Sunday, November 29, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 7: “You know what they call my films today? Camp! High camp!”

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has devoted the past week to participating in the Boris Karloff Blogathon sponsored by Frankensteinia—and I’d just like to say that I can’t recall having a more entertaining time in recent memory. I lament the fact that I still had a post or two in me but for various and sundry reasons could not devote the necessary time to sit down and write them…but to be honest, I think I and everyone else who participated in the project could write from now until next year and still just barely scratch the surface of Karloff’s incredible career. What I was pleased about was that I was able to focus on Boris’ involvement in the aspects of the material that has become the signature stuff of TDOY: old-time radio, television and classic films…with a particular emphasis on the cult and B-movie product.

I decided that for the final post I’d discuss what I consider to be my favorite Boris Karloff film. The answer will probably surprise you, and to be honest it wasn’t easy choosing a favorite because he appeared in so many wonderful movies. There’s the horror features: the Frankenstein trilogy (the 1931 original, Bride and Son), The Old Dark House (1932), The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). There are those wonderful character turns in The Criminal Code (1931), Cracked Nuts (1931), Five Star Final (1931), Scarface (1932), The Lost Patrol (1934) and Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936). And, of course, those little-seen movies that one wishes were more widely accessible to the actor’s fans--Night World (1932), The Black Room (1935; to its credit, Room is available on a commercial DVD), The Walking Dead (1936) and The Sorcerers (1967).

But my absolute favorite is one that I mentioned earlier this week in my post on Boris and old-time radio: the 1968 suspense thriller Targets, directed and produced by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Karloff as a horror movie actor who decides that his “old fashioned” means of scaring movie audiences can’t compete with the terror prevalent in modern-day society. There’s a reason why it’s my favorite, and I’ll try my best not to be long-winded in my explanation.

“All right, what are you going to do—plant roses? Actors don’t retire…about six months and you’ll blow your brains out, Byron,” Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich) chides horror icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) about seven minutes into Targets. This is true to a large extent, but there are some actors who have no need to continue on (perhaps having invested wisely)—instinctively knowing when it’s time to get off the stage. Actors continue to work after the age of retirement for primarily two reasons: either a person’s gotta eat (these would be the ones who invested unwisely) or because it’s harder than hell to get the greasepaint out of their blood.

With regards to movies, very few actors manage to make their cinematic swan songs of the same high quality as their best-known work. But it has been done: Humphrey Bogart went out on a high note with The Harder They Fall (1956); John Wayne had a fitting capper to his career with The Shootist (1976); Clark Gable’s send-off was The Misfits (1961); Robert Ryan’s The Iceman Cometh (1973). (These were just off the top of my head; I’m sure you can think of others.) I consider Targets to be a member of that worthy group, even though I’m sure by now that anyone reading this has cried “Foul!” because it technically wasn’t Boris’ swan song—he appeared in four Mexican quickies afterward: Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), El coleccionista de cadáveres (1970; a.k.a. Blind Man’s Bluff), La muerte viviente (1971; a.k.a. Isle of the Snake People) and The Incredible Invasion (1971).

Truth be told…I don’t care. (Denial is not just a river in Egypt.)

The film that would ultimately become Targets came about because director-producer Roger Corman—“the king of the B’s”—contacted Bogdanovich to offer the aspiring director-writer a chance to make a movie with Karloff, who owed (according to his contract) Corman two days work. The idea was to construct a film that would use twenty minutes of footage from a film Boris previously made for Corman, The Terror (1963), another twenty minutes of new Karloff footage, and the remaining forty minutes a story that would somehow connect all three segments.

The problem for Bogdanovich in preparing the film was how to link the Terror footage (The Terror being a Victorian horror period piece) to the new Karloff material, and initially the novice director conceived a scene whereupon Boris and Roger would be watching Terror in a screening room. The lights would come up, and turning towards Corman Karloff would remark: “Roger, that’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” A funny in-joke, to be sure—but the more consideration Bogdanovich gave the scene, the more it made sense to cast Boris as a movie actor who describes himself as an “anachronism.” The other part of the story—in which troubled Vietnam vet Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) goes on a homicidal rampage against his family and innocent bystanders—resulted from a casual conversation between Bogdanovich and his former boss, Esquire magazine editor Harold Hayes, who suggested doing a film loosely based on sniper Charles Whitman, an individual who made notorious headlines in 1966 by killing 14 people and wounding 32 others from atop a tower at the University of Texas in Austin.

Bogdanovich and then-spouse Polly Platt wrote the story, with the director also polishing the completed work into a first-rate screenplay. But Bogdanovich has always given generous credit in interviews to director-producer Samuel Fuller, who furiously rewrote the script in a three-hour time span of pacing up and down. Peter had wanted to bestow a screenplay credit to Fuller, but the director waved him off, refusing to accept any recognition or fee for his work. As a result, the character played by Bogdanovich in Targets—“Sammy Michaels”—is a nod to the cult director; “Samuel Michael” being his first and middle names.

