Bedeviled ravens are screeching, a storm is raging, and an elderly man moves through a castle as our latest feature begins already in earnest. Apparently on a mission, this man, The Baron, will stop at nothing as he makes his way through the cobwebs, down some steps, and into the family crypt, knocking away his butler as he approaches the sarcophagus holding the remains of his late wife.
But when the old man pries the lid off, both he is shocked and we are shocked to discover these contents we’ve been watching were nothing more than a screening of the final cut of Sammy Michaels’ The Terror (playing itself), the latest in a string of low-budget B-pictures starring the reigning King of the Boogeymen, Mr. Byron Orlok.
But neither the star nor the director seemed all that thrilled with what’s playing out as they huddle together in the darkened screening room; in fact, one could almost sense they are embarrassed by it as the overwrought climax plays out. But their producer, Marshall Smith (Landis), is ecstatic.
And so ecstatic is he, Smith announces that he will finance Michaels’ next script, which he claims is a work of art and a real change of pace from the usual schlock his studio craps out, which will also star Orlok as the headliner.
Only Orlok (Karloff) picks that moment to make a surprise announcement: he will not be making anymore pictures, and from this moment forward he has officially retired. Smith, of course, goes apoplectic over this, kicks everyone out except for Orlok, and then starts tearing into the old actor over this act of ingratitude, saying he’s kept him alive these past few years when no one else would hire him.
Meanwhile, out in the hall, Michaels (Bogdanovich), is also wigging out a bit due to Orlok’s decision to suddenly retire from pictures rather than do his new script. And on top of that, his girlfriend, Jenny (Hsueh), is also Orlok’s personal assistant, who must now decide who to remain with when the dust settles and her boss moves back home to England. Then, Orlok storms past them and leaves the building.
Told his next picture just walked out the door unless he does something about it, Michaels catches up to Orlok and pleads his case. But Orlok is adamant. And even though he is assured this new script was expressly written for him and is “not that kind of picture,” the veteran actor feels he is too antiquated, an anachronism, a punchline even, and it’s time to make way for somebody else because he simply just isn't that scary anymore.
Meantime, across the street at the Brass Rail Gun Shop, a young man named Bobby Thompson (O’Kelly) is getting a feel for the hunting rifle he is about to purchase, training the scope and drawing a bead on the old man across the street. When the star-struck clerk points out it was Byron Orlok, Thompson hadn’t even noticed.
With his honest face, Thompson is allowed to write a check for the rifle and several boxes of ammunition. He then deposits all of this into the trunk of his Mustang, where we see this man has accumulated quite the arsenal, whose purpose the film is not quite ready to reveal just yet as he heads for home, passing the Reseda Drive-In along the way, whose marquee promises a personal appearance by Byron Orlok for the world premiere of The Terror.
When Bobby reaches his destination and enters a suburban house, which is a sensory deprivation shade of blue, antiseptic and sterile, we quickly suss out this is the home of his parents, where he lives with his wife, Ilene (Morgan), in a subservient existence under his domineering father, Robert (Brown), who is Sir, not dad, and an emasculating mother, Charlotte (Jackson). Both mean well, and neither is malevolent -- just smothering.
Here, our lingering suspicions of this man are confirmed a bit by a (less than subtle) commercial for Anatomy of a Murder (1959) playing on the TV as he enters, and how detached Bobby is from these people and his surroundings as he silently moves through them; and when you combine all of that with all of those guns, all kinds of red flares start going off as the family gathers around the table for an evening meal that a fraying mental fuse has already been lit.
And this fuse is still burning when he and his father get in a little post-meal target practice. For, as the old man moves to set up the perforated cans for another round, Bobby draws a bead on him, and nearly pulls the trigger on his unwitting target before his father finishes up and then catches him in this deliberate breach of safety protocols and scolds him like he's a 10-year old.
Meanwhile, Orlok and Jenny are out having a drink at the Polo Lounge to celebrate his recent liberation. When asked why he refused to make her boyfriend’s next picture, Orlok is sympathetic to Michaels’ plight but admits he never even read the script. They are then ambushed by Ed Loughlin (Peterson), Smith’s press agent, there to go over the details about that pending personal appearance at the Drive-In.
Again, a cranky Orlok refuses to participate and backs out, even though he will most likely be sued over breach of contract. And when Loughlin puts in a call to break the bad news to Smith, who says he will be letting his fans down, Orlok refuses to even speak to him, telling Loughlin to tell Smith if he is so interested in the welfare of the people he should stop making pictures before hanging up on him. Realizing he will likely be fired over this cock-up, Loughlin, an innocent bystander in all of this, has a bit of a mental meltdown before leaving to go and get hopelessly drunk.
Later, at his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Jenny accuses a now tipsy Orlok of pushing everyone who cares about him away in a fit of unflattering self-pity. He then picks a fight with her, reminding Jenny that she is merely an employee, which earns him a slammed door in his face before he can apologize, leaving him all alone with his guilty conscience.
Meantime, at the Thompson house, Ilene is getting ready for work -- a late shift as a telephone operator. Here, we reach a crucible moment when Bobby tries to reach out to her, needing to talk about the “funny ideas” he’s been having lately. But while Ilene is listening, she doesn’t really hear what her husband is saying; and not realizing the gravity of the situation only makes things worse with some harmless but patronizing platitudes and this moment of a possible de-escalation is lost.
And after she leaves, Bobby retrieves a .45 caliber pistol from his trunk arsenal and sneaks it into the house.
