Karloff’s Finest Performance
In 1967, Roger Corman hired a young director named Peter Bogdanovich to helm a movie the former was producing. Corman had Horror legend Boris Karloff contractually obligated for one more picture (actually, for two more days of work), and both wanted to finish it sooner rather than later. Corman had only one stipulation for Bogdanovich—that he find a use for twenty minutes of existing footage from Corman’s 1963 film The Terror. The only difficulty that existed is that The Terror was a period Horror, set in Napoleonic France—and Bogdanovich had no intention of shooting a period film. He wanted something contemporary, something topical. The solution he arrived at was inspired, and the result was one of the finest performances of Karloff’s illustrious career—if not the finest.
Filmed in twenty-two days in November and December of 1967, on a budget of $130,000, Targets was elegantly simple in design and superbly executed. Bogdanovich, who would go on to direct a string of mainstream hits in the ‘70s, starred in the film, and co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Polly Platt, and an uncredited Samuel Fuller. In fact, he considered Fuller’s contributions so important that he named his character Sammy Michaels (‘Michael’ being Fuller’s middle name) in gratitude.
The movie opens, fittingly enough, to a scene from The Terror. We see a few moments of this footage, then the viewer becomes aware that we are watching the screening of a film before a small group of individuals, one of whom is the central figure in the scene being shown. It is Horror icon Byron Orlok (Karloff), watching his latest performance. From the expression on his face, he’s none too pleased with what he sees.
As the screening ends, the film’s producer is discussing the next project with its director, Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich). Michaels has written a script that he thinks would be perfect for Orlok’s next film, though the producer isn’t sold on the idea. Orlok puts a stop to their bickering with a sudden announcement. He’s done, finished. He’s made his last movie.
The announcement shocks everyone, not least of all Michaels, convinced that Orlok hates his script. In truth, Orlok’s mind was made up long before this screening; he hasn’t even read the new screenplay. As they stand outside Orlok’s limousine, vainly arguing with him to change his mind, we see Orlok’s face in extreme close-up, quartered by the fine lines of a riflescope’s crosshairs. The scene shifts to the interior of a gun shop across the street from the argument on the sidewalk, a young man stands holding a new hunting rifle, sighting through the scope. Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) purchases the rifle, along with ammunition for it, and leaves the shop.
As Orlok drives away from the producer’s offices, his secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), who is also Sammy Michaels’ girlfriend, questions him on the timing of his decision to retire. She understands more than most do the reasons behind his choice, but she’s also worried about the effect this will have on Michaels’ career.
Later that evening, at dinner, Orlok’s agent Ed Loughlin (Arthur Peterson) is pressuring him to change his mind about retirement. The actor’s mind is made up, however, and he has no intention of rethinking that decision. Loughlin asks him to at least think about it, and wait until his personal appearance the next night to make his mind up. This last catches Orlok by surprise; he’s unaware that he’s been booked for a personal appearance.
At first he refuses to consider the appearance, telling Jenny to keep his arrangements in place to return to London. But the combined pleading of Jenny, Sammy, and Ed wears him down, and he agrees to this last event.
Meanwhile, Thompson has been busy. Buying more guns, more ammunition, storing it all in the trunk of his car. He tells those who ask that he’s planning a big hunting trip. This is true, only he doesn’t specify what he’ll be hunting. It becomes obvious through scenes of Thompson’s life at home that he’s not the happy, well-adjusted man he appears to be, and one gets the sense early on that he is moving towards some critical point.
Back at Orlok’s hotel, Sammy finally asks the older man why he’s leaving; why now? Orlok explains that he’s tired. He feels that he’s lost his ability to frighten audiences inured to the real horrors of the modern age. War, mass murder, natural disasters, terrorism, serial killers—against this, how could the creatures and monsters of the movies compete? Orlok belongs to a bygone age, and he intends to fade quietly away. After this one last obligation is fulfilled.
He meets with the promoters of the event, to be held at the Reseda Drive-In. They suggest a question-and-answer session with the audience, but Orlok has other ideas. He wants to recite a short tale, W. Somerset Maugham’s “An Appointment in Samarra,” concerning a merchant, his servant, and the latter’s inescapable rendezvous with the angel of death. Thompson too is on his way to a rendezvous, and it is this juxtaposition of the two storylines that make Targets one of the finest movies of the late 1960s.
This film was Bogdanovich’s breakout film, the one that put him on the map as an up-and-coming filmmaker. Howard Thompson, reviewing the film for the New York Times, wrote “[Targets] marks a most auspicious feature debut for young Peter Bogdanovich, a former film writer and historian, who has now taken the plunge, camera in hand. He should never let it go.” Though Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, wasn’t nearly so taken with the movie, he was at least complimentary to the young director, albeit in a somewhat backhanded manner. “… Bogdanovich shows the promise of being ready to make a whole movie all at once.”
No matter how good Bogdanovich’s direction was, and it was very good, the picture is remembered because of Karloff’s stellar performance. It was the type of performance that an actor can give only once, and then only at the end of a long, illustrious career. John Wayne in The Shootist, Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, Spencer Tracy in Guess who’s Coming to Dinner—these roles seemed to sum up the actors’ lives, both on- and off-screen, a thank-you (and farewell) to legions of loyal fans.
Karloff’s performance as Byron Orlok fits very neatly into this category. It had been nearly fifty years since Karloff, then simply William Pratt, had first stepped in front of a motion picture camera, and thirty-seven years since he had been thrust into stardom . It was easy to imagine that Orlok’s words might be coming from Karloff’s heart; that both the character and the actor might be one and the same. One wonders, as we watch Orlok fidget uncomfortably in his seat as he watches Karloff’s performance in The Terror, how much of that discomfort was acting, and how much was real.
In any case, this movie must be mentioned in any examination of the career of Boris Karloff, just as it must figure into any discussion of the Drive-In movie. Its place at the top of either list is guaranteed.
I invite you to explore the Unimonster's other Crypt, which you'll find HERE!
Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2021
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor