Wednesday, February 27, 2013


In the summer of 1973, William Freidkin's The Exorcist was unleashed to theaters and onto the general public.  The subsequent storm of publicity, controversy, and ticket sales resulted in Oscar nominations and recognition as one of the biggest films of the year.  It didn't hurt that is was also pretty damn scary.  The popularity of the film of course meant one thing:  knockoffs.

They came from around the globe, Turkey (Seytan), Italy (Beyond the Door), Spain (The Possessed), and Mexico (Alucarda), but right here in America we had one of the more infamous Exorcist knockoffs, if only for the resulting lawsuit.  Released in 1974 (on Christmas Day, no less), Abby is a possession film that supposes one thing differently than The Exorcist:  what if it happened to black people instead?  Ostensibly remaking The Exorcist as a blaxploitation film (an early working title for the film was The Blackorcist, I shit you not), Abby is a shameless attempt at cashing in on the success of Friedkin's film.  It's not a very good movie, but I'm going to talk about it anyway.

After a fairly static, expository opening scene (set in a very nice city park) the film flashes to Egypt, where Bishop Garnet Williams (William Marshall) is on an archeologic dig searching for information on the God Eshu.  Uncovering an old dusty idol, Bishop Williams accidentally unleashes the evil spirit of Eshu into the world.  The spirit manifests itself as a wind storm, blowing shit around and knocking people down as it escapes the cave.  Halfway across the world, the Bishop's son, Rev. Emmett Williams (Terry Carter) and his wife Abby (Carol Speed) are moving into their new home.  It's not long before that evil wind blows into the house, resulting in the spirit of Eshu possessing Abby.

Soon after, she is speaking in a lower octave, trying to cut herself with a knife, levitating off the floor, getting the crazy eye, and she even throws a guy through a door before she spits up foamy vomit on him.  Of course, this all plays second fiddle to the major change in Abby:  her sexual appetite.  It seems the evil deity of Eshu is a sex God, manifesting itself in Abby and turning her into a nymphomaniac.  This is a major problem for a preacher's wife.

Witnessing his wife trying to hump anything that moves (while speaking in a voice 3 pitches lower), the Reverend does two things:   inquire about her drug history to her brother, detective Cass Potter (Austin Stoker), and take her to the hospital where doctors run a bunch of tests on her.  She has no history with drugs and medically she's completely normal, but Abby gets all freaky when he takes her home to recover and she kills an elderly caretaker by giving her a heart attack.  After that, Abby escapes, and her husband, her brother, and the just-returned-from-Egypt Bishop Williams have to track her down and try to exorcise the demon.

Abby, being the horny demon she is, heads out to a local club, looking for some action.  First she picks up a guy and takes him out to his car to have sex, which of course gets a bit freaky (smoke starts pouring from the car interior, as (off-screen) the guy screams).  Abby then goes back inside and starts dancing and grooving with a pair of hip, tough-looking studs, but after her husband and brother show up, Abby starts throwing people all over the bar, over tables, and smashing the place up, before the Bishop appears and starts the exorcism process with the help of the Reverend and the detective.

Doning some ceremonial robes and engaging in verbal combat with the demon, the Bishop believes he is not actually dealing with the God Eshu, but rather a wannabe demon.  Whether this is the case or not, the movie sort of leaves ambivalent, but either way, after some levitation and some speaking-in-tongues (not to mention some real cheesy special effects), they eventually drive the demon out of Abby and send it back into the idol that it had originally escaped.

Like I said above, I don't consider this a good movie, even by exploitation standards.  Overall, the acting is okay, everyone seems to take it seriously, despite all the ridiculousness.  The story doesn't quite make sense, like how or why the demon flies from Egypt all the way to America just to possess Abby, or why her husband is such a bonehead.  The special effects are goofy, there's no real shocks or scares (no head-spinning), and the print of the movie is really rough looking, with the colors all washed out and muddy, not to mention the heavy amount of film scratches.

