Hollywood Vampires: The Birth of Midnight Movies on L.A.'s Sunset Strip is a three-part series of essays by Tim Concannon.
TARGETS: THE LOST MIDNIGHT MOVIE
In revisiting Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets we’re invited to unearth an archaeology of cult cinema. Targets links the old Hollywood of Schwab's, Chateau Marmont and the Garden of Allah hotel to what, in 1968, was to be the new Hollywood of easy riders and raging bulls.
"All the good movies have been made"
—Peter Bogdanovich as Sammy Michaels, Targets
1968's Targets, is the story of an aging film star played by expat Anglo Indian thespian, Boris Karloff. Karloff's Byron Orlok (named after Count Orlok in Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu) is clearly Karloff playing a grumpier version of himself. As two parallel stories converge in the film's Third Act, the Old Hollywood horror icon Orlok is confronted by a serial killer—gun nut and sniper Bobby Thompson, played by Tim O'Kelly—a very late Sixties American monster created by the trauma of political assassinations and Vietnam. (It's implied obliquely that Bobby is a veteran, recently returned from the war.)
Targets is Peter Bogdanovich's first credited movie as director. According to Bogdanovich, before Targets he wrote 80% of the script for Roger Corman's 1966 biker flick The Wild Angels starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, and also did some second unit directing and various odd jobs for Corman. The Wild Angels predated Easy Rider by three years, but didn't preempt the latter's meteoric success. "I went from getting the laundry to directing the picture in three weeks. Altogether, I worked 22 weeks—pre-production, shooting, second unit, cutting, dubbing—I haven't learned as much since," Bogdanovich said much later of working for Corman.
Targets is a snapshot of the brief moment when the groovy Scooby Doo world of Frank Zappa, The Monkees and West Coast psychedelia met what was to become the opiated and strung out East Coast phenomenon of midnight movies. Released in August 1968, less than two months after the murder of Robert Kennedy, within a few years of its opening Targets had traveled to New York, where in November 1971 it took up the hallowed place on the altar of countercultural cinema at the Elgin Theatre in the West Village that had been vacated by El Topo (the original midnight movie, the legend of which I discussed in a previous article). El Topo had played to sold-out midnight screenings from 17th December 1970, acquiring a fanatical cult-following who showed up every week in capes and bolero hats. Possibly sensing that this was the next 2001: A Space Odyssey or Easy Rider, Allen Klein acquired the distribution rights to Jodorowsky's gory Western and mystical allegory for John & Yoko, and rebooked El Topo into the much classier Film Forum—in its old location, 57 Watts Street in Soho (about half an hour's walk south of The Elgin)—for five shows a day, starting at ten o'clock in the morning, closing within three days.
Targets also failed to repeat the astonishing success that Elgin manager Ben Barenholtz had through most of 1971 with El Topo (a programming choice Barenholtz had made with the sage counsel of the late Jonas Mekas). Subsequently, Bogdanovich's film hasn't made it to the canon of midnight movies, either; a list which strictly speaking was only ever a handful of titles which programmers knew would draw a late-night crowd. Barenholtz told Richard Harrington of The Washington Post in 1981, by which time midnight movies had become a staple of independent and repertory film programming around the world, "we made it a discovery thing […] The true midnight cult film is a phenomenon, there have really only been five or six. There are other kinds of films that can play at midnight and draw an audience, but not on a sustained basis."
Commercially, there were only ever seven midnight movie "hits": El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, The Harder They Come, Eraserhead and—most enduringly of all—Jim Sharman's original 1975 The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the Twenty-First Century, Tommy Wiseau's 2009 The Room has been tacked onto the canon, and its following extended by James Franco's 2017 Wiseau biopic The Disaster Artist (a much better film than the source material, The Room being a movie that's not "so bad it's good" but is straightforwardly and non-ironically lousy).
Speaking to Harrington in the same 1981 article, distributor Roger Grod of Alternative Film offered a pragmatic explanation of how midnight movies differed from 'cult' cinema: "the word cult is a very major problem […] Our audiences [for midnight movies] either want to rock and roll, be frightened a bit or see a drug-type movie […] And it's good for the exhibitors. It's an extra revenue, particularly when they have to put up such tremendous guarantees for first-run films. They need to squeeze every penny."
