Targets - (1968)
One of the coolest aspects of Roger Corman’s legendary legacy, is the unique, capitalist in nature, investments/experiments, he’d assign to his young protégés. Corman felt if he was flying to a location to make one of his movies that offered unique visual opportunities (as opposed to most of his other movies that he just shot all around Los Angeles or Bronson Canyon), the most expensive part of the expenditure, was the airplane tickets to get the cast and the crew to these locations.
So if the locations are striking enough to fly there in the first place, why not make two movies? One shot by him, and another one done on the cheap by one of his protégés, with a few actors left over from the earlier production. This is how Corman’s dry WW2 adventure, Ski Troop Attack, shot on the snowy mountains of Northwood South Dakota, begat Monte Hellman’s hip Beast of the Haunted Cave. Or how his racing car flick The Young Racers, which finished its European tour shoot in Ireland, begat Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13.
He’d also come up with tricky puzzles that young filmmakers had to figure out how to solve. Like make one movie with one filmmaker and release it. Then take another filmmaker, and tell them to remove twenty or thirty minutes out of the first picture. Shoot twenty or thirty minutes worth of new footage that changes the plot, slap a new title on it, and release it as a new movie. That’s how Jack Hill’s Blood Bath, became Stephanie Rothman’s Track of the Vampire. How Oscar Williams’ 1972 Billy Dee Williams independent feature, The Final Comedown, became 1976’s Billy Dee Williams Blaxploitation flick Blast! (with footage reshot by Allan Arkush). How Charles B. Griffith’s 1976 car chase hit Eat My Dust starring Ron Howard, became Charles B. Griffith’s 1981’s car chase comedy Smokey Bites The Dust starring Jimmy McNichol.
Corman continued with these cannibalized experiments into the nineties. But of all the tricky Corman puzzles that Roger produced, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets is the class act. But I’m sure at the time, Roger’s initial proposal probably didn’t seem so promising to the young filmmaker (the film was written and directed by Bogdanovich, and conceived by Peter and his then wife Polly Platt). The deal that Roger offered Peter and Polly was horror film icon Boris Karloff owed Corman two days work. So Peter was to take one of the Karloff films that Corman owned, the terrible The Terror, and appropriate twenty minutes of Karloff footage out of it. Come up with a new story and shoot twenty minutes of footage during a two day shoot with Karloff. Then forty minutes of footage with other actors, and voilà…a new Boris Karloff horror title!
Now this Corman Puzzle had a few hard to rectify pieces. First, any movie that must incorporate twenty minutes from The Terror, is practically doomed on arrival.
Second, if you must use that much footage from The Terror, you sorta’ hafta’ make a gothic horror film. Well by 1968 gothic horror films just didn’t seem to work anymore.
In the Summer of Love they seemed old fashioned to the point of camp. And most importantly, they weren’t scary. Even the reigning horror star of that time Vincent Price didn’t make them anymore. Instead focusing on crueler visions like Michael Reeves Witchfinder General, and its de facto sequel Cry of the Banshee, or the hip Art Deco decor of Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Even when Price dipped his beak back in the Edgar Allan Poe pond, it wasn’t Corman’s strategically set bound affairs. It was Gordon Hessler’s much rougher and more potent The Oblong Box.
But the third undesirable item was Karloff himself. Actually Boris Karloff had entered the sixties quite strong. He was easily one of the most recognizable voices and faces on television from the golden age of Hollywood still making movies. His old horror films were enormously popular on local television stations, both his Universal classics, and his more mediocre Columbia horror titles. But that would also include his Abbott & Costello movies, his Charlie Chan movie, his Fu Manchu movies, his Mr. Wong movies, etc. And for an old man deep in his seventies, Karloff acquitted himself with dignity and class in many sixties projects. He had his anthology TV series Thriller, as well as a Gold Key Thriller comic book and another Gold Key comic book called Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, that was in print years after his death. He played supporting roles in some studio productions, he’s heartbreaking at the end of MGM’s spy drama The Venetian Affair with Robert Vaughn. And he’s doubly heartbreaking in what I think before Targets, and along with Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, his greatest performance of the decade, his guest star role on the spy show I, Spy with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in an episode titled Mainly on the Plains. Where Karloff played a nuclear scientist living in Spain, Don Ernesto Slivando, who’s developed a technology that can take missiles out of the sky. Naturally both Kelly & Scotty want to convince the old man to bring the technology to the United States. The only problem is the old man has developed dementia, and he thinks he’s Miguel de Cervantes’ literary heroic fool Don Quixote. Watching the great Karloff slashing at the blades of windmills with his walking cane can break your heart in two. It’s a tremendous performance and could be the most moving dramatization of de Cervantes myth done in English
Speaking of spies and secret agents, he also appeared as a Thrush Agent (in compete drag) on The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. as Mother Muffin (who seems to have quite a crush on Napoleon Solo), and in brown face as Maharajah of Rampor Mr. Singh (sic) on The Wild Wild West. And continuing to appear in classy productions for American International Pictures (Black Sabbath, The Raven, Comedy of Terrors, Die Monster Die and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini). And as a child of this time (5-8) along with his Universal horror films, and Abbott and Costello films, and comedies like The Boogie Man Will Get You if You Don’t Watch Out, I knew him from his magnificent LP An Evening with Boris Karloff and Friends (I played that 100 times, and can still quote the dialogue included verbatim), his voice work on the Dr. Seuss television holiday staple The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the Rankin-Bass puppetoon extravaganza Mad Monster Party!