Abby does some wholesale lifting from The Exorcist by setting the opening in Egypt, emphasizing the power of faith, showing the befuddlement of the doctors, using levitation, vomit, and colorful language (she says "fuck" a lot), and by having subliminal flashes of the demon's face, which should be scary, but it unfortunately it looks like this:

What do you expect from a movie made for less than $200,000??  More silly than anything, Abby would still go on to be a minor hit, but it was pulled from theaters as Warner Bros. (owners of The Exorcist) sued (and won), claiming copyright infringement.  The WB took almost all of the profits from the film (close to $4 million) and the producers and writer/director William Girdler never saw a dime of money from the film.  (In this day and age, a lawsuit like that would never fly, or there wouldn't be half of the movies out on the direct-to-video market like there are).

Carol Speed would get the lead role in Abby after the original actress dropped out when her demands of an on-set masseuse were not met.  Speed would write and perform a song in the movie, "Is Your Soul a Witness?"  She also starred in Jack Hill's The Big Bird Cage (1972), The MackSavage! (both 1973), Black Samson (1974), and (one of my favorites) Rudy Ray Moore's Disco Godfather (1979).  If interested, you can read a good interview with her on the making of Abby over on her website HERE.

The same year as Abby, Terry Carter was also in the blaxploitation classic Foxy Brown.  Austin Stoker would also star in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) and John Carpenter's amazing Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), as well as William Girdler's other two blaxploitation pictures: The Zebra Killer (aka The Get-Man, 1974) and Sheba, Baby (1975) with Pam Grier.

William Marshall was very vocal about his unhappiness with the production of Abby, as he was promised script revisions that never occurred.  He did however alter his own dialogue, adding much of the content in regards to the Yoruba religion of West Africa.  Marshall is best known today for two things: his titular role in Blacula (1972) and it's sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) and as the beloved King of Cartoons on television's Pee-wee's Playhouse.

Director William Girdler was an expert exploitation filmmaker, making nine films in seven years, in genres like action, blaxploitation, and horror.  Some have called him the "king of the ripoffs," namely because of Abby and his 1976 film Grizzly, which is essentially "Jaws with claws." Such labels can be rather dismissive of the man and his work, and while the quality of his films may vary at best, his movies always deliver in the areas of excitement and "oh-shit-did-I-just-see-that?".  Even Abby, which is a lesser work for sure, still has a certain watchability just because it's unlike anything else you've seen.

Unless you've seen The Exorcist...

"Damn, Abby.  You crazy."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Foxy Brown

After the success of Coffy in 1973, director/writer Jack Hill hurried into production a follow-up film.  Released just 9 months later, Foxy Brown (1974) isn't a direct sequel to Coffy, but it does once again star Pam Grier as a woman out for revenge against those that have done her wrong.

While Foxy Brown doesn't quite match up with Coffy on some levels, the two films helped establish Pam Grier as an icon of '70s soul chic and would go on to inspire similar female-starring blaxploitation pictures like Sugar Hill (1974), TNT Jackson (1975), and Velvet Smooth (1976), amongst others.

Foxy Brown does outdo its predecessor in a couple areas, namely the opening credits sequence (done with psychedelic '70s colors and Pam Grier doing kung-fu dance moves) and the theme song and musical score by Willie Hutch (The Mack, 1973), which brings the soul-funk and keeps it there so it rattles in your eardrums.  Lots of wah-wah, strings, and flutes.  Fuck, I love flutes.

Foxy has two problems in her life: her brother and her boyfriend.  Her ambitious brother Link (Antonio Fargas) is a no-good, habitual criminal and loser she has to constantly bail out of trouble.  Her boyfriend Michael (Terry Carter) is another kind of trouble.  He and Foxy care about each other very much, but he's an undercover government agent trying to bust a drug syndicate, which puts him in direct danger.  After going through an operation to change his appearance (and name to Dalton), Foxy hides him at her apartment, but unfortunately his path crosses with Link's, who figures out who he is really, and sells him out to the syndicate.  Michael/Dalton is shot down on Foxy's front porch, which commences the need for Foxy's revenge.