Many films from the late Sixties and early Seventies made for the drive-in, grindhouse, college or art house markets were repackaged by distributors specifically for the midnight audience, in the hopes of cashing in on the fad. This worked in the case of Rocky Horror (which, it's often forgotten, was originally sold as a mainstream film and flopped; while the movie found a good-sized crowd at the UA Westwood in Los Angeles, it was then pulled from eight other cities and had its Halloween premier in New York cancelled).
The strategy was often tried with highbrow movies that wore their origins in European cinema and serious literature like a college beanie. Altman's 1970 Brewster McCloud. Ashby's 1971 Harold and Maude (Ashby at one time wanted Elton John to play the morbidly-obsessed Harold in his darkly comic, age inappropriate romance, and also wanted him to provide the music). Michael Sarne's snide and misanthropic Myra Breckinridge, a transgendered sarcasmfest from 1970 taken from Gore Vidal's equally arch and unpleasant novel of the same name. This gambit never quite worked, or at least not at midnight. The congregation of the faithful at midnight movie venues from 1971 required a celluloid fix that "blew their minds" (to use the phrase constantly reiterated in trailers aimed at the youth market around this time), that was saturated with the dark, camp energy of opiation and introspection which defined the slowly atrophying counterculture in 1971, with Nixon still in office and the Vietnam War rocking and rolling on. At the same time, to be a midnight movie, a film also had to be addictive, in the sense that it had to offer what Umberto Eco described in his essay on cult cinema:
"The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world, so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were part of the beliefs of a sect, a private world of their own, a world about which one can play puzzle games and trivia contests, and whose adepts recognize each other through a common competence."1
KARLOFF, THE OUTSIDER ICON
It's hard to think of source material much higher brow than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Yet by 1968, decades after his role as "The Creature" in the Universal 1931 classic that overshadowed the rest of his life, Karloff had established a long and sustained career which increasingly embraced his status as a pop culture icon. Karloff and the Creature became interchangeable, much as Frankenstein the literary source material became interchangeable with model kits and Halloween costumes. (In 1958's Frankenstein 1970 he plays both one of Doctor Henry Frankenstein's descendants, intent as per usual on making his own atomic behemoth from human cadavers, but who also—spoilers—sews his own face onto his monster at the end of the flick, to achieve a kind of warped semiotic immortality).
Karloff had brought his monstrosity and outsider status with him to Hollywood. Anglo Indian by birth on both his mother's and father's sides, Karloff's distinguished and distinctive looks were the product of a period of Indian and British history that's generally ignored in both countries today, when—prior to Britain's annexation of the subcontinent—the aristocracy and upper middle classes of both countries intermarried.
In the West, other Eurasian and Anglo Indian stars, in particular Bombay-born Merle Oberon, concocted elaborate backstories to explain their unusual and striking good looks, stories which film studios often further embellished. Karloff handicaps were to be handsome, but dark-skinned and obviously of Asian extraction, in late Victorian Enfield, Middlesex, as well as being born bow-legged and to have acquired both a stutter and a lisp. He overcame the stutter, but the lisp became part of his stage and screen persona. William Henry Pratt's brother was a British diplomat and much of his family were employed as colonial civil servants at the Foreign Office. William considered himself the black sheep of the family. He drifted to Canada, working as a farm laborer, eventually finding his way to stage work in Kamloops, British Columbia, and then Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where he assumed the Eurasian-sounding name "Boris" which he said he pulled "from out of the cold, Canadian air." A story Karloff was fond of telling in later life was of his trepidation on returning to England for the first time after he became a film star, to promote The Ghoul in 1933. He expected his highly respectable family to be appalled at young William's macabre global celebrity. Instead, his siblings jostled to be photographed with their famous brother.
