their meal...except Bobby is a gun collector and he has some deep and dark psychological problems.
One day, he calmly freaks out and icily shoots his mother, his wife, a delivery boy - for no apparent reason, and then takes a position on top of a storage tower, shooting randomly at people in their cars on the nearby freeway, killing several in cold blood. This echoes (and was inspired by) the similar Whitman sniper killings which took place in Texas in 1966.
Fleeing the scene, Thompson takes refuge at the Drive-In, where Orlock is making his appearance. Taking a position behind the screen, Thompson again uses his arsenal of rifles and telescopic sights to pick off various targets he chooses for no reason, until confronted by an outraged Orlock.
In rewatching this, I realised that it reminded me a lot of The Shootist, John Wayne’s last film. In that movie, Wayne plays an ageing gunfighter, dying of cancer. But rather than succumb to the disease, he agrees to one last showdown in a saloon, knowing he’ll never make it out alive. Or, more recently, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. In both movies, the actors are playing true to their type, against a world they’re now alienated from.
After decades of playing monsters, ghouls, madmen, scientists etc, Karloff plays a part acknowledging that the world has moved on. Horror is no longer a misshapen monster with a square head and electrodes through its neck. Fictitious European castles and crazed noblemen or sorcerers aren’t that frightening to a world where death can come without motive or reason, from the rifle of an outwardly normal looking young man.
Monsters - real monsters usually look like you or I, or any of the people you’ll pass on the street today. They don’t have fangs or capes or claws or wait until midnight and a full moon. They’re already here. Among us.
This was, in essence, Bogdanovich and Karloff’s reality check that things were changing drastically in the sixties. The age of innocence was over.
But the quote of the film is a story, told by Karloff in one single take, in his mournful monotone:
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I'd like to leave you with a little story to think about as you drive home... through the darkness... Once upon a time, many, many years ago, a rich merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the marketplace to buy provisions... and after a while the servant came back, white-faced and trembling, and said, 'Master, when I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and I turned to look, and I saw that it was Death that jostled me. And she looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Oh, master, please, lend me your horse, that I may ride away from this city and escape my fate. I will ride to Samarra and Death will not find me there.' So the merchant loaned him the horse and the servant mounted it, and dug his spurs into its flank, and as fast as the horse could gallop he rode towards Samarra. Then the merchant went to the market-place and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he said to her, 'Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?' And Death said, 'I made no threatening gesture - that was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight... in Samarra."
This link will take you to Amazon, where you can find out more about Targets, and even grab a copy of the film on DVD to check it out.
Copyright © 2010 - 2011 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.