She finds that the murder is connected to a "modeling agency" ran by kinky weirdos Steve Elias (Peter Brown) and Miss Katherine (Kathryn Loder), so she decides to pose as a prostitute and infiltrate the agency.  On her first job, she meets another prostitute named Claudia (Juanita Brown) who wants out of the business, and who is more than willing to help Foxy take Miss Katherine down.  After the pair of them embarrass a client (an old judge who has at thing for black chicks) they hide out in a lesbian bar, but the lesbians take a liking to Claudia.  This leads to a barroom lady-brawl which features face slaps, pulled hair, broken bottles, a smashed jukebox, and Foxy throwing chairs around, proclaiming she's got "a black belt in barstool."  It's a cool scene, but it doesn't quite compare to the catfight in Coffy.  (i.e. no tops are ripped off).

After escaping the lesbian bar, Foxy and Claudia are both captured by Katherine's goons, and Claudia is hauled away (we never see or hear about her again).  Foxy is beaten, tortured, and sent to "the ranch," one of their drug labs.  There she is bound to a bed, guarded by two hicks, forced to take heroin, abused, and raped.  She manages to escape and exact her fiery revenge on her tormentors, before fleeing and contacting members of a street gang and enlisting their assistance in finishing the job she started.

It's in this section that we see the biggest differences between Coffy and Foxy Brown.  Coffy was never a victim and she was fiercely independent, never calling on the help of any men to help her.  These qualities helped lay the foundation for Coffy (and Pam Grier) as a symbol and role model of feminine empowerment.  Conversely, Foxy is victimized, abused, and forced to take drugs.  Even though she escapes on her own accord, and she is shown many times as a strong and empowered woman, she does enlist the help of a squad of men to help her finish her task.  The presence of this street gang, while needed somewhat, seriously diminish the power that she holds as a solo vigilante.

Jack Hill regular Sid Haig has a fairly small part in this film (especially compared to Coffy), maybe less than 15 minutes screen time, as a pilot named Hays who works for the drug ring.  After Foxy hooks up with the street gang, she sets her plan in motion by seducing Hays and convincing him to let her join him in Mexico while he makes a drug drop.  She of course steals the plane and uses it to do some serious damage to some thugs, but none of it is as nasty as her ultimate revenge on Elias and Miss Katherine.

Pam Grier once again combines her likability and good looks with a kickass, no-nonsense attitude.  The costume designers went the extra mile in this one, giving Pam some remarkable outfits that really helped define her as a pop culture icon.  She retains her sexiness without ever being as naked as she was in Coffy, but don't worry, there's plenty of skin in the film.

Antonio Fargas is probably best known as Huggy Bear on televison's Starsky and Hutch.  He's also featured in Shaft (1971), Across 110th Street (1972), Cleopatra Jones (1973), and Car Wash (1976).  The same year as Foxy Brown, Terry Carter would also star in the blaxploitation/Exorcist rip-off Abby and the family classic Benji, but he's probably best known for his roles on popular '70s television shows like McCloud (Sgt. Broadhurst) and the original Battlestar Galactica (Col. Tigh).

Kathryn Loder also starred with Pam Grier and Sid Haig in Jack Hill's The Big Doll House (1971).  Juanita Brown was busy in 1974, also starring in Willie Dynamite, Black Starlet, and Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (her only film credits).  Peter Brown would star in the mean and salacious Rape Squad (1974) and was also in Kitten with a Whip (1964), a film featured on the sixth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Foxy Brown is a meaner and nastier film than Coffy, and maybe a little less coherent (the quick production probably has a lot to do with that), but it's still a fun exploitation film that is required viewing for fans of '70s cinema or blaxploitation films.  That ain't no jive.

Saturday, February 23, 2013


In celebration of black excellence during this month of history, let's talk about some blaxploitation films.  You dig?

First up is one of my favorites, a classic of the genre, Coffy, a 1973 revenge film starring genre icon Pam Grier as a vigilante "one-woman hit-squad" out for justice against the pimps and the drug pushers.  As one of the many ingenious taglines phrases it, "No one sleeps when they mess with Coffy!"

The film has a dynamite opening that readily establishes the two major components of the film: action and sex appeal.  Coffy is already on her hunt for vengeance, pretending to be a junkie to seduce this mid-level drug dealer, before grabbing her shotgun and blowing the guy's head clean off.  It's not a Scanners or Dawn of the Dead level of headshot (no fountains of blood), but it is more than effective in setting the tone for the rest of the film, and for Coffy as a no-nonsense, singularly focused vigilante.