Back at the hotel, Orlok is nursing another drink as he watches one of his old films on the TV when there is a rap on his chamber door. It’s Michaels, who is also three sheets to the wind and looking for his script.
He is also drawn to the TV, noting how he first saw this Orlok picture, The Criminal Code (playing itself), at the Museum of Modern Art, and how “all the good pictures have been made.” Orlok agrees, saying he and the film both belong in a museum.
With that, Michaels loses his temper and would like some answers, wanting to know why the actor won’t be in his film in a part that will show people who he really is: a human being, not some spookshow huckster. How it took months to convince Smith to back it. And how Orlok sat through three lousy, stinking pictures and now that they were going to make a good one, he quits. Why?
Here, Orlok admits he never read the script and then gets a bit philosophical, saying everyone he knew in the business was already dead. He’s a dinosaur, out-moded. Mr. Boogey-Man, they called him. The King of Blood. The Marx Brothers made you laugh, Garbo made you weep, and Orlok made you scream. And now, he is considered pure camp. The films didn’t get bad, he contends. No. He got bad. Besides, he says, tossing a newspaper at Michaels, whose headlines scream of a mass-shooting at a supermarket, people have a new kind of monster to be scared of. The King of Horror is dead, long live the King.
Seeing his cause is lost, Michaels takes his script and leaves, saying he’s going to make the movie anyway and will offer the role to Vincent Price instead. At least that’s the plan, until he realizes he’s too drunk and his legs will no longer cooperate. And when Orlok tries to help him to the couch, Michaels keeps on moving into the bedroom and collapses on the bed. Here, Orlok realizes he’s as drunk as his friend, and summarily passes out right next to him.
Later that night, at the Thompson house, Bobby is also in bed, chain-smoking away, until his wife comes home. Told to leave the lights off because he has a terrible headache -- but this is really so she can’t see the gun on the nightstand. And so, Ilene changes in the dark and then crawls into bed beside him.
And even though it was a long shift, she’s ready to talk about his earlier concerns; but it’s late -- too late, and he says to just go to sleep and they’ll talk in the morning.
Come the dawn, Bobby is up and pounding the keys on a typewriter, spelling out D-I-E period.
When his curious wife comes into the room to see what he had been typing -- not realizing Bobby has grabbed the pistol, she strolls on over for a morning kiss only to be abruptly shot at point blank range by her husband.
And when his mother rushes in to see what happened, she is shot next. Realizing someone else is in the house, Bobby rushes to the kitchen, where a delivery boy tries to get away but is also shot dead.
Then, once this massacre is complete, Bobby carefully moves his wife into their bedroom, lays her out in state, and then buries her under a blanket. His mother is treated a little more roughly as she is dragged into her bedroom and then unceremoniously dumped on his parent’s bed.
And after the delivery boy’s body is secreted in the pantry, Bobby then meticulously cleans up the crime scene, covering up all the blood evidence. We then hear his car start up and roar away as the camera lingers behind, taking in the aftermath, before settling on the typewriter to reveal the entirety of Bobby’s manifesto, which shows this was merely the beginning and a lot more killing was yet to come...
After heading down to Puerto Rico to make one movie, Battle of Blood Island (1960), for his fledgling production company, Filmgroup, Roger Corman, always thrifty and one to maximize or recycle his and other people’s sets or locations, managed to come back with three, by shooting both Last Woman on Earth (1960), which was sort of planned, and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), which was not and came about solely because Corman realized he had enough film stock and short-ends leftover to get one more picture in the can by cannibalizing a script he’d already made twice -- as Naked Paradise (1957) and Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), on, essentially, someone else’s dime.
But when filming was completed Corman's tropical misadventures were far from over. Seems veteran cinematographer Jacques Marquette -- The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), Attack of the 50ft Woman (1958), had refused to stay in Corman's impromptu barracks and opted, instead, for the local Hilton, where he would invite other cast and crew members to eat and charged it all to his producer.
What happened next, according to Marquette, and corroborated by actor Betsy Jones-Moreland, who starred in two of those pictures, when the shooting wrapped it appeared Corman was ready to sneak out of the country and skip out on the bills; basically stranding the rest of the cast and crew, who weren't paid yet, leaving them with no means to get home. Not one to be screwed with, Marquette seized and hid several rolls of film for all three pictures and did not return them until all the bills were paid and all the cast and crew's checks cleared.
Upon his return to the States, Corman was next slated to direct another horror double-feature for Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff at American International, scheduled to be shot back to back, in black and white, with a budget of $100,000 each. Now, as I mentioned in my review of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the release of that film, with its blazing technicolor, free-flowing blood and tensile cleavage, served as a paradigm shift in cinematic horror movies. And in an effort to keep up, Corman, realizing these old double-bills weren’t going to cut the cheese anymore, managed to convince the brass at AIP to combine those budgets and make one color feature instead.
The result of these efforts, with a little help from screenwriter Richard Matheson, production designer Daniel Haller, and star Vincent Price, was House of Usher (1960), adapted from The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe. And this gamble paid off big time as the film and its lofty Gothic ambitions defied the odds and proved a box-office hit, even earning some critical praise, as a franchise was soon born to cash-in on what would come to be known as Corman’s Poe Cycle.
But after doing The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and the anthology film Tales of Terror (1962) for AIP, which were based on Poe’s short stories, Corman attempted to do The Premature Burial (1962) on his own. With financing secured from Pathe Labs, a film developing firm looking to get into production, and star Ray Milland replacing Price, who was under an exclusive contract with AIP, everything seemed set to go until Sam Arkoff got wind of it, and then strong-armed Pathe into relinquishing their interest. Thus, The Premature Burial was suddenly another AIP Poe production; a move that Corman didn’t really appreciate and kind of lit a slow-fuse on the eventual and inevitable break-up between him and the production company that mutually put each other on the cinematic map back in the early 1950s.