However his track record at the time for appearing in real horror films was pretty lousy. The only ones that worked were the humorous ones (The Raven, Mad Monster Party, Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, which he’s quite funny in). But the real horror films, the ones that are supposed to be scary, go from mediocre (Die Monster Die), to dull (The Terror), to abysmal (Frankenstein 1970). The last time Karloff had been in both a horror classic, and had been genuinely scary was as the Russian vampire Gorca in I Wurdalak section of Mario Bava’s horror masterpiece Black Sabbath. But aside from that, Karloff like his surrogate Byron Orlok in Bogdanovich’s film complains, “They use to say, Garbo makes you cry, Chaplin makes you laugh, Orlok makes you scream. Now, they call my films camp”. That was Karloff’s persona in 1968.
After Peter and Polly screened The Terror, the movie they had to use twenty minutes of, they realized how much trouble they were in (while many hands shot footage on The Terror, Corman, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Daniel Haller, it was Francis Ford Coppola at eleven days that shot the most). But the lameness of The Terror prompted a discussion between the creative couple, why aren’t these old fashioned castle set, candelabra-carrying gothics not scary anymore (they were also watching a particularly bad one. In Italy something like Castle of Blood, if not scary, was entertaining)?
The answer Peter and Polly came up with was that the real life gun violence of political assassination, airplane hijacking, and lunatics with high powered rifles who shoot strangers from roof tops, have replaced Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman as the scary figures that kept people from sleeping at night. So with the sniper from the university tower in Austin Texas, Charles Whitman, fresh in their minds, they flipped the script on Corman’s tricky puzzle. Fuck the period gothic castle based idea, set the film in present day swingin’ LA. Don’t cast Karloff as a sinister Count or Baron, but as what he was…a legendary Hollywood movie star who was still alive plugging away in a Hollywood he didn’t recognize anymore.
And make a monster movie, but a modern monster movie. A movie where the monster isn’t a vampire, or a radioactive freak in a stupid suit, or a witch, or the ghost of Karloff’s long dead wife, but a young good looking, crew cut sporting, Baby Ruth eating, baby boomer who grew up in a house recognizable to most (white) viewers as their own, who watched Joey Bishop on TV with his family, and listened to 93 KHJ on the car radio of his mustang convertible.
The monster in this monster movie wasn’t the boy next door. It was the monster hiding inside the boy next door. The monster you couldn’t detect (except for ever so brief flashes). The monster the boy spent his life camouflaging. The monster that spent its entire life fighting the boy for domination. Targets is about what happens when the boy can fight the monster no longer. When the monster wins. When the monster breaks free, takes control, and wrecks bloody havoc on all who cross its path.
Now if that sounds too ambitious for a ten day Corman puzzle…it was. And the cheeky couple knew it. They knew the script they were fashioning wasn’t exactly what Corman had asked for, and it definitely wasn’t what he was expecting. But they hoped it would be good enough, and ultimately cheap enough, that Corman might finance it anyway.