Karloff had stepped outside of a British class system which would always judge him, if only slightly, based on the patina of his skin, and he'd found his own way to respectability and fulfillment through acting, by way of hard graft. Once Karloff relocated to Hollywood to try his luck in motion pictures in 1916, he continued to do manual work between acting jobs, including delivering builder's plaster. Many of his early Hollywood roles were as Arabs, Indians, and as a Huron in The Last of the Mohicans, up until his breakthrough in 1930's The Criminal Code for Howard Hawks. (Sammy and Orlok watch a scene from the Hawks movie on television, Karloff's convict character is committing a murder, making it explicit that Orlok is Karloff. Karloff playing Orlok as himself switches off the TV. "All the good movies have been made," Bogdanovich playing Sammy playing Bogdanovich says wearily, giving himself the best line in his first movie.)
When Universal came up with a speaking role for Karloff to equal Lugosi's as Dracula, in 1932's The Mummy—intended to cash-in on the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter, and Tutmania that followed—the original nine-page treatment concerned the real-life 18th century Italian adventurer Alessandro Cagliostro as an immortal magician, but soon the lead part was changed to Imhotep, an Ancient Egyptian high priest. After the stunning opening sequence in Imhotep's tomb, and arguably what is Jack Pierce's finest creature makeup, much of the rest of The Mummy is a shot-for-shot rehash of Dracula from the previous year but with Karloff in a fez.
Clumsy Orientalism was implicit in many of the roles Karloff was given, yet it seems that like American and British reviewers, the Indian press didn't catch on to Karloff's Anglo Indian ethnicity at the height of his initial film stardom, any more than they had when he played bit parts as loyal local guides or wily Asiatics.
Karloff's difficulty with mobility got worse as he grew older, and in Targets he walks with a cane. While this becomes a plot point in the film's climax, Karloff wasn't acting. By the late Sixties, he had to mask terrible discomfort when working long hours on film and television sets. Stefanie Powers starred with Karloff in an episode of 'The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.' in 1967, 'The Mother Muffin Affair', in which he cameos in drag as April Dancer's and Napoleon Solo's nemesis. Powers recalls the dignity and kindness with which the highly professional, precise and kind actor concealed his obvious agony during a relentless and demanding shooting schedule. The portrayal of Boris Karloff in the James Whale biopic 'Gods and Monsters' of a dull expat English actor, out of sorts in the glamour of the golden age of Hollywood, is both unkind and not a little inaccurate. No one seems to have a bad word to say about a witty, self-deprecating and technically superb screen performer, who was totally at ease with his fame and the public's image of him as a horror icon who terrified children and delighted adults. Bogdanovich gives Karloff the lines in Targets: "Mr. Boogeyman, King of Blood they used to call me. The Marx Brothers make you laugh. Garbo makes you weep. Orlok makes you scream."
Karloff's status as a horror icon went into a slow decline after 1948's House of Frankenstein, and for a decade he alternated his time between both coasts, returning to the stage with successful runs on Broadway of Arsenic and Old Lace and Peter Pan. He moved to New York with his fifth wife, Evelyn Hope Helmore, and while in L.A. they stayed at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. (In Targets a small set doubles for a chalet at the Beverly Hills Hotel).2 At the time when Boris Karloff and his wife took up sporadic residency, Chateau Marmont hadn't gained the reputation for rock star excess that it has today. In the early Fifties, celebrity bacchanalia and hi-jinx were more associated with bohemian enclave the Garden of Allah Hotel, almost across the road from Chateau Marmont, until it was demolished in 1959 to make way for the mini-mall and MacDonald's drive-through at the location today. Karloff's film appearance after 1948 tended increasingly to be team-ups with Lugosi, or with Abbott and Costello.
The King of Blood made a triumphant comeback in October 1957 when Columbia Pictures television subsidiary, Screen Gems, released the Shock Theater (marketed as "Shock!") package of 52 classic horror films from Universal Studios, all from prior to 1948, for television syndication. The syndication came hot on the heels of Fredric Wertham's 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, which linked juvenile crime to sexual content, violence and drugs use in comics, and the testimony of, among others, EC horror comics publisher William Gaines to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.