Why is Coffy out for revenge?  Well, it seems some drug dealer types got her little sister hooked on heroin, landing her in a rehabilitation home.  Coffy is no stranger to what the drug trade and mobsters are doing to the community, as she has experience treating victims of violence at her day job at a local hospital where she's a nurse.  She tries to confide in a former boyfriend Carter (William Elliot), a straight and by-the-book cop, who is facing his own battles with corruption on the police force, but after Carter is severely beaten in his home by a couple of mob thugs, Coffy's resolve for vengeance is fortified even further.

Coffy finds momentary comfort with her current boyfriend, Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw), a city council member considering running for Congress.  He's a socially conscious politician who seemingly wants the best for the community.  He also seemingly loves Coffy, and she seems to love him.  She is at her most feminine and vulnerable with him, but she doesn't tell him what she's done or what she plans to do.  Which is maybe a good thing, as she plans on infiltrating a prostitute ring in an effort to further her vengeance.  Even the most understanding boyfriend might have trouble with that one.

This prostitute ring is ran by a pimp named King George (Robert DoQui), one of the cities largest providers of illicit flesh and illegal substances, who is working for a mafia boss named Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus).  Coffy decides to pose as a prostitute, first gaining insight into what kind of women King George likes by questioning Priscilla (Carol Locatell), a former patient of hers (and prostitute of theirs).  Coffy slaps the shit out of this lady, threatening her with a broken bottle, showing little remorse as Priscilla has obviously lapsed back into drug abuse.  This scene provides one of the more comedic moments of the film though, as Priscilla's "old man" Harriet shows up and starts smashing chairs and threatening Coffy.

King George takes an instant liking to Coffy (pretending to be a Jamaican named Mystique).  He brings her back to his house, but the other girls don't seem to appreciate the sudden intrusion, especially Meg (Linda Haynes), who seems to be the King's #1 lady.  Later at a party thrown for Vitroni, Meg purposefully knocks some drinks onto Coffy, which of course leads to an all out female brawl.  Like all good catfights, hair is pulled, faces are slapped, and tops are ripped off.  Coffy goes the extra mile, having hid razors in her afro, which slice up Meg's hands when she goes to rip her hair.  King George and Vitroni are both impressed, as they should be.  It's one of the best scenes in the movie.

Left alone with Vitroni (who is a sadistic racist), Coffy attempts to shoot him, but is stopped by Omar (Sid Haig), one of his vicious thugs.  In an effort to pit them against one anther, she lies to Vitroni and says that King George hired her to murder him.  The mob being the understanding guys that they are, they then take King George for a ride before throwing a noose around his neck (!) and dragging him through the streets behind a Cadillac.  It's one of the more viscous and racially charged scenes in the movie.

As time runs out on Coffy, she is captured, locked up, and faced with the truth of how deep corruption runs in her city.  The bad guys count her out, but when she breaks out, all hell breaks loose.

Released in 1973, during the boom in blaxploitation pictures, Coffy was unique, not only for its anti-drug message, but in that it starred a woman as the central hero.  Her vengeance is both personal and societal, she fights for her sister and her community at large.  Neither a criminal (at least prior to her murder spree) nor a victim, Coffy is an independent woman who is smart, strong, and resourceful, all in addition to being drop dead sexy.  Her look is iconic, big afro and alluring curves.  Grier does a good job carrying the movie (she's in almost every scene), even though some of her acting is raw.  She does occasionally display her natural and very likable personality, although not as often as she bares her natural and very likable breasts.  (I'm not complaining, I just have to say it.)

Pam Grier would get her start with a small role in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970.  Director/writer Jack Hill instantly recognized that she would be a star and cast her in slightly larger, but still supporting roles in both The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972), two "women in prison" films.  Hill would write the role of Coffy specifically for Grier, and the movie would go on to be a great financial success (audiences loved it too).  Grier would go on to be one of the top stars of the blaxploitation genre, starring in Hill's follow-up, Foxy Brown in 1974, as well as Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973), Sheba Baby, Bucktown, and Friday Foster (all 1975).  As the genre would dry up after the '70s, Grier would make memorable appearances in Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), Above the Law (1988), Class of 1999 (1990), and Escape from L.A. (1996).  She would make what is considered her best picture in 1997, Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, itself a partial homage to blaxploitation films, as well as being a role that was written specifically for Grier.

