Historian of Horror: The Last Karloff Picture Show


Word came yesterday as I write this that film director and occasional actor Peter Bogdanovich had passed away at the age of eighty-two. You might ask what that has to do with the horror genre since he mostly made comedies, musicals, and dramas. A fair question, given that his origins in the industry might be obscure to the average film fan, but true cineastes will know that Bogdanovich got his start as a film critic for Esquire Magazine before a chance meeting with Roger Corman in a movie theater in 1966. Corman had been directing a series of classic Edgar Allen Poe adaptations for American-International Pictures, most of them starring Vincent Price. He hired Bogdanovich, first as an assistant, then to direct a couple of low-budget pictures for him, one of which has gone down in horror movie history as a true classic.

The other one, well, has not. The less said about The Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women the better. 

Targets, on the other hand, was the last great film performance by legendary cinematic boogeyman Boris Karloff. He virtually plays himself as an old horror movie star named Byron Orlock. Orlock is on the eve of retiring because the horrors of the real world have eclipsed the relatively harmless frissons generated by the kinds of movies he had made for decades. He reluctantly agrees to make a personal appearance at a drive-in theater showing his final film, which is never named but is, in reality, his 1963 picture, The Terror, co-starring a very young Jack Nicholson. Bogdanovich plays the director, who sympathizes with Orlock’s dilemma but can’t help but resent his decision.

Meanwhile, unstable Vietnam Veteran Bobby Thompson has just bought a brand-new rifle. The script by Bogdanovich and Samuel Fuller was inspired by the rampage by Charles Whitman, who murdered his wife and mother in 1966 before killing fourteen random strangers and wounding thirty-one others at the University of Texas in Austin. In the film, Bobby shoots his wife and mother, then climbs on top of an oil storage tank and fires at random motorists on the highway below.

By the time of the film premiere that evening, Bobby has relocated to the theater. After killing the projectionist, he starts shooting into the cars below him from behind the screen. Orlock confronts him while his own image is projected above. Bobby freaks out and tries to kill Orlock’s character on the screen. Orlock whacks him over the head with his cane, rendering the mass-murderer dazed long enough for the police to arrive and arrest him. As Bobby is dragged away, he brags that at least he never missed.

Karloff made a few more truly awful pictures in Mexico, and a couple of memorable television appearances, but Targets was his last hurrah as a film star. It was released on August 15, 1968. Karloff died less than six months later, on February 2, 1969.

Bogdanovich went on to make the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1971, The Last Picture Show, and Paper Moon, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. And roughly thirty other feature films, shorts, documentaries and television episodes. He also wrote books and articles on film history. He only returned to the horror genre twice more, playing the Old Man in a 2016 film version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and in 2018 making a cameo as himself in Reborn. Maybe he felt that the one contribution he made at the beginning of his career was so good that he didn’t have anything more to say about creating cinematic terrors. And maybe he was right. 

My lagniappe for this time out is an addition to my post of a while back about The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was only after disseminating that essay that I discovered that the novel had been adapted to the Sherlock Holmes syndicated newspaper comic strip in 1955. Written by Edith Meisner and drawn by comics legend Frank Giacoia, the storyline ran from August 15 to October 27. I’m not aware that it’s been reprinted in any form that is currently available, but if it ever is, I shall alert the populace.

Next time out, we’ll be taking a look at that most horrific of the plays of William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus. Until then, my stalwarts of the supernatural…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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