This was all compounded a bit further in 1963, where Corman had both The Raven (1963), another Poe picture -- only this one was a comedy, and a straight adaptation of H.P Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward on the slate -- a much needed change of pace from Poe, giving himself a bit of a breather.
But the brass at AIP were so Poe-addled at this juncture they rebranded the film, against Corman’s wishes, as The Haunted Palace (1963); a title sniped from another Poe poem; even adding several narrated lines from this to open the film as a kind of forced-fit framing device on their Lovecraft adaptation.
This wasn't’ unprecedented as they had pulled this same stunt on Corman before, turning his Prehistoric World into Teenage Caveman (1958) to ride on the coattails of the wildly successful I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957).
We also need to point out that about four years earlier, Corman found out another production had finished shooting but their office sets were still standing. And after finagling a deal to use them for two days, he and his stock screenwriter, Chuck Griffith, went bar-hopping, got drunk, got in a fight, and cooked up an idea where a nebbish clerk fed his customers to a man-eating plant, resulting in the quickest, cheapest, and most threadbare Corman production to date, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).
Now, bear all of this wheeling and dealing and behind the scenes dickering in mind as Corman was closing in on wrapping up The Raven. With one week of shooting left to go, before they broke for the weekend, Corman complimented Haller once again on his fantastic production design and the amazing castle set he slapped together with the loose change found in Arkoff’s couch cushions, with both lamenting how it would all have to be torn down at the end of next week, marking the (at the time presumed) end of the Poe cycle.
On the subsequent Sunday, Corman’s scheduled tennis match got rained out, giving him a hole in his schedule and enough time to scheme and cement an idea for another whirlwind, two-day feature. He’d done it before. Could he do it again? "I was getting so familiar with the standard elements of Poe's material that I tried to out-Poe himself and create a Gothic tale from scratch,” said Corman in his auto-biography, How I Made 100 Films in Hollywood But Never Lost a Dime. And not only that, but to once again complete the majority of principal photography on said film in just two shooting days, using The Raven's castle set on the sly before they tore it all down.
In retrospect, Corman said he undertook this nigh impossible task for the mere challenge of it, but I have a feeling at least part of the reasoning was to pull one over on AIP and make another movie for himself -- this time on Arkoff’s dime. Now all he needed was a script. And for that, Corman called up Leo Gordon and asked if he had anything with a castle in it for sale. He didn’t, so Corman invited him over for a brainstorming session to get the ball rolling on a new script that needed to be completed in less than a week.
Now, Gordon was an actor, a screenwriter, and a convicted felon, who had served five years in San Quentin for armed robbery, when he tried to stick-up a bar and got shot several times by the police while being apprehended. After his sentence played out, he took up acting as a profession; and with his hulking frame and brutish demeanor, Gordon set off on a nearly 40-year career as a Hollywood tough guy and heavy, where he infamously backed-down John Wayne during the production of Hondo (1953), when his character was shot on screen during the climax and pitched forward, causing Wayne to step on director John Farrow’s toes, called for a cut, and then started lecturing Gordon on how people fell backwards when they’re shot at point blank rage. To which Gordon pulled-up his shirt, showed off his scars, and said when he got shot getting those, he pitched forward. End of discussion.
Gordon turned to screenwriting in 1956, first for television, and then wrote his first feature for Corman two years later, Hot Car Girl (1958). He then followed that up with The Cry Baby Killer (1958), The Wasp Woman (1959), and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). And now, he was tasked with coming up with something for The Terror (1963) after he and Corman hashed-out a few details on that rainy Sunday: the gist of the story would revolve around a young officer in Napoleon's Army, lost along the Baltic coast, who winds up pursuing a mysterious woman to the castle of the elderly Baron Von Leppe, who claims the woman was nothing more than the spirit of his long dead wife, and then supernatural shenanigans takeover from there.
What that all entailed was up to Gordon, as long as he had it done by next Monday. And Corman’s only demand was that the climax involve the castle being destroyed in a flash flood instead of the usual cleansing fires of his other Poe pictures. “I just can’t burn another castle down,” said Corman.
As for the cast, well, turns out the sets and crew wouldn’t be the only thing pilfered from The Raven. First up, for the Baron, he got Boris Karloff to stick around for two more days of shooting for a percentage of the new film’s profits, plus a deferred bonus of $15,000 if the film went on to make over $150,000 at the box-office.
In a later interview, Karloff commented on the filming of The Terror, saying, “Corman had the sketchiest outline of a story. I read it and begged him not to do it … I was in every shot, of course. Sometimes I was just walking through and then I would change my jacket and walk back.”
And for the film’s theoretical but harrowing climax, Karloff added, “[Corman] nearly killed me on the last day. He had me in a tank of cold water for about two hours.” Still, the actor had few regrets about the film or its harried production. “The sets were so magnificent. And as they were being pulled down around our ears, Roger was dashing around with me and a camera, two steps ahead of the wreckers. It was very funny.”
Corman heldover Jack Nicholson from The Raven, too, as Lt. Andre Duvalier, who suggested using his then-wife, Sandra Knight, to play Helene, who may or may not be the ghost of Baroness Ilsa Von Leppe. And then the rest of the small cast was rounded out by several of Corman’s stock players with Dick Miller as the faithful butler, Jonathan Haze as a local peasant who knows too much, and Dorothy Neumann as the witch, who holds the key to this unfolding, not quite yet written, and very confusing mystery.