What was originally calculated to be two days of work from Karloff actually turned out to be a total of five, and though his physical appearance is startling (and not in a good “horror movie” sense)—he was suffering from emphysema (only one lung worked regularly, requiring the use of an oxygen mask and wheelchair between takes) and the braces on his legs (a souvenir of suffering for his art on the Frankenstein films) also necessitated the use of a cane in many of his scenes—he remained the consummate professional, never complaining and even refusing to accept payment for the time he worked past his scheduled two days of employment. (In fact—not including the footage from The Terror—Karloff is in Targets for a total of thirty minutes, a bit past his scheduled time in the film.) Boris admired his young director a great deal, and though he was hesitant about some of the aspects of his character (he felt Peter should have toned down the self-deprecation some) he clearly appears to be having a great time throughout the course of the movie. It’s great to see Karloff as the hero (confronting O’Kelly’s “maniac” at the climactic drive-in sequence by confusing the young man with both his real-life presence off screen and larger-than-life presence on) and many of the wonderful moments in Targets are not “big scenes” but smaller, subtle touches—the smile on Karloff’s face when he watches a rerun of The Criminal Code on television and his entrance unnerves elderly Ethel Wales, and his momentary expression of being startled when he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror the morning after knocking back a few with Sammy.

The total budget for Targets was an cool, economical $125,000—and when Bogdanovich told Corman that he was confident he could get one of the major studios to distribute the film (in lieu of Corman’s usual agreement with American International Pictures), the producer gave him the go-ahead; after some initial hesitation from Paramount, the movie sold for $150,000, netting Rog a tidy little profit. But by the time the film was scheduled to be released, events in real-life—the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy—created an atmosphere where excessive violence in films didn’t set too well with moviegoers…and Targets, as good as it is, is definitely not a movie for the violence intolerant. Bogdanovich’s movie was rushed to theaters in August of 1968 and while it received a few positive reviews (including one from The New York Times) it was mostly a financial flop. The only benefit Bogdanovich received from the film was that top execs from independent BBS Productions studio saw it and told the novice director that he could make any film he wanted at BBS—and Peter took them up on the offer with his second film, The Last Picture Show (1971).

My first acquaintance with Targets came from both a description in Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies guide and an essay on the film in Danny Peary’s invaluable film reference Cult Movies. I finally got to see it when it was shown on the USA Network back in the mid 1980s—that version included a brief introductionary scroll advocating a more stringent policy on the sale and purchase of guns, making Targets one of the few films that isn’t shy about lobbying openly for a cause (the old Hollywood saw being “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”). (Peary was one of the few individuals to point out that the horror in Targets isn’t so much the “arsenal” in O’Kelly’s car trunk but the ones inside the cars of the drive-in patrons who’ve decided to combat his shooting rampage.) I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the movie since (I bought the DVD when it came out) but it’s a member of an elite group of films that I will sit down and watch to the end if I come across it on TV. It features Karloff as how I like to remember him—professional in every sense of the word (even though his character is a bit jaundiced at the beginning, wanting to bail out of the business) and an actor not only capable of incredible gestures and body language but possessing an amazing voice that could chill the very marrow of a viewer’s bones (I’m referring to his recitation of Appointment in Samarra).

Boris Karloff was indeed a one-of-a-kind talent, and his film, radio and television legacy continues to inspire dedication and indescribable awe at this tiny scrap of the blogosphere I call Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

“He Nothing Common Did or Mean

Upon That Memorable Scene”

--The notation on a plaque inside St. Paul’s Covent Garden (“The Actor’s Church”), commemorating the life of Boris Karloff and taken from Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland.”

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4 comments:

John said...

A wonderful essay on a fascinating film that I wish was better known and appreciated.
BK is at his best here!

Will Errickson said...

I seriously considered writing up TARGETS for the Blogathon but the holiday week seriously interfered with my contribution. Although I didn't see it until just the last few years, it lived up to its "cult movie" status! I'm glad you posted this thorough and entertaining look at one of Karloff's very greatest movies. Thanks!

Philip Schweier said...

Wasn't Boris in Dick Tracy vs. Gruesome? While WAY beneath his (or anyone's) talents, I must give credit to any actor who will take a job with no regard for pay or what it will do for their career, instead choosing a job because they are an actor, and an actor acts.

MICHAELSPAPPY said...

We Boris Karloff. Contrary to the usual, we have not watched him on horror movies, but on detective movies like Mr. Wong and Colonel March of Scotland Yard. Very good actor, and unfairly stereotyped.