Camp David

CAMP DAVID MARCH 2013: APPOINTMENT IN SUMARA

By • Mar 8th, 2013 •

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I would like to believe that DESTINY plays a hand in life, and one of Boris Karloff’s parting gifts to the film industry was his choice to bestow upon a then 28-year-old Peter Bogdanovich, his chance to finally prove himself as a director. It was of course Roger Corman who gave Peter the initial shot at directing TARGETS, but more to the point it was Karloff who gracefully acted several scenes within his particular segments in the film allowing Bogdanovich the opportunity to show off his ability to frame the iconic Karloff in just such a way as to showcase the legacy of this great actor at the top of his game. The film is question is TARGETS, a cult film, that weaves two very different storylines in such a way that they intersect at the films stark conclusion, one involving the mundane lives of a typical American family who just happen to house a very disturbed young man, who will within hours kill his entire family then proceed to kill dozens more before he dies. In fact the original title for TARGETS was just that – BEFORE I DIE. The far more fascinating story arch was of course Boris Karloff playing a rather accurate screen version of himself in real life, that of a courtly English gentleman who, through circumstances that could only happen in Hollywood, became an icon for a generation of moviegoers as the grand senior of the Horror film, the original Frankenstein monster himself. In fact Karloff is observed on camera representing his time with Corman toiling in front of the camera in what would later be regarded as the renegade period of Hollywood filmmaking of the sixties, when he was coaxed out of semi-retirement to play one of the stars in Roger Corman’s horror spoof THE RAVEN opposite Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in 1963.

Karloff’s somewhat confusing [to him} commitment to Roger Corman had included filming the three day wonder known as THE TERROR. This film was for all intent and purpose a Poe film without the benefit of a poem or a line for Corman to hang a screenplay. TARGETS became yet another contractual commitment that required Karloff to perform a further three days at $5000 a day. Bogdanovich jumped at the opportunity to do a feature even if it meant including 20 mins of footage from the aforementioned THE TERROR, leaving him with 40 mins of footage of his own making in the bargain. After this Boris Karloff made it clear that he never wanted to hear the name Roger Corman again and the two men never worked together again. Karloff would, however, go on to act in at least five more feature films before his death in 1969.

I was fortunate to have connected with the actor/comedian Sandy Baron, who at the time was touring in Neil Simon’s ‘Star Spangled Girl’ and had just opened in Sacramento. I managed to get back stage to interview him for my high school paper. Sandy played the hip DJ Kip Larkin in TARGETS receiving one of Karloff’s best lines when the stoned out Larkin tells Karloff’s character Byron Orlok “Man I’ve seen all your films man, I mean you blew my mind” to which Karloff stares at him for a moment and then replies dryly “Obviously” Sandy was a cool guy at the time and loved any attention that came his way, even that of a novice film critic from the local high school. His co-star in the Simon play was TV cowboy star Will Hutchens who had scored a success a few years before in the series Sugarfoot, which made him more of a name than Sandy, so Will became the principal subject of Sandy’s ire as he felt vastly superior to Will both as an actor and a human being and made it known that the play suffered whenever Mr Hutchens was left on his own. After listening with as much understanding as I could muster to all Sandy had to say on the subject of his co star, I then asked about TARGETS and was pleased to hear that like every body else in show business Sandy adored Boris Karloff. He explained that “Karloff was such a gentleman and so generous with the entire crew that they all loved him. He then went on to say that Evie Karloff “treated Boris like a God,” she did everything to keep Boris safe and well taken care of. He was so lucky to have her in his life. Sandy was very impressed that I knew so much about Karloff and that I was even aware of a film called TARGETS that he vowed to get in touch with the director just to pass it along that the film had a following already in the wilds of Sacramento.

This endorsement of Sandy Baron paid off later that year (1968) as I traveled down to LA on Sandy’s kind words regarding my knowledge of film history as well as my interest in TARGETS to Peter Bogdanovich. The talented young director and his wife Polly invited me to stop by their cottage on Saticoy Street in Van Nuys to conduct an interview regarding all things Karloff as well as the film. The rented Van Nuys home the Bogdanovich’s lived in was a comfortable nine room abode, pleasantly filled with all manner of things relating to the Cinema Peter admired so unconditionally. There were books everywhere lining the walls along with framed posters of his retrospectives at MOMA for icons like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. I never forgot seeing bound sets of both Cahiers du Cinema along with Film Daily yearbooks. Peter’s devotion to John Ford was also noted in a large photograph of Ford directing CHEYENNE AUTUMN inscribed to both Peter and Polly.

I must digress here to comment on just what a well known team Peter and Polly had become at this time, and this was not lost on most of the Hollywood intelligentsia either. In point of fact two decades later this would be referenced in the film IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES, a very funny satire on Hollywood in the guise of a divorce flick centered around a small girl played by a deadpan Drew Barrymore who decides to divorce her parents using the title of the film as a legal recourse. The character of her father played by Ryan O’Neal is an unmistakable send up of Peter Bogdanovich even down to his trademark eyewear. O’neal turned out to be perfect casting since he already knew how to do Bogdanovich having worked for the director in WHAT’S UP DOC? IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES captures the early days of his success up until he meets Cybil Shepherd and then divorces Polly only to crash and burn his then career with AT LONG LAST LOVE. The set up in this film is to have him try and make a musical out of ‘Gone With the Wind’ entitled “Altanta” and here is where the satire is really spot on as the film soars along with Sharon Stone as the Shepherd send up behaving like the prima donna she would actually become a little down the road in her own career. In this sequence the filmmakers also take a stab at Michael Cimino’s infamous over-budget production of HEAVENS’S GATE by having O’Neal’s character fuss over details that are costing the backers millions, while his coked-up leading lady has her own mother as a gofer, screaming at her for bringing a Tab that was not chilled.

