Targets (1968)

Targets

Targets – 1968

Director – Peter Bogdanovich

Starring – Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich, and Nancy Hsueh

My review of a couple of days ago of The Masque of the Red Death, dove-tails nicely with today’s review of the film Targets.  Both films started out as projects coming out of the creative collective that is Roger Corman and American International Pictures, however both films ended up becoming polar opposites of one another.  Masque, while brimming with campy fun, was  produced solely to turn a profit banking on the names of Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Price, with a dollop of horror and a pinch of sexuality. 

Targets on the other hand, started it’s existence in much the same way, but was able to become more than the sum of it’s parts.  Corman, who produced the picture, offered the directing position to a young up-and-comer by the name of Peter Bogdanovich who would later go on to direct a number of critically acclaimed films, as well as make friends with some very influential and talented people (most notably portly wunderkind, Orson Welles).  Corman would allow Bogdanovich to make any film he wanted to with two caveats, he had to re-use footage of a b-horror movie “The Terror” that he had the rights to, and mix it with footage filmed in the two days of filming that legendary horror actor Boris Karloff owed to Corman.

Reportedly, Bogdanovich was so frustrated with trying to find a way to merge the scenes of campy victorian horror, with the older, more frail Karloff that he only had two days with, that he jokingly said Karloff was going to be a washed up movie star disgusted with where his career had gone.  Ultimately this ended up being a large chunk of what the story became. 

The other half of the movie centers around Tim O’Kelly’s character, Bobby Thompson, a troubled young man with a penchant for guns.  Modelled after real life gunman Charles Whitman, Bobby Thompson goes on a similar type of shooting spree, firing methodically into traffic and later into into the audience of Byron Orlok’s (Boris Karloff’s) newest movie.  Where Orlok represented horror in his day, Bobby Thompson represented the fear that existed in the future.  Thompson remorselessly guns down his wife, and mother before calmly collecting all of his weapons and setting out to make his mark on the world.

Though the story is one that is partially designed to be fantastic, and draw an audience through shock value, unlike Masque, it talks about a very real kind of fear, one that is just as prescient today as it was in 1968.  At one point Karloff’s Orlok laments about how he no longer wants to be in the movies because with things like these {murders} appearing in the papers, what’s so scary about a man in a rubber monster costume.  It is just these little kinds of humanistic characterizations that helped Karloff achieve such a dignity in his original famous role, that of  Frankenstein.  Though the story centers around these crimes that Bobby Thompson commits, and their direct influence on our main characters, the real meat of the film is watching Karloff as Orlok, play himself.  We watch as he realizes his time is done, his effectiveness has faded away, and his realization that he is no longer a star, but only a man.

Peter Bogdanovich does a fantastic job, not really despite what he has to work with, but because of it.  Due to his drive to create something beyond the desire for a payday, he was able to far surpass other grind-house films that started in the same vein,  like The Masque of the Red Death.  He is forced to be creative with his resources.  Everything from his actors, to his story, to his limitations on directing had to be carefully measured and weighed. 

To his credit, however, Roger Corman gave a lot of young, aspiring director’s their big breaks.  Without him wouldn’t have had Scorsese, Coppola, Demme, Bogdanovich, James Camer0n, or Joe Dante.  Imagine a world without Goodfellas, and Gremlins.

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein

Frankenstein – 1931

Director – James Whale

Starring – Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye, and Boris Karloff

The original version of the movie Frankenstein shares a lot with the original version of the movie Dracula.  Aside from being released in the same year, featuring a number of the same actors (Van Sloan, and Frye were in both movies), and being flagship movies for Universal, they share quite a bit in terms of visual style and atmosphere.  Frankenstein is a bit less concerned with the rules and set up of it’s world than Dracula was, but it does have something over Dracula…Boris Karloff.

Bela Lugosi was really very good as the halting, stilted, seductive monster, but Boris Karloff seems, for lack of a better term, real.  Movies of this time period never seem to have very naturalistic acting.  Everything usually seems just a little off, like when you watch old Super 8 movies, they seem a little sped up and the physicality of the people seems off.  Boris Karloff on the other hand, displays very realistic acting.  When the Frankenstein monster is being accosted by fire, you can see how terrified of it he is.  Karloff manages to imbue this monster, this thing to be afraid of with a naturalism that isn’t even wasted on the main characters.  I don’t know if this was done on purpose to create an almost subconcious sympathy for the creature, but if it was, it works beautifully.  Where Lugosi’s performance was helped by the un-natural quality, strange timing of his delivery,  Karloff’s performance gives us a similar uneasiness thanks to his being the most natural in the entirety of the movie.  I see echoes of this juxtaposition in the work of David Lynch, put to equally good effect.

Dracula was also limited by it’s temporal setting.  While the characters were always safe the threat of the vampire during the day, in Frankenstein there is no safe time of day.  When the Frankenstein monster escapes his bonds at the strange castle (Frankenstein and Dracula both lead me to believe that evil is associated very closely with wealth), he runs rampant into the village in the middle of the day.  To see a monster in broad daylight would, you’d think, take away a lot of it’s power to scare, but not so.  In various discussions that I’ve had with friends and fellow fans of horror movies, we have talked numerous times about the creepy nature of a monster or other danger hiding in plain sight.  When everything else is normal, it amplifies the unsettling nature of whatever doesn’t fit (think, Michael Myers outside the window in Halloween, or that creepy man in a dog costume in the Shining).  Seeing the Frankenstein monster interact with the little girl near the lake, or creep just outside the Elizabeth’s window before the wedding ceremony, intensifies the tension in the scene.

Another thing that Frankenstein provides that Dracula didn’t, was the death scene of our monster.  Van Helsing took a stake to Count Dracula, and all the while we are watching the effects of his death on Mina, as she is being released from his spell.  In Frankenstein we see the monster trapped in the windmill with a burning beam pinning him to the floor.  He is confronted with death by fire, his worst fear, and his terror is palpable. 

What Frankenstein lacks in story (the story isn’t bad, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense) it more than makes up for in atmosphere.  It holds up well and is still suprisingly effective.