6/28/09

Targets (1968): Karloff's Overlooked Classic

When Horror fans, or even the non-Horror loving public, hear the name Boris Karloff, the image that comes to mind is the lumbering square-headed brute known as the Frankenstein Monster. Of course, Karloff was much more than that. He was the Mummy, Mr. Wong, the narrator of The Grinch that Stole Christmas and an actor with 199 credits to his name that touch on almost all genre of film. He was also the star of Peter Bogdanovich’s first film with Targets (1968).

Bogdanovich had filmed about half of Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, and Corman offered him a job with some stipulations. He had to use footage from Corman’s 1963 film The Terror (which itself was a product of Corman, Jack Hill, and Francis Ford Coppola’s direction.) and had to use up 2 days that Karloff was contracted to work for Corman. In the end, Bogdanovich crafted such a film that Karloff worked for five days and refused to be paid for any extra time. This was a Karloff who was in failing health. He had one lung, had difficulty standing or walking, and had to wear braces on both legs. Yet he gives one of the most vigorous and inspired performances of his career.

Karloff stars as Byron Orloff, a character who was much like himself, a remnant of the classic era of horror movies who has come to the end of a long career. He is tired of making cut rate films, playing the same tired characters he’s played before, and he’s ready to go home to England to live out his life in retirement. Peter Bogdanovich stars as Sammy Michaels, a young director who is trying to get Orloff for one last film, one he feels will change how the public feels about the horror actor, but Orloff is adamant he is going to retire and even refuses to do a public appearance at the Reseda Drive In. In the end, he still intends to retire, but he acquiesces to making the last appearance.

Meanwhile, Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) is your average all American boy. He’s young and married to a pretty girl, but they still live at home with his parents. He also feels like something strange is happening in his mind, and Bobby, a crack shot, keeps buying more and more guns. Eventually, he kills his mother and wife before climbing a water tower and sniping motorists. In an effort to escape the police, he drives into the showing of The Terror at the Reseda. There the paths of the screen monster and the real life killer will cross, and their fates become intertwined.

The script, by Bogdanovich, his wife Polly Platt, and Samuel Fuller, could nearly have been labeled as “Based on True Events”. Not only are Karloff and Bogdanivich’s characters very close to their actual selves, the character of Bobby Thompson was based off the events of 1966 when Charles Whitman went on a rampage and killed 14 people from atop a tower in Austin Texas. While the details are not exact, the inspiration is clear, and while the events are based on something in the past, the idea, the disassociated lonely killer who takes lives indescrimately, is something that rings very true and very real still today. Targets is a film which is certainly a product of it’s time with the drive in and southern California setting, but it doesn’t feel dated at all. Both storylines are just as strong as they were when the film was released.

O’Kelly and Karloff both ground the film in their own ways. O’Kelly’s innocent gone mental is an engaging character which is only enhanced by the wonderful shots that Bogdanovich and Laslo Kovacs involved him in. Since little about his character is spelled out, the gliding tracking shots that follow his actions make for seamless viewing. The camera in some ways becomes one with the killer in these sequences.

Then there’s Karloff turning in a sensitive portrayal that had to be informed by his own life experience. If it were made today comparisons to Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler would be unavoidable. For any fans of classic horror, it is a deeply moving performance that will make you recall all the great roles the horror master took on. He is also very funny, and my favorite moment in the film comes when he wakes up with a hangover and is shocked by the look of his own face. Many film goers over the years have has a similar reaction to seeing Karloff’s gruesome visage, and it makes for a very amusing and poignant moment which was a product of improvisation on Karloff’s part.

While Karloff made a couple more low budget features (Blind Man’s Bluff, Isle of the Snake People, and Alien Invasion), it would be better if Targets could be remembered as his last film. On the other hand, the career of Peter Bogdanovich was just beginning. In 1971, he would make The Last Picture Show and follow that up with films such as Paper Moon, Mask, and The Cat’s Meow. Sadly, even though he had shown a deft hand at creating an original horror themed film, he never returned to the genre. Targets was a moment in time. It caught the change in the era of film, and was perhaps the classiest production ever to come from the house of Corman. It took me many years to getting around to seeing it, and I think that it an overlooked classic. So if you haven’t seen this one, I implore you to check it out, and then let me know if my review was right on Target itself.

Bugg Rating

5 comments:

  1. Glad you got to see it; it is a great film. I don't quite buy the equation with The Wrestler, simply because neither Karloff nor the character he played ever reached as abject a point as Mickey Rourke or the character he plays. Bela Lugosi in the same movie might have made a better analogy. Despite that protest, I agree with your praise of Karloff's acting here, a sort of symbolic taking off the make-up and making a heroic farewell that was marred by those damned Mexican films.

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  2. From bio's I've read of Karloff, I've always felt he was tired, frustrated,and very ill by this point in his life. While he never reached the same kind of lows that Lugosi did, I was more equating the meta performance and similarities between The Ram and Rourke and Orloff and Karloff. I may have been reaching there, but hey, sometimes you gotta make that big claim that might not pan out.

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  3. Outstanding review, Mr. Bug. Targets is one of my favorite films (I've lost count how many times I've watched it) and your spot-on analysis is as refreshing a tonic as I've had in many weeks,

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  4. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJune 29, 2009 at 10:25 AM

    "michael (witchfinder general) reeves" ludicrously obscure and now almost completely forgotton 1967 film "the sorcerers" is another very interesting "late karloff cult item" (as it were) it would be great to hear your opinion on that one as well.

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  5. Nice review and a great film, but I don't think it's a "forgotten classic" - most people seem to regard "Targets" as one of Karloff's (and Bogdanovich's) best films and I believe it even made some "best films of the 60s/last 50 years" lists.
    I also thought that Karloff died as a (comparatively) happy man, at the very least he was lucky enough to be involved in some quality films even late in his career (this one, the Sorcerers, Black Sabbath) and from what I've read, he was a professional to the end and didn't really mind appearing in some of the lesser B-Movies he was involved in at the time of his death.

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