My audio tapes of the Bogdanovich interview are now lost to the sands of time, but what I can remember best was the devotion Peter had for the movies. It was certainly in his blood from an early age. He told me he was always fascinated with the theater, especially when he saw his idols like Henry Fonda on the stage. He was particularly excited about the then new Howard Hawks film EL DORADO with John Wayne. Peter felt it was a masterpiece far more worthy of a best picture Oscar than the films that were nominated in 1967 like THE GRADUATE or BONNIE AND CLYDE. I should ask him now if that concept still hold true for him all these years later.

Peter had of course enjoyed the very same start in Hollywood most young talented yet unknown directors found themselves doing in the mid to late sixties, and that was working at anything and everything for Roger Corman. Peter had done six weeks on THE WILD ANGELS which then became a boxoffice hit and so Peter stayed on with Corman for several months after that. It was during this time that Roger saw potential in Bogdanovich by offering him a chance to take the time owed him from Boris Karloff’s contract insisting he use footage from THE TERROR. Peter told me that afternoon that “this was a great opportunity for me as well as a challenge to create something unique in the genre, after all most of the American directors I have admired have used different genres to blend with their signature approach, to give the film greatness of personality. Seeing that flood sequence in THE TERROR inspired me to use that as a means to showcase the film… I would use that to open the film, then the lights in the screening room would go up revealing Boris disgusted, realizing finally that he is now out of date and, worst of all, an antique presence in post modern Hollywood’s drab landscape of car lots and drive-ins. Choosing to no longer recognize or be a part of all this, he retires, leaving my character of Sammy without a star for his screenplay, and thus no backing.

Roger thought all of this background material was very funny in a SUNSET BLVD sort of way so we really only wound up using 3 minutes from The THE TERROR instead of twenty. I had originally wanted to have at least one of the killings in a supermarket as the floors in those places are always so slick a camera could simply glide in and out of set ups. All of the credit for making this film really work really was due to Karloff, especially since he saw so much of himself in the character and why not – Byron Orlock is Boris Karloff, make no mistake, and Karloff owns the screen whenever he is on it so all I had to do was move my camera right into that remarkable face of his and watch a screen legend at work.

Boris loved all the references to films like FIVE STAR FINAL or THE CRIMINAL CODE in which he was directed by Howard Hawks, of whom Peter has a special understanding, having written monographs on the man and his films as well. There were plenty of moments for Boris to camp it up if he saw fit to do so – for example the sequence where he wakes up, catches sight of his image in the mirror, hung over, and frightens even himself. The scene where Karloff tells the story of An Appointment in Samarra is beautifully realized as Bogdanovich simply pulls the camera right into that great face, weaving yet another tale of the frightened, a process the actor had perfected during nearly half a century in show business.

The material involving Tim O’Kelly was more problematic, suffering from development issues, since we never get a sense of his suffering except in his exchanges with his clueless dad, which are both humble and oedipal in the way he addresses him as “Sir”. This, with a cold and frigid wife to come home to, only leaves his night job at the phone company to complete the process that is supposed to have led him to kill dozens of people during the course of the film. Bogdanovich realized this was not a film in which he could build this character’s complexities to, say, the likes of a Lee Harvey Oswald, showing at least some layers of depth to his plight. Peter chose to make this a murder without motivation, using the case of Charles Whitman, the Texas sniper and then-current symbol of modern horror.

Peter hated the taglines the studio imposed regarding gun control and issue which is still with us today, There is simply no way in a film to explain why a lunatic sniper would gun down 44 innocent people on August 1 1966, or after 1968, the assignations in a country with no effective gun control laws in effect. Peter told me “we did a lot of research for this picture and I still think TARGETS shows an awareness of what’s going on, I am also reacting against the over-emphasis on social consciousness by critics who judge that a film is good because it’s about social problems.”

Peter, as a film historian, was very much in awe of Howard Hawks at the time we met, and explained that when he screened TARGETS for Hawks he liked Karloff of course yet did not like the more self-conscious camera work, the way the camera was moved unnecessarily at times. Hawks did however admire all the footage at the drive in involving the killer’s rampage, telling Bogdanovich “This was good filmmaking because these kind of shots are very difficult to pull off and you did it well”

It has been four decades since Peter Bogdanvich and I sat under that walnut tree in his Van Nuys backyard discussing TARGETS, and especially the great Karloff, whose shadow still imposes a timeless legacy over a genre that Boris would hardly recognize in today’s climate of vapid remakes, along with the advent of the slasher/torture porn sub genre that dominates the contemporary film scene. Yet it was through the efforts of filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich, along with Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Francis Coppola and Jonathan Demme that kept the references alive in remembering the films and the stars that started it all in the first place. It was no accident that a film like HUGO or THE ARTIST could be made in the 21st Century and resonate so profoundly to a modern audience. I believe we still have the ability to be frightened by our mortality and it will never be more articulate than in the hands of a master like Karloff, as a camera pulls closer into his magnificent face, to remind us all of that appointment in Samarra.

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2 Responses »

  1. And now… even the Reseda Drive-In is dead…

  2. I always read these with your voice in my head. Makes them so entertaining. TARGETS is one of my very favourite films. As usual, a sterling column! Most enjoyable. Karloff would be proud.

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