Director Jack Hill is one of the best directors of exploitation pictures, displaying economy, excitement, and variety in his storytelling, something that stood out on the exploitation circuit.  He would get his start working for Roger Corman, doing uncredited work on films like The Wasp Woman (1960) and The Terror (1963, parts of which were used for Targets), and shooting US scenes for Mexican movies like House of Evil and The Snake People (both 1971).  His 1964 weird and wonderful horror film Spider Baby would go unreleased until 1968 and wouldn't gain any sort of notoriety until 25 years later.  Hill would gain steady directing jobs starting in 1971, with The Big Doll House, which would be the first of 4 collaborations with Pam Grier, followed by The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, and Foxy Brown.  Hill would also write and direct The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974) and Switchblade Sisters (aka: The Jezebels, 1975), which is another legitimate exploitation classic.  In addition to discovering Grier and Sid Haig, Jack Hill would also discover Ellen Burstyn, future Oscar nominee and winner (The Exorcist [1973], Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore [1974]), casting her in his 1969 racing movie, Pit Stop.

Veteran character actor Sid Haig would get his start in Jack Hill's short student film The Host in 1960.  Haig would be memorable for his bald head and his gruffness, and he would work with Hill on 7 more pictures, 4 of those with Pam Grier.  He would also star in George Lucas' THX 1138 (1971), Black Mama, White Mama (1973, also with Grier), Galaxy of Terror (1981), along with a plethora of television shows from the 70s/80s.  He's probably most famous now for his role as Captain Spaulding in Robert Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil's Rejects (2005), in which he is far and away the best thing in both movies.

The pimp costumes that Robert DoQui wears are so flamboyantly awesome that they should go into the pimp hall of fame.  DoQui would go on to star in Robert Altman's ensemble drama Nashville (1975), as well as all three Robocop movies as Sgt. Warren Reed.  Alan Arbus is probably best known as the shrink that would visit the cast of the hit TV show M*A*S*H, and William Elliot would fight giant killer rabbits in Night of the Lepus (1972).  Linda Haynes would play William Devane's poor wife in Rolling Thunder (1977) and Carol Locatell (credited as Lawson) would go on to play mean, old Ethel in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985).

The soundtrack (by Roy Ayers) has the requisite funk and vibe of the genre, but in general it fails to reach the iconic heights of Across 110th Street (Bobby Womack), Shaft (Issac Hayes), or Super Fly (Curtis Mayfield).  Cinematographer Paul Lohmann (whose energetic and efficient work on Coffy is only hampered by the poor lighting) would go on to work with Robert Altman on California Split (1974) and Nashville, as well as with Mel Brooks on Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977), and shoot the atmospheric Charles Bronson western The White Buffalo (1977), and the scathing Joan Crawford biopic Mommy Dearest (1981).  Set decorator Charles B. Pierce would go on to his own career in exploitation pictures, helming, The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), The Evictors (1979), and Boggy Creek II: The Legend Continues (1985; a movie so bad, it was featured on the final season of Mystery Science Theater 3000).

Coffy is a great low budget exploitation picture, fulfilling on its promise of action and sex, and a must see for fans of '70s cinema.  You got to give it up for "the Godmother of them all!"

Also:  I believe Coffy contains a scene with a car squealing its tires on dirt, but honestly it's a fairly murky and dark scene, so it's hard to tell definitively whether it's a dirt road or not, but I'm going to call it:

CONTAINS:  Squealing Tires on Dirt

Friday, February 8, 2013

Two-Minute Warning

The Super Bowl was last week and I decided to follow that up with this football themed thriller about a sniper at the big game, which fits in nicely after last week's review of Targets (1968), also about a sniper (non-football related).  Sometimes things just work out like that.

Two-Minute Warning (1976) is part of the "disaster movie" trend that was all the rage in the 1970s, starting with the success of Airport in 1970, and followed (with varying success) by The Poseidon Adventure and Skyjacked in 1972, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno (1974), The Hindenberg (1975), Black Sunday (1977, also football themed), Avalanche and The Swarm (1978), City on Fire (1979), and many, many others.  Films of this genre can generally be identified by containing two things:  some sort of impending (or ongoing) disaster (natural, accidental, or pandemic) and a huge cast of big name stars and character actors.