Yeah, as dear Boris said, when shooting began, the script for The Terror was far from complete at this point, basically a vague outline. And as the two day shoot drew to a close, pressed for time, Corman didn’t even slate his shots anymore and just kept the camera rolling as his cast of characters moved down hallways, went up and down a staircase, had several circular conversations, or opened and closed a bunch of doors.
The end goal was to get whatever he could during those two days, finish up with Karloff, and then shelve the footage until the script could be solidified, and then finish filming piecemeal on some other set -- most likely the forthcoming The Haunted Palace, plug that into the original footage and, ta-dah, The Terror would be complete. A good plan, and a solid plan, that was about to go completely awry.
See, from there, the film was shelved for about three months as Gordon finished up the script at long last, which Corman paid him about $1600 for. But by then, Corman was gearing up to head to Europe to follow the Grand Prix around and film The Young Racers (1963); and so, to save money he decided to shoot the rest of The Terror non-union. And to those ends, he charged his newest assistant, Francis Ford Coppola, to assemble a crew of college students from UCLA and USC, including Jack HIll and Gary Kurtz, and sent them off to Big Sur for a couple of days with Nicholson, Knight, and Haze to get some needed scenes along the beaches and cliffs there.
But once they reached their destination, Coppola got it into his head to rewrite the script and “improve” the story, giving him the excuse to shoot whatever the hell he wanted to. And then, eleven days later, after he almost drowned his leading man in the surf, he returned and cut his footage together only to find out he'd neglected to tell his cameraman that some of those scenes needed to be shot day for night, rendering the majority of his efforts useless because it did not match the original footage at all, and his changes to the narrative made a jumbled and already confusing plot nearly intractable.
All told, after all that time and effort, about ten minutes of Coppola’s footage made it into the finished picture. “It didn’t exactly mesh with what I had shot,” said Corman. “But it still looked pretty good.” Also, the film was still nowhere near being completed.
Meanwhile, more time passed as Corman worked to patch up The Terror a little at a time. Needing some second-unit footage of rushing and cascading water to enhance his soggy climax, Corman needed someone to make a quick trip to Hoover Dam. By now, Coppola had moved on to bigger pastures but recommended fellow UCLA student, Dennis Jakob, who took the assignment but then essentially disappeared for three days. And when he finally came back, Corman quickly sussed out he had been played, and Jakob had used his equipment to shoot his thesis film on top of the ten-minutes it took to get the gushing water.
Annoyed initially, Corman soon realized Jakob basically did to him as he so often had done to many others and let this slide. In fact, he was a little proud of him. Besides, he would later press him into service as Karloff’s double as he tried to shore up the climax for a film that still wasn’t finished and still didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Of course, Jakob looked as much like Karloff as Kathy Wood’s chiropractor resembled Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). But, enh, what are ya gonna do?
More time passed, and in an effort to salvage things Corman next turned to Monte Hellman, who had directed Beast from Haunted Cave, and Jack Hill, who was charged with rewriting the script to try and match-up all that jumbled footage that had already been expended on The Terror. And what couldn’t be fixed, Hellman would then shoot more footage to help bridge those gaps. Here, Hill basically changed the tenor of the entire movie with a big twist that I won’t spoil in case anyone is actually intrigued enough to see what this all looked like when The Terror was finally finished -- which it still wasn’t.
See, Hellman shot for five days before having to leave due to prior commitments on Back Door to Hell (1963), which meant Hill got promoted to the director’s chair. By now, Knight was pregnant and showing -- and the rumor was her and Nicholson’s baby was conceived during the shoot at Big Sur to give you some scope of how much time had passed since filming began on this magnum opus, explaining why some of her scenes were shot from the waist-up only, and how everyone’s hair doesn’t match-up from scene to scene. And sharp eyes will note, sure enough, several scenes were indeed shot on the sets of The Haunted Palace, including the stairway to the vault and the massive gnarled tree, where Vincent Price’s character was burned alive, for the film’s final twist.
When Hill slapped it all together, and re-dubbed a lot of the dialogue to make it work, lip-syncing be damned, Corman screened the rough-cut of this patchwork Frankenstein’s Monster of a film. It still didn’t make any sense, but he felt it was almost to the point of being releasable with just a few more tweaks. Said Corman, “There were some gaps in logic; and frankly it struck me as a little dull.”
And so, Corman once more settled into the director’s chair for one more day of shooting, brought in Nicholson and Dick Miller for a scene where Nicholson’s character, through threat of violence, demands Miller’s character to literally explain the overcooked plot and reveal just what in the hell was going on in this movie. And then he threw Miller, Nicholson, Jakob and a stand-in for Knight into the water and blasted them with a fire hose to punch-up the climax, which finally wrapped The Terror at long last.
All told it took nine months, two days, and four directors to complete The Terror. (Almost five directors as Nicholson claimed since everybody else in the whole damned town had a hand in this picture, he should’ve had a shot at it, too.) In the interim, Coppola had made a whole other picture for Corman, Dementia 13 (1963), which was released on a double bill with The Terror for Arkoff and American International, who had kind of sniffed out what Corman was up to during the wrap party for The Raven, when he noticed the sets were still standing.
Suspicious, he returned the following Monday and, sure enough, “He was shooting another [expletive deleted] picture on us.” Caught in the act, all Corman could do was shrug. At this point, Arkoff let it go, figuring AIP would most likely release the film whenever it was finished. And it was finished, finally, but Corman still wasn’t done tinkering with this damnable film, and tried to squeeze a little more money out of it’s corpse.