Far from dampening down the salacious content in American pop culture, Wertham's study provided a jolt in the arm for schlock movie producers and huckster SF and pulp magazine publishers, preeminent among whom was Forrest J. Ackerman (who also cameos in Gods and Monsters as a wildly camp horror film fanboy). Ackerman launched his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine in 1958, recycling horror movie stills of Karloff, Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Michael Landon as a teenage werewolf, with fan commentary and bleakly arch humor which prefigured the dark energy of midnight movie hits in the Seventies such as Night of the Living Dead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
As in the futuristic Frankenstein 1970 (also 1958), Karloff and the Creature began to converge into one celebrity. Karloff existed as a spectral version of himself, confined to a crypt with Susan Hart's Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, in AIP's teensploitation romp that also starred Basil Rathbone and Nancy Sinatra. He was a stop-motion puppet of himself alongside a puppet version of Phyllis Diller in Mad Monster Party? for Rankin/Bass Productions in 1967 (one of the inspirations for Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas). He was a life-size cardboard cut-out that you could order from the back of comic books. He was a trick or treat costume and, above all else, he was all over teen culture and television.
A precursor of midnight movies which has been hardly explored by scholars but which is connected, through Targets and Karloff, to the cult cinema period beginning in the Seventies, were "midnight 'spook' shows." As early as the the Thirties, these ancestors of midnight movies were being utilized by studios for marketing their horror films. Boris's personal appearances from 1931 (see images above), clambering on stage between vaudeville acts and a showing of Frankenstein, were being billed explicitly as "midnight 'spook' shows." Much more than film screenings, they retained elements of their origins in stage magic, burlesque, and carnival sideshows. They incorporated audience participation of a kind familiar from British pantomime, and the theatrics of professional wrestling.
Midnight "séances," where the audience saw ghosts projected onto the walls and flying through the auditorium, were inspired not only by "phantasmagoria" and optical tricks such as "Pepper's ghost" (Shelley's novel Frankenstein was, in part, inspired by a collection of short stories based on phantasmagoria)3 but also by much older forms of demotic popular entertainment: haunted hay-rides and "mystery houses" at state fairs, as well as European and African traditions of masking and college rag week pranks conducted in weird costumes and masks that predate Halloween and "trick or treating" by several centuries.
Before psychedelics became common in U.S. society, Universal studios mogul Carl Laemmle tapped into the public's imaginations at the witching hour with horror, employing sumptuous, ornate publicity material to entice audiences into theaters rather than shocking them into attendance; much as "spook" shows from the time of their origins in the late 1920s had relied on the elaborate, stylish and witty posters and handbills of performers such as Thurston, Blackstone, Francisco, and later El-Wyn. Toledo-based magician and "ghost master" Jack Baker, a.k.a. Dr. Silkini, innovated with the format following the success of Hellzapoppin' in 1941, introducing more vaudeville elements of jokes and skits familiar from the later, gimmick and ballyhoo-laden exploitation films of William Castle such as Vincent Price starrers The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both released in 1959).
Baker featured Frankenstein's monster without copyright permission, until someone from Universal caught one of his shows in L.A. Rather than insisting Dr Silkini cease and desist, the movie studio licensed their intellectual property to Baker so the creature could make live appearances, direct from Hollywood. The thread running from midnight "spook" shows, to midnight movies was that you would see monsters "come to life." Objects of the imagination materialized as solid, the veil between consciousness and dreaming, the artist and the audience, the living and the dead becoming—briefly—permeable at midnight.
By the time of El Topo fans running around New York's West Village in capes and Jodorowsky hats, or Rocky Horror fans showing up to midnight screenings in fishnets and black lipstick, in the Seventies, the line was blurred to the point where the audiences were stepping into the dream and becoming the movie. “Don’t dream it, be it.” (The answer to the question: "where are midnight movies today?" may well be that fans cosplaying characters like Deadpool at Comic-con have adopted 'guising from midnight movies—along with the associated R-rated sex, violence, profanity, shock humor, and intertextual fan service—and taken all of these elements so far into the mainstream of culture that they hide in our plain view).