Two-Minute Warning scores on both accounts.

The drama centers around an unseen sniper who has gotten himself into the professional football championship game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and after being spotted by the TV cameras (and Goodyear Blimp), the authorities try to figure out how to get to him and not cause a panic.

It should be noted that the game is never called "The Super Bowl," the NFL is never mentioned, and even though the teams are Baltimore and Los Angeles, there is no mention of them being the Colts or the Rams (back when those teams played in those cities, kids).  The game footage in the film is a college game, a 1975 Pac-8 match between Stanford and USC (who won, 13-10), and commentators include Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Dick Enberg.  National Anthem sung by Merv Griffin.

The giant cast is led by Charlton Heston as the hero, hardass police captain and John Cassavetes as the no-nonsense, hardass SWAT leader, who is introduced doing SWAT guy things, like busting into a guy's house in some sort of domestic situation.  Both guys are very square and typical, not very developed as characters, and neither actor goes outside of their range.  Heston was already a veteran of these type of movies, having already starred in SkyjackedAirport 1975, and Earthquake.

Also starring and featured are stadium manger Martin Balsam (Psycho, 1960) and maintenance director Brock Peters (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962), as well as attendees of the game:  troubled couple David Janssen and Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes real life wife), family man Beau Bridges, Jack Klugman (TV's The Odd Couple) who is in deep to the mob and has a lot riding on the game, friendly priest Mitchell Ryan (bad guy from Lethal Weapon), and my favorite character, an elderly pickpocket, played by the great Walter Pidgeon (Forbidden Planet (1956) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961); this would be his second to last screen performance).

Also, former professional quarterback Joe Kapp has a small role as, get this, a veteran quarterback.

The movie opens (after a somber opening credits sequence) with the sniper doing a test run, shooting a hapless bike rider outside of his hotel room.  It's good that things start on a sudden bit of violence (and bloodshed), as there wouldn't be any more shooting until the end of the picture.

Spoiler alert: the title "Two-Minute Warning" refers to the last two minutes of a football game, and it also happens to be when all the action in the movie starts. Until then, it's a lot of waiting.

The movie spends a lot of time setting things up, showing everyone's arrival to the stadium, giving all the characters their own little moments, some of which are better than others.  Beau Bridges is a dad at the game with the family, but when one of his little kids tells a pennant/hat vendor that his daddy "lost his job and doesn't have any money," Bridges hauls off and slaps the kid.  Then, he buys everybody hats.  Guess that makes it okay?  This is never brought back around, and they make Bridges' character out to be more important than he is (he is the first to spot the sniper), even though he doesn't really do anything.

My favorite characters (other than the elderly pickpocket) are the troubled couple of Janssen and Rowlands.  They're in from Baltimore to see the game, and it becomes apparent that they aren't married, even though it seems they've been together for awhile.  He's kind of a jerk, and she keeps pressing him to show her some sort of feelings.  You can tell he likes her, but he's still dismissive, for some reason or another.

This is a slow burn kind of movie, with a basic plot, that really gives the characters a lot of breathing room.  It doesn't exactly fill the movie with tension; you know some of these people are going to get shot, you're just placing your bets until the shooting starts.  When the sniper finally does, and the violent stampede of people starts and the cops are moving in, then things begin to get interesting and exciting.  Until then, it's slow going.

The filmmaking doesn't really contain any flourishes or stylistic flashes, except for maybe how the identity of the sniper isn't shown until the end, as he's shown through POV shots (like a slasher film) early in the film, before settling on a series of scenes that never clearly reveal his face, but show his actions, like loading the gun, climbing ladders, or eating candy bars (another similarity to Targets).  There is some gratuitous use of split-focus diopter in a couple scenes that comes off more ugly and alarming than clever or well composed (no one needs to be that close to Joe Kapp's face).  The musical score is too obvious, kind of dull headed, and there is this stupid refrain that is repeated whenever we cut back to the sniper.  Got on my nerves.