Remember how Karloff had been promised a deferred bonus on The Terror if it made more than $150,000? Well, after cooking the books to prove that it never reached that threshold, Karloff’s agent saw through this and demanded the bonus due his client. And after a little back and forth, Corman agreed to pay the money on the condition Karloff gave him two more days on a future film. The idea, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, was to take 20-minutes of existing footage from The Terror, and then combine that with 20-more minutes of new Karloff footage, plus 40-minutes with some other actors and, ta-dah, another cheap Karloff picture to release. And to pull this off, Corman turned to his latest assistant, Peter Bogdanovich.
Bogdanovich was an actor, a director for the stage, and was a huge movie buff along with his wife and partner, Polly Platt, who had recently gotten a job at Esquire Magazine and moved to California, where he wrote about the movies and interviewed legendary directors ranging from John Ford to Howard Hawks to Alfred Hitchcock to Orson Welles among many others. He met Corman by chance at a screening, who admired his writing and asked if he’d like to come work for him and make some movies. Bogdanovich jumped at the chance.
His first assignment was to write something on the scale of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) that could be filmed on a Corman budget. And while that wound up going nowhere fast, his second assignment was to consult on a script for a proposed feature called All the Fallen Angels. This, of course, later turned into The Wild Angels (1966), Corman’s first Outlaw Biker movie, where Bogdanovich scouted locations, advised on the casting, rewrote most of Chuck Griffith’s script, shot both first and second unit, was called on to edit his footage when no one else could make it work, and was pressed into duty as an extra during the climactic brawl, where he got the living shit kicked out of him by several members of the cast of real Hell’s Angels.
Bogdanovich would later claim the three weeks he spent on this shoot was “the greatest film school anybody could ever put me through. You were doing it, you were under pressure, you had to deliver.”
His third assignment for Corman was to cannibalize the special-effect sequences from a couple of Russian science-fiction epics, Nebo Zovyot -- The Sky Calls (1959) and Planeta Bur --The Planet of Storms (1962), and make another picture out of them as Coppola had done before with Battle Beyond the Sun (1962). But the footage had no women, and so Corman instructed Bogdanovich to head to Leo Carrillo beach with Mamie Van Doran, feeling it would match the Baltic Sea footage as a good substitute for the planet Venus.
“I hired the Gill-Woman of Venus -- just a bunch of stoned kids walking around the beach dressed like mermaids, with seashells covering their breasts,” said Bogdanovich. “Tackiest @#%*ing costumes I have ever seen. And now they were praying to a pterodactyl or something and communicating telepathically with Van Doren.” The end results of all of this was Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968); and, like Coppola, Bogdanovich distanced himself from the awful picture by using an alias in the credits, Derek Thomas. “It was hell.”
And then his fourth assignment would be the new Karloff vehicle, where he would finally get to write and direct something essentially from scratch -- except for being saddled with footage from The Terror, which he had no idea how to incorporate into this new film as he and Platt tried to come up with a through story-line. But then things started to finally click together when they actually screened The Terror and Bogdanovich declared it an abomination upon its conclusion. Here, came the notion to just make it a film within a film, where Karloff would watch the ending of The Terror and then declare it was the worst film he had ever seen as a jumping-off point for the new picture.
From there, it would sort of get a little meta as Karloff would play an aging horror star in the twilight of his career. And to contrast “the illusion of horror” of Karloff’s Gothic cinematic trappings with the “real horror” of unmotivated murder, Bogdanovich and Platt then hit upon the idea that Karloff’s character was fed up and would announce his retirement, feeling he was a dinosaur about to go extinct with the meteoric impact of the true life, ripped from the headlines terror unleashed by people like Charles Whitman, who, back in August of 1966, started shooting from the observation deck of the University Tower in Austin, Texas. Ninety-six minutes later, twelve people were dead and countless others wounded.
Also killed prior to the rampage were Whitman's wife and mother. And Whitman was dead, too; dropped in a hail of gunfire, bringing his reign of terror to an end. As to why he did it, some would argue it was to get back at his abusive father -- and that’s one of the reasons he killed his wife and mother, so only his father would answer for his son’s crimes. Or was it because he was strung out on amphetamines? Or was it an overwhelming feeling of failure and inadequacy, or perhaps some deep-seeded narcissistic tendencies drove him to do something so drastic, so heinous, that everyone would know and remember his name in perpetuity.
It was Harold Hayes, his old editor at Esquire, who suggested using Whitman as the counterpoint to Karloff; and so, Bogdanovich would split his film in two, which would then intertwine until finally colliding at the climax of Targets (1968). Here, Bobby Thompson would be his surrogate for Whitman, whose stifling home lives echo each other. And like Whitman, Bobby would wait until his father was gone before murdering his wife and mother.
And he would echo Whitman again when he hits up another gun store and buys an obscene amount of ammunition and charges it all to his father’s account. When asked what he's hunting for with all those bullets, Thompson says he’s “Gonna shoot some pigs” -- just as Whitman said on his own ammo run that fateful and terrible day.
Meantime, in the other narrative thread, as the clock strikes noon, there’s finally some movement between the extremely hungover Michaels and Orlok, who manage to comically pry themselves out of bed. Then, Jenny bursts in, still upset as she angrily lays out Orlok’s travel itinerary for his return trip to England. But the somewhat humbled and apologetic Orlok says to put all of that on hold for now, because he’s decided to make that personal appearance at the Drive-In after all. And as Jenny happily works the phones to give Loughlin the good news, he gets Michaels to stick around to help him prepare for the coming festivities.