In tandem with the syndicated Shock Theater film package, midnight "spook" shows also gave rise to TV "horror hosts" copying the Crypt Keeper of EC comics and their imitators. The most famous—by a margin the breadth of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard—was Maila Nurmi ("Vampira"), best known for her reluctant but spirited turn in Edward D. Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. Karloff himself continued to appear as a host of Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery comic way into the 1980s, long after his death.
Going into the Sixties, Karloff made a series of enduring horror features with a decidedly "high camp" energy, such as Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1962), in which he was both a horror host and acted in the disturbing The Wurdalak vignette as a "back to basics" vampire from Russian folklore. He also made two for Corman in 1962: The Raven with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, and The Terror with Jack Nicholson and the late Dick Miller, the ending of which forms the title sequence of Targets. Karloff also narrated Chuck Jones's Grammy-winning animated short of Dr. Suess's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! In 1967—the same year that he made Mad Monster Party?—Karloff was also filming The Sorcerers for Tigon British Film Productions—a motion picture about as far removed from high camp as one can imagine, a grotty magical-realist horror thriller, set in a North-London of Wimpy cafes, scratched Coronation plates and Ford Cortinas—and Targets. Both movies have a dark energy, but not the kitschy sense of irony to go with it which defined later midnight hits. Karloff could play to the front row, eating popcorn, sure. But he could—if he wanted—also get right under your skin.
BYRON ORLOK (Boris Karloff): Oh, it's not that the films are bad. I've gone bad. I couldn't even play a straight part decently anymore. I've been doing the other thing too long. SAMMY MICHAELS (Peter Bogdanovich): Of course you could. BYRON ORLOK: And even that isn't the point. Do you know what they call my films today? Camp, high camp. Wait a minute, I want to show you something. My kind of horror isn't horror anymore. There they are. Look at that. No one's afraid of a painted monster.
THE SHOCK OF THE NEW HORROR
Reviewing Jamaican ska and reggae legend Jimmy Cliff's cover of "The Guns of Brixton" on Cliff's 2012 album Rebirth for Rolling Stone, Will Hermes described the track as "the sound of history circling in wondrous ways." Written by Paul Simenon of the Clash in 1979, the year of the Brixton riots, one line is a film reference:
"You see, he feels like Ivan Born under the Brixton sun His game is called survivin' At the end of the harder they come"
The last line refers to the death of the main character in The Harder They Come, played in the film by Cliff, Ivanhoe Martin, based on the real life Kingston musician, drug dealer and hustler of the Forties of the same name, who was also known as "Rhyging" (the working title of Perry Henzell's 1972 film). The Harder They Come became a midnight hit in the United States in 1974. By the time that Jimmy Cliff recorded his version of Simenon's song, released in 2012—the year after new riots had rocked London—Cliff's version of "The Guns of Brixton" encompassed his own career, the life and times of the Clash—frontman Joe Strummer had died suddenly in 2002 due to an undiagnosed, inherited heart defect—as well as the legacy of the film and the intertwined histories of the Jamaican communities, hippies and punks in Notting Hill and Brixton.
While it was never a true midnight movie, Targets has a small following that could legitimately be called a "cult," enhanced by Bogdanovich's heightened status among cinephiles occasioned by the Netflix release of Orson Welles's The Other Side Of The Wind. Completed by Welles's friends and fans long after his death, Peter Bogdanovich stars as himself, effectively, as protégé and sidekick to John Huston who’s playing Welles. Bogdaonvich has become linked in the imagination of lovers of serious cinema to richly intertextual exercises in restoration, appraisal and recontextualization. Targets is full of these moments of "history circling in wondrous ways." Like people repeating lines from the film at the movie screen in a midnight showing of Rocky Horror, these anecdotes and links to other films are—in the digital era—the "completely furnished world […] whose adepts recognize each other through a common competence" that Umberto Eco wrote about in his essay on cult cinema.