1976's Two-Minute Warning is one of the less financially successful disaster films, coming out at a time when the genre's power was waning.  Due to the film's level of violence and the uncomfortable fact that the sniper's motivations go unexplained, NBC negotiated a deal with Universal Studios to shoot additional scenes for the television version, which premiered in 1978.  The new scenes were about 40 minutes in length, adding in an art museum theft which the sniper is providing a distraction for, and Charlton Heston was brought in to shoot some additional scenes.  About 45 minutes of the film was removed, including a lot of the violent bloodshed of the final act.  Director Larry Peerce of course disowned this version of the film, having his name taken off of it.  This TV version of the film has never been released to home video of any kind.

Final thought:  Two-Minute Warning takes the basic premise of Targets and dumbs it down into a disaster film, beefing it up with a big name cast.  I wouldn't call it essential viewing, but it can be fun if you're looking for a good rainy afternoon watch.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Peter Bogdanovich's debut feature, Targets, by most opinions, is not the most popular or influential horror film released in 1968 (that would be Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead, respectively), but in some ways it should be held in just as high regard, as Targets is a well crafted thriller with social relevance (to its era, but also to current times), that also manages to honor the history of Hollywood while also predicting and predating trends to come.

Targets starts the way so many old horror films do, opening on a dark and stormy night outside of an old gothic castle, before revealing itself to be a film within a film, as the lights go up and we're in a smoky screening room with the director, producers, and the aging, tired star of the film, Byron Orlock (played by Boris Karloff).  Orlock announces suddenly that he is retiring from the business, which of course doesn't go over well, the producer of the film yelling "if it weren't for me, the only place you'd be playing is the wax museum!"  The director, Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich), is dispatched to try and convince Orlock to do otherwise.  This happens in Orlock's hotel room over many drinks, in which Orlock talks about being a relic of a bygone era of Hollywood, how his brand of terror doesn't have a place in the modern world, pointing to a newspaper article about a youth that killed six people at a supermarket, adding "no one's afraid of a painted monster anymore."  Sammy desperately wants Orlock to do his next picture, his self interest readily apparent, but after much understanding (and drinking), eventually they come to an agreement; Orlock will do one final scheduled public appearance, the next night at a drive-in theater.

Orlock's story is interweaved with the parallel and seemingly unrelated story of an all-American young man named Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) who is slowly coming unhinged.  After purchasing a rifle and putting it in the trunk of his car with his many other purchased guns, Bobby drives home to his loving parents and his adoring girlfriend.  Their domesticity rings of normalcy; they have dinner and watch TV together, they engage in idle conversations, and Bobby and his father even go target shooting together, his father a gun enthusiast.  The next morning, Bobby methodically and unemotionally shoots his girlfriend and mother, as well as a grocery delivery boy who has bad timing.  Bobby heads out to purchase more ammunition before driving out to the freeway and stopping at a power plant, where he climbs a tower and begins indiscriminately, but accurately, shooting at traffic, wounding and killing several drivers and passengers.  Fleeing the scene, Bobby holes up in a drive-in theater, planning on continuing his rampage as night falls.  It is here that these two stories intersect, the tale of our aging horror star and an example of the true life terror that he feels replaced by.

Peter Bogdanovich gained notoriety in the early '60s as a film critic and as a programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, showcasing films by Hollywood legends Howard Hawks and John Ford, before becoming interested in making movies himself.  He would get a job as an assistant to director/producer Roger Corman on the 1966 biker movie The Wild Angels (starring Peter Fonda, Dianne Ladd, Bruce Dern, and Nancy Sinatra) and impressed Corman so much that he was called to direct a new picture. The job, of course, came with some conditions.  Boris Karloff owed Corman two days worth of work, so he had to star in the film.  Additionally, Corman had some footage from a (then) unreleased 1963 film called The Terror starring Karloff (as well as a young Jack Nicholson and veritable character actor Dick Miller) that had to be used.  (The Terror is notable for containing early, uncredited direction work by Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and even Nicholson).

Bogdanovich and his writing partner (and future ex-wife) Polly Platt were at first baffled by how to incorporate the already existing footage into a new movie, before frustration led them to concocting the idea of using it as a movie within a movie.  The rest of the story was inspired by a 1965 sniper attack on Highway 101 in California, as well as the more famous case of Charles Whittman, who in 1966 killed his wife and mother before climbing a bell tower on the University of Texas campus and opening fire on people randomly.  He would kill 16 and wound 30.