Now, this includes a Q and A with a flaky L.A. disc jockey named Kip Larkin (Baron), who arrives at the hotel for a dress rehearsal. But when the questions veer into what film he’s doing next, Orlok quickly loses interest, saying this is all deadly dull; and since this will be his last appearance, Michaels suggests he tells a spooky ghost story instead. Orlok then relates a parable about a man’s failed attempt to escape the grim reaper, and how one’s death is both predestined and unavoidable no matter how hard we try to run away and hide from it -- foreshadowing the climax as our two plot threads are about to collide in a deadly showdown.
Meantime, near the freeway, Bobby has attained a perch atop a large storage tank at a refinery, where he pulls his arsenal out of his massive duffel-bag and meticulously lays them out in order.
And after a brief respite for a bite to eat and a bottle of Pepsi, he stretches out and trains one of those rifles on the passing motorists until he finally picks a target, takes a breath, holds it, and then squeezes the trigger, hitting the driver, and sending the car careening off the road. Then he picks another target, fires, and then another. And then another.
And this killing spree continues until he is interrupted by a maintenance worker, who is cut in half by a shotgun blast. But before he can turn his attention back to sniping at unsuspecting motorists, Bobby hears the approach of police sirens and quickly abandons his perch, bleeding guns as he retreats back to his car.
Back on the road, he makes the mistake of running a red light, drawing the attention of a passing patrol car, who gives chase until Bobby manages to lose him by ducking his car into, you guessed it, the Reseda Drive-In, where a line is already forming for a chance to see Byron Orlok in person.
Buying a ticket, Bobby finds a parking space and starts reloading several clips for his rifle as the sun slowly sets and the staff and projectionist make preparations for the big show. Staring at the blank screen, the shooter suddenly gets an idea, takes up his duffel-bag, exits the car, and heads for a doorway at the base of the screen, which he slips through unnoticed.
Meanwhile, on the limousine ride to Reseda, Orlok comments on how ugly this town has become while Jenny notices an increased police presence as several patrol cars prowl the area, looking for the sniper. Here, Orlok wants her to know that she shouldn’t feel obligated to come to England with him if she doesn’t want to, not wanting to break-up any romances, as they reach their destination. Told to park up front by the manager (Condylis), the limousine barely gets settled before the movie starts.
But unbeknownst to all the patrons, someone is watching them, too, as Bobby has taken up another perch high on the enclosed scaffolding holding up the massive screen, which he has punched a hole through and stuck his rifle barrel out of as he scans the audience, looking for a target with this obscene eye.
And then he finds one as some unlucky soul enters a phone booth. Sharp breath. Silence. Blam.
From there, Bobby patiently waits for others to exit their cars or turn on their dome lights as the Drive-In is turned into a deadly shooting gallery. But as the bullets fly and the bodies fall, word spreads from car to car, panic ensues, and then dozens of vehicles head for the nearest escape route -- be it entrance or exit.
Thus, with traffic tied up, Michaels can't get into the Drive-In proper. Unaware of what’s going on, Orlock mocks this mass exodus, figuring it's due to the quality of the picture.
Speaking of the picture, Bobby’s next victim is the projectionist, who brushes against the volume control as he falls dead, spiking the noise levels. When someone is sent to investigate, they find the body, panic, and turn the exterior lights on, which Orlok mistakes as the cue for his appearance and moves to get out.
Meanwhile, Michaels has reached the ticket booth on foot, where the manager has received word that the projectionist is dead, meaning all that talk of a sniper was true. And as he moves to call the police, Michaels pushes through the crowd to reach Orlok and Jenny and get them out of harm's way.
Meanwhile, meanwhile, the Drive-In patrons run into some luck when the shooter slips and his bag of guns plummets to the ground, where the majority of the contents fall through a grate and out of reach.
Salvaging what he can, Bobby bursts through that same door, where he is spotted by Orlok as he fires wildly into the dwindling crowd, hitting Jenny.
And after getting her safely back into the limo, determined to put a stop to this, Orlok marches toward the gunman just as his character on screen does the same. Caught in the middle, unable to tell what’s real and what isn’t, Bobby psychotic break comes full circle as he fires wildly at both the real and unreal until Orlok reaches him and, despite being grazed in the head, beats the shooter senseless with his cane just as Michaels and the police arrive.
As he stares at this sniveling mass, who has regressed into a fetal position, a stunned Orlok asks Michaels was this pathetic and puny thing what he was so afraid of all this time? But once he’s safely in police custody, the shooter once more finds his bravado, bragging how he hardly missed a single target as he’s hustled away. Hail to the new King of Horror indeed.
Then Michaels takes Orlok back to the limo, and they leave to get Jenny to a hospital as we fade out to the following morning, where Bobby’s single abandoned car stands a lone vigil over this ersatz graveyard, where the speaker poles silently mark the graves of everyone he killed during his senseless rampage, as a shadow looms and washes over the landscape, which finally brings us to the end of this simple but effective morality play.
Boris Karloff was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to Hollywood as he was already 44-years old when Frankenstein (1931) premiered, putting the actor well into his 70s by the 1960s, where he had a bit of a revival hosting the TV-series Thriller, starred in those Corman pictures, and, of course, narrating Chuck Jones’ animated holiday staple, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966).
He was 80-years old when filming began on Targets, and it's kind of hard to believe the man on screen in The Terror, shot just four years prior, and the actor watching it on film were the same guy.