Karloff owed Corman two days of work after shooting The Terror and The Raven, so the producer charged Bogdaonvich with taking twenty minutes out of The Terror and shooting another movie around it. Bogdanovich edited the movie himself, which is why it has no editor credit (he hired an editor, but fired them after one day because a static scene with Karloff in an alcove of a bar was cut like an action movie). According to Bogdanovich's DVD commentary, he edited the twenty minutes of The Terror down to three, which form the opening credits. The kernel of the idea for Targets started with Bogdanovitch joking to Corman that the start of the movie should be Karloff sitting in a screening room watching the end of The Terror, the lights going up and the veteran film star turning to Roger Corman, saying "that's the worst movie I've ever seen." While Corman is swapped for Monte Landis in Targets, that's almost exactly the same way that it begins.
Targets explodes with enough cool connections to other films for Wes Anderson to furnish an entire brownstone on New York's Upper West Side with them. Sam Fuller (writer, producer and director of, among other films, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss) was the uncredited co-writer, straightening out Bogdanovich's script in three hours of pacing up and down his living room. Sammy has a sweetly dysfunctional relationship with Orlok, at one point they get drunk and fall asleep next to one another on Orlok's bed. This was a sort of premonition of Bogdanovich's real-life, often fraught collaboration Welles, whom he met on the set of Mike Nicholls's Catch-22 two years later, and which is itself dramatized in a way in Bogdanovich's part in The Other Side of the Wind. (He replaced impressionist Rich Little most of the way through filming, as hot young director Brooks Otterlake, a thinly disguised version of Bogdanovich. Previously, Welles had filmed him as cineaste Charles Higgam, another hardly concealed caricature of Peter Bogdanovich.)
The guy who's shot in the phone booth at the drive-in by sniper Bobby Thompson (we never get a proper look at the victim's face) is Mike Farrell, best known as Captain B J Hunnicutt in TV's M*A*S*H. All the way through the longest single shot in Targets, Bobby hovering between his parents watching television in one room and his wife getting ready for a late-shift at work in another, we hear Rat Pack Emcee Joey Bishop on his ABC chat show talking to his stooge Regis Philbin. Monte Landis, who plays the producer who'll only greenlight Sammy's new script if Orlok makes a personal appearance at a drive-in showing of the movie that they recently completed ("see Byron Orlok in person!") was another British actor in Hollywood, best known for playing several adults who don't understand the Monkees or their music, in The Monkees' TV show. Landis was also a gravedigger in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein. (Though, sadly, no one asks him in that picture if he digs graves. "Yes, I think they're quite groovy.")
Targets was the first film that cinematographer László Kovács liked sufficiently to use his real name on the credits. Sandy Baron, who plays hip deejay Kip Larkin in Targets, was a comedian who learned his trade in Catskill Mountain "Borscht Belt" and eventually graduated to the Johnny Carson Show. Baron opened for Neil Diamond, Bobby Vinton, Anthony Newley and Diana Ross throughout his career. Keen-eared viewers will recognize him as the narrator of Woody Allen's tribute to vaudeville and Borscht Belt comedians, Broadway Danny Rose. The list of these overlaps with cinema and pop culture trivia in Targets is a long one.
The most touching cameos in the film are by Los Angeles locations, and by cinema itself. Bogdanovich devotes a long, tense build up to the drive-in show: the projectionist getting the projector ready, the audience showing up in cars, hooking up the speaker to their window. Meanwhile, Orlok and his PA Jenny are driven along Sunset Boulevard and up into the San Fernando Valley, to the screening. As strip malls roll past, filled with car dealerships and fast food outlets (the fate, by then, of the jewel of old Hollywood's Art Nouveau diadem, the Garden of Allah Hotel, which had been nearby to Karloff's L.A. residence, Chateau Marmont, until a decade earlier), Byron remarks how drab L.A. looks in 1967 compared with its golden age. The end of Targets was filmed in a semi-documentary style at the Reseda Drive-In, on 18441 Vanowen Street, which was demolished in the mid-Seventies.