Well the young couple were more perspective to Corman’s psych then they could of known at the time. Corman had offered these investments/experiments to a few different filmmakers over the years, and he’d continue to offer them to many more to come. These other filmmakers usually held to the letter of the law when it came to Corman’s requirements. But invariably when the time came to screen for the big man the results of their endeavor, he usually hated them (supposedly Corman and Coppola didn’t speak for two years after Dementia 13). Forcing Roger to spend even more money (unforgivable), whipping them in shape via second unit shoots by others in order the release them (Jack Hill, per Roger’s request, shot second unit on Coppola’s Dementia 13, adding an additional axe murder, and that was the end of Hill and Coppola’s relationship. Hill collaborated on all of Coppola’s early projects). But as capitalistic, as clean cut, and yes, even square as Corman was (Joe Dante once told me, “Roger wasn’t hip. But Roger knew who was hip”), he was a leftist at heart. Roger Corman’s philosophy was give me the elements I need to market a commercial picture. And as he saw them, those elements were action and sex (Jonathan Demme recalled Roger would make notes in red pen right on the script, possible female breast nudity here?). But if you gave him action & sex, then he wanted…a slight social statement…imbedded somewhere inside of the movie.
In the nineties Corman would go on talk shows and famously state that he made two hundred movies, and never lost a dime…except once. The one exception was an independent feature he financed himself called The Intruder (aka I Hate Your Guts). The Intruder (1962) is a dynamite film, done in the style of a Playhouse 90 drama, about a white racist outside agitator, played ferociously by a young William Shatner, who stokes the fires of anti-black rhetoric in a white southern community. Along with Machine Gun Kelly it’s the best film Corman ever directed. The script with its incendiary dialogue by Charles Beaumont is one hot fuckin’ potato. And Shatner as the loathsome lead has never been better. The film was made because Roger saw the TV reports of what was happing in the south during the civil rights war. He saw the dogs, and the fire hoses, and the ugly white faces screaming, and he wanted to do something about it. And as Joe Dante once told me; “The idea that Roger felt so strongly about a subject he’d spend his own money, without a guaranteed return on his investment, was meaningful. Because that’s not something Roger did.”
And when he lost that investment he learned his lesson and never did it again.
That’s when he started burying his slight social statement deep inside the marrow of his women in prison movies and dystopian future movies. The plight of the rural poor in Boxcar Bertha and Big Bad Mama. The sly social satire that runs throughout Death Race 2000 (especially the way the government blames everything on the French).
The fact that two years before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest came out and said there are illegal lobotomies being preformed in American institutions, Jonathan Demme’s women in prison flick Caged Heat had already said it. But Bogdanovich’s Targets is the most political movie Corman ever made since The Intruder. And forty years later it’s still one of the strongest cries for gun control in American cinema.
The film isn’t a thriller with a social commentary buried inside of it (the normal Corman model), it’s a social commentary with a thriller buried inside of it.
From 1967 to 1972 four movies came out that dealt with four real life killers. In Cold Blood (Perry Smith & Dick Hickock), The Boston Strangler (Albert DeSalvo), Targets (surrogate for Charles Whitman), Dirty Harry (surrogate for The Zodiac Killer). Richard Brooks played such arty games with In Cold Blood he sapped the story of its power. And Richard Fleischer with his split screen shenanigans ended up doing the same thing with The Boston Strangler. Don Siegel in Dirty Harry does the best job up to that time in dealing with the serial killer phenomena. But he does it by telling his story in service of a police thriller. But Bogdanovich plays the Charles Whitman aspect upfront and center, but the amusing Boris Karloff section saves the film from earnestness.
So when Peter and Polly came back to Corman with a topical torn from the headlines thriller, as opposed to a dull as dishwater castle bound gothic, yet still managed to incorporate Boris Karloff into the proceedings, I suspect the crafty Corman was proud of his husband and wife team. I also suspect the grand star treatment that Karloff is afforded in the film must of warmed Corman’s heart to some degree. What drew Roger to Peter in the first place was his tribute-based writings on the old Hollywood masters.
And actually watching Karloff, who’d been acting in movies since the silent days, getting such a royal send off at the twilight of his career couldn’t help but warm anybody’s heart. As Joe Dante (the true source of information on all things Corman) points out in his Trailers from Hell commentary on Targets, the other Corman graduates didn’t have the benefit of Sam Fuller spitballing their climax (it was Fuller who came up with the idea of the sniper’s final confrontation with Karloff), or getting script notes from Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Nevertheless no other director ever solved one of Corman’s tricky puzzles so ingeniously (Bogdanovich actually incorporates quite a lot of footage of The Terror into his film). But Targets is even better than that. It was one of the most powerful films of 1968 and one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time. And I believe the best film ever produced by Roger Corman. Actually the best film ever produced by Roger Corman is Bogdanovich’s eighth film, Saint Jack. But that film was done and released as an art film. Targets achieves its diamond in the rough status and still manages to play its game by Corman’s capitalistic rules.