As a wise old professor once said, it ain’t the years but the mileage. And the mileage Karloff had accrued over those years resulted in chronic rheumatoid arthritis and emphysema -- by now the actor was down to one half of one lung, requiring a wheelchair and forced oxygen between takes. Spending time in that cold water for The Terror didn’t help, nor filming in a damp, chilling fog for the Wuderlak segment in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), sending the actor's already declining health into a bit of a tailspin.
He also suffered from a bad back that had required three major surgeries, which resulted from the brace he had to wear for his role in Frankenstein along with a herniated disc suffered while carrying Colin Clive around the burning windmill for the film’s climax. His legs were also shot -- his right leg was horribly deformed by this point, requiring him to wear braces and use a cane just to move around.
According to Bogdanovich, Karloff was the sweetest man who ever lived, a consummate professional, and never complained once during the harried shoot. He was also the antithesis of his character, never bitter, and was proud of his track record in creature features, saying, “The Monster was the best friend I ever had.” The two hit it off, and Karloff agreed to expand his participation past the stipulated two days to five, including a very long night at the Drive-In to get the film’s climax in the can.
But one of the true highlights of the film is Karloff reciting W. Somerset Maugham's short story, The Appointment in Samarra, which he nailed in one single take and received a standing ovation from everyone else on set for his efforts. Karloff would pass barely a year after the film was completed, starring in five more films in the interim, but he was able to see Targets before his death and declared it to be his favorite film.
As for the shooter, Corman originally suggested that Bogdanovich use Jack Nicholson in the role. But the director wasn’t all that impressed by Nicholson’s acting skills at the time and he wasn’t quite the clean-cut All-American Boy he was looking for, which he eventually found in Tim O’Kelly. Targets would be a rare feature for O’Kelly, and after a few episodic TV-credits, including being the original Danny "Book 'em Dan-O" Williams in the pilot movie for Hawaii Five-0, the actor sort of fell off the map after starring in The Grasshopper (1970).
O’Kelly brought the right kind of brash immaturity for Bobby Thompson. To the film’s betterment, Bogdanovich never really spells out why this seemingly normal boy, raised by a seemingly normal family, decided to wake up one morning and start shooting people. There are several bread crumbs lying around, including a fleeting reference that Bobby might be some kind of deranged Vietnam vet, or maybe his feelings of inadequacy (-- I’m convinced he’s lost his job but never told anyone); but Bogdanovich does not dwell on this, letting the audience draw their own conclusions; and instead focuses on what Hannah Arendt referred to as "the banality of evil." This sniper is no monster, just some raging man-child with daddy issues, who had easy access to a lot of guns and ammo.
Now, in Bogdanovich and Platt’s original screenplay, Karloff’s character was destined to die about halfway through the film since, at the time, they only had him for two days. But that was before he got extensive notes from Samuel Fuller -- Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), who basically rewrote the entire thing in three hours, pacing back and forth, smoking his customary cigar, telling Bogdanovich to write what he wanted and not what the budget dictated -- but to also save his money for the climax to make it big; and it was Fuller’s idea to shoot the climax at a Drive-In. But Fuller didn’t want to take any credit, saying if his name showed up they would think he did everything. But as a tribute to Fuller, Bogdanovich named his character after the notorious director, as Samuel Michael Fuller became Sammy Michaels, which Bogdanovich played when the original actor backed out at the last minute and to save even more money for something else.
When Corman read this script, he declared it would be the best thing he'd ever produced but was a little concerned that his novice director would get all the Karloff scenes done in just two days. But with a little cajoling, Corman agreed to pay the actor for the five days. Beyond that, there really wasn’t much of a budget figure, just an order to keep the costs as low as possible. Corman would later throw a huge shit-fit over the miniature drive-in screen that was built for the princely sum of $250, which was needed for the climax so they could use more of The Terror footage as instructed.
Behind the camera, cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs would bring a certain verisimilitude to the proceedings with his intimate set-ups, long tracking shots, and mood lighting. Kovacs had fled Hungary in 1956 with his friend and fellow cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, who both broke into the business working for Ray Dennis Steckler on The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!? (1964). And I’m telling ya, all that montage stuff shot at the Reseda Drive-In during the build-up to the climax is due to pure, pure Steckler influence.
From there, Kovacs would go on to shoot skin-flicks for Harry Novak -- Kiss Me Quick (1964), Wonderful World of Girls (1965), and Dave Friedman -- A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine (1966), The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966), before moving on to the slightly more respectable American International -- Psycho-Out (1968), The Savage Seven (1968), where he met Bogdanovich and started a long working relationship with the fledgling director, who would go on to do What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973) together.
Most of the outdoor action scenes were shot without sound to save money, leaving it to sound-designer Verna Fields to piece together multiple tracks to enhance the action, where she added all kinds of throwaway bits like the compressed air of a stubborn pop bottle or the jingle of an ice cream truck trundling by to add a sense of surrealism to the aftermath of Bobby’s initial rampage at the Thompson house. Bogdanovich also made the decision not to use a musical score and just let the action speak for itself, once again leaving it to Fields to pump in some ambient noises to fill in the gaps or to add tension as the only music we hear is on Bobby’s car radio, which cuts in and out as we cut between him and the pursuing cops.
Of course, Targets would be one of the last films Fields would do the sound-design for as she moved to actual film editing, where she would cut What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon for Bogdanovich, Medium Cool (1969) for Haskell Wexler, American Graffiti (1973) for George Lucas, and JAWS (1975) for Steven Spielberg, which won her a well-deserved Academy Award.