But despite this richly-furnished world of classic Americana, Targets is distinct from midnight movies because it isn't "high camp" at all. Bogdanovich plays it straight, as he does in his 1971 film The Last Picture Show. By the mid-Seventies, midnight movies like Pink Flamingos, Night of the Living Dead and Rocky Horror had something in common with some of his other flicks—Paper Moon, What's Up, Doc?, At Long Last Love'—and other artsy blockbusters of the time, especially The Day of the Locust, in harking back in an ironic, world-weary way to the halcyon era of Hollywood of the Twenties through to the Forties. There was a fashionable nostalgia in the early to mid-Seventies for dead film stars, frequently turned into giant black and white semi-religious icons. Idols who, in the tragedy of their faded glamour, had become strangely modern again. Blown up fifty foot high, Jean Harlow, Mae West, Veronica Lake—or Karen Black playing an amalgam of all of them in John Schlesinger's movie—look kind of like transsexual Warhol starlets.
It's understandable, with hindsight, that between 1971 and about 1977, cinephiles under thirty—along with all the other disillusioned baby boomers—looked at the world where Nixon's Presidency gave way to Ford, and the Vietnam war had expanded to Laos and Cambodia, a world where peace hadn't been given a chance, and felt that everything was getting worse than it had been in the heyday of their grandparents, before WWII. So you may as well give yourself over to various forms of hedonism and leave behind a beautiful corpse. This lush and fatalistic spirit of the early Seventies is summed up by a line that Liza Minnelli delivers as Sally Bowles in Cabaret:
"I'm going to be a great film star. That is, if booze and sex don't get me first."
The look of Cabaret and Rocky Horror influenced the early look of Punk and Goth subcultures, for women especially: dissolute vamps and flappers in ripped fishnets. By 1973, even Lou Reed habitually wore white pancake makeup and black lipstick around town.
What's striking, though, about Targets is the way in which it connects the highly theatrical horror of old Hollywood with the genuinely shocking new terror of the cinema that followed, after Romero had depicted flesh-eating zombies as a metaphor for the casualties of war. The only sound in Targets is diegetic—music blares out of transistor radios in convertible cars, TV is acoustic wallpaper for daily routine—Bogdanovich uses sound to conflict with the picture, to draw attention to the visuals and to emphasize the action and emotion rather than relying on the film score to do this. This preempted The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974. When Leatherface hits a victim over the head and drags the body out of shot, Tobe Hooper gives us the grizzly reality of how it sounds, as well as how it looks. ("See real serial killers, in person!")
Filmed for $125,000—including Karloff's fee of $25,000—Targets was shot between a small studio on Sunset Boulevard (the walls of Karloff's Beverly Hill Hotel chalet were repainted and became the claustrophobic interior of Bobby Thompson's family home), and on the L.A. freeway, on which filming was illegal then as it is now. The Roger Corman school of film-making said that if you needed to break the law to get the footage, you broke the law. For this reason Targets is also a kind of rare social document of traffic intersections, gas silos and dingy curb-sides of Los Angeles in 1967. "Nothing is so alien, so bleak and unfriendly, as the strip of gas stations—cut-rate gas stations—and motels at the edge of your own city," Philip K. Dick wrote in his novel Time Out of Joint of the nightmare landscape of the Real that was slowly surrounding him in California of the late 1950s. Bobby Thompson's sniper was based on Charles Whitman, the University of Texas shooter, who killed 17 people in August 1966. Bogdanovich filming the interior of Thompson's home, the camera tracking silently across plush carpeting, could be a scene in David Lynch's Twin Peaks: the Return from 2018. Familiar objects and surfaces become an extraterrestrial terrain, a brute reality that exists long after we stop believing in it; a microcosmic planet of terror which doesn't care about us, that isn't designed for our comfort.
Targets bridges midnight movies and cinema of the 1970s is this sense, most of all. Bogdanovich's film is a rare micrographic fragment of evidence, some of it indistinct and muted, of how L.A. looked and felt as the paintwork and chrome flaked off the early Sixties, optimism giving way to a sense of dislocation and despondency. It's a time capsule of the Sunset Strip as it was about to become the grungy hang-out for the "Scene" which gave the world midnight movies a few years before El Topo played at the Elgin in New York: the 'Underground Cinema 12' touring hippie film festival, and the chain of dilapidated movie theatres where it was shown, owned by the most influential and successful film exhibitor and producer you've never heard of… Louis K Sher.