Platt, meanwhile, on top of helping with the script, props, costuming, and scouting locations, was an unofficial producer and in charge of the film’s art and production design. And through her magic, with a little paint and ingenuity, the screening room, the hotel bungalow, the lounge, and the Thompson house were all shot on the same set using the exact same flats. Note, to, the color design, where all of the Orlok sequences are done in warm and welcoming colors while all the Bobby sequences are done in cool blues or stark whites. The goal was to make the house almost fairy tale like, to appear normal to the point of being broken.
As for the director himself, Bogdanovich constantly consulted his own mental rolodex, calling on the experiences and advice of all those directors and technicians he had interviewed over the years as we can see a lot of Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock and Welles in all those long takes, matching pans and dollies, and always cutting on some form of matching movement.
And there’s a lot of Corman in there, too, as a good chunk of the film had to be improvised on the spot or shot guerilla style because, apparently, it was against the law to shoot anything on or near a freeway in California at the time, necessitating a highly coordinated and highly illegal shoot via walkie-talkies to get the sniper set-piece at the refinery as Bobby picks off those passing motorists -- a scene that might’ve been inspired by another recent true-crime incident from a few years prior, where a 16-year-old shot at motorists from a hilltop along Highway 101 just south of Orcutt, California, killing three and injuring 10 before committing suicide, leaving a note behind which vowed to make his parents "die a thousand times in court" for his actions.
And they might’ve made it a little too real as someone saw one of those extras fall as if shot as instructed and called the cops. And with the sound of approaching sirens, with no permits, the crew fled -- but not before Kovacs managed to catch a couple passing patrolmen on film before pulling the plug.
And mixing all of that together, Bogdanovich, who also served as the film’s uncredited editor, shows a well-assured hand for a first time director. This film moves, and its momentum is both harrowing and enticing. Thus, by some minor miracle, after 23-days of shooting -- five with Karloff, two at the refinery, 12 at the Reseda Drive-In, and four for everything else, exhausting his limited budget as he went (-- in the end, it cost about $100,000), Bogdanovich had himself a tight little thriller that he was hesitant to turn over to American International once it was completed, who were ready to sell it under the dubious exploitative title, Blood and Candy. The film was shot under the title Before I Die, and then changed to Human Targets before finally settling on just Targets.
But Corman gave Bogdanovich his blessing to shop the film around first. He found a nibble at Paramount, where it was championed by Robert Evans, and then sealed the deal with a couple of favorable reviews in Variety. Thus, Paramount bought the picture from Corman for $200,000. Unfortunately, by the time it was finally ready to release, the country had suffered through the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, giving the studio cold feet, who eventually dumped the movie into theaters in August of 1968, where it didn’t leave much of an impression at the box-office.
However, on the strength of the craftsmanship involved with the filming of Targets, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson threw Bogdanovich and Platt a lifeline, saying they were welcome to do something for their BBS Productions anytime they wanted, which resulted in The Last Picture Show (1971), which netted multiple Academy Award nominations, sending Bogdanovich on a meteoric rise as one of Hollywood’s new Young Turks, which led to a critical re-evaluation of his inaugural feature, which I still contend was the best film the director would ever make.
Of course, Bogdanovich’s personal life went into a tailspin not long after this as he and Platt divorced and the director took up with Cybil Shepherd. Sadly, both Bogdanovich and Platt were better together than apart as far as filmmaking goes; and Bogdanovich has taken a lot of grief at the time of this writing over the recent retrospective on Platt by Karina Longworth on the You Must Remember This podcast, which paints the director as a philandering narcissist and an insufferable ass. Honestly, I kinda felt that way about the guy already and got into a bit of a dust-up with one of his defenders on Facebook until I pointed out that even though I felt that way about him some of the best films ever made were done by insufferable, narcissistic assholes.
Sure, there were a lot of hands in the pot on Targets, and all of them deserve credit for the film’s myriad merits. But like another independent horror film that came out in 1968, Night of the Living Dead (1968), the lion share of credit over the years went to George Romero and George Romero alone. And yet, if you look at his catalog made without those who participated in Night of the Living Dead, there always seems to be a certain something missing. With Bogdanovich, the differences were even more stark.
Look, let me explain it this way: there’s a scene in Targets during the climax; a scene concocted by Bogdanovich, Platt and Fuller, directed by Bogdanovich, set-dressed by Platt, where Kovacs set the lighting and then moves the camera down a dolly as this take slowly moves from a boy sitting in a car, in obvious shock, looking at something to his left, where the sliding camera finally reveals he’s been staring at his father, whose neck was blown out by one of the sniper’s bullets. On the ambient soundtrack, Fields has the boy crying softly, now off-screen, until there is another shot, and that crying suddenly stops -- the implication clear without showing us a thing.
That, Boils and Ghouls, is cooperative filmmaking at its finest. Now imagine that kind of tension-building skills on display for 90-straight minutes and you might have some inkling as to how good and disturbing Targets really is, was, and ever shall be.
if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't
think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 24 films down with just two, count 'em, TWO more to go.
Up next, You'll Find Out. No. Really.
Targets (1968) Saticoy Productions :: Paramount Pictures / EP: Roger Corman / P: Peter Bogdanovich / AP: Daniel Selznick / D: Peter Bogdanovich / W: Peter Bogdanovich, Polly Platt / C: László Kovács / E: Peter Bogdanovich / M: Charles Greene, Brian Stone / S: Tim O'Kelly, Boris Karloff, Peter Bogdanovich, Nancy Hsueh, Tanya Morgan, Mary Jackson, James Brown, Arthur Peterson, Monte Landis, Warren White, Sandy Baron