Unsure about the screenplay he had, Bogdanovich took it to a mentor of his, legendary filmmaker Samuel Fuller, who took the script and in one session, basically rewrote the entire thing, establishing the structure and pace of the film.  Bogdanovich wanted to give Fuller credit for the rewrite, but he refused, instead giving the young director some advice:  "save your money for the ending."

The almost 20 minute ending to Targets is an excellent example of the economy of storytelling and the power of editing, as well as being oddly pertinent to modern tragedies.  Bobby the sniper hides out in a drive-in theater, and when darkness falls, he makes his way behind the movie screen and climbs some scaffolding, cutting a small hole in the screen, intent on opening fire on the unsuspecting crowd.  Bogdanovich makes sure to show what's happening at the gate, inside the projection booth, at the concession stand, in the office, and the arrival of our main cast.  The tension is only cut when Bobby starts shooting, done with a series of smash-zoom cuts, providing maximum impact along with the shock of sudden violence.

Tim O'Kelly does a good job in the film, he portrays Bobby as completely normal (he likes Baby Ruth candy bars) but with a quiet coldness, displaying a false closeness to his loved ones, which builds the anticipatory tension.    When asked by the guy at the gun store what he's gonna be hunting, he replies, "gonna shoot some pigs," both a direct quote from Charles Whittman as well as an indication of Bobby's unemotional detachment.  O'Kelly is more than effective, but the movie belongs to Boris Karloff.

Karloff plays Orlock (who is a thinly veiled version of himself) as a reflective and thoughtful man, one at the twilight of his career, wanting to leave on terms of his own design, even if it means pushing those that care for him away.  Karloff doesn't hide his age, his troubled health (you can clearly see the braces on his legs), using a cane to get around during the movie.  In a scene where Karloff and Sammy are making plans for their drive-in appearance with this hippie-doofus radio disc jockey, Karloff decides against the standard and boring pre-prepared audience questions, opting to tell a short scary story, The Appointment in Samarra, which showcases Karloff's prowess with such material.  Karloff is of course famous for portraying Frankenstein, The Mummy, Mr. Wong, and the narrator in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but Targets is among the best of his most overlooked works, along with The Old Dark House (1932), The Body Snatcher (1945), and Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963).

There is no musical score in the film, using instead the diegetic sounds of the car stereo, the freeway sounds, the noise of the television, and the sounds of the drive-in to fill the soundtrack.  This gives the scenes an immediate realism, no distractions.

The cinematography is quick, flowing, documentary-like during the scenes with Bobby, as well as the drive-in finale.  The scenes with Karloff are a little stiffer, but that is due to his health and the short shooting schedule they had.  This is an early credit for cinematographer László Kovács, who would breakout with the following year's Easy Rider, and would work with Bogdanovich another 5 times, most notably on 1973's gorgeous Paper Moon.  Kovács would also go on to do Five Easy Pieces (1970), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Freebie and the Bean (1974), Shampoo (1975), Ghostbusters (1984), and Say Anything... (1989).

Bogdanovich does a fine job acting in the film, much more lively and not nearly as deadpan as his work would be on HBO's The Sopranos, but after Targets he wouldn't act again for another 10 years.  His follow-up to Targets would be the biggest success of his career, The Last Picture Show (1971).  That would be  followed by some successes, such as What's Up Doc? (1972) with Barbara Streisand and the excellent Paper Moon (1973) with Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, before a series of flops and failures, led off by Daisy Miller in 1974 and Nickelodeon in 1976.  He would also direct Mask (1985) with a big faced Eric Stoltz and Cher, as well as The Thing Called Love in 1993 (one of River Phoenix's last performances), before descending into a long stint of TV movies.  He also has developed quite a penchant for neckerchiefs.

The film would end up being sold to and released by Paramount Pictures, and would receive positive reviews.  Unfortunately the film would suffer from poor timing, as 1968 would see the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr (April) and Robert Kennedy (June).  Opening in August, the film would do little business, as the public wasn't interested in a film about a sniper.  Watching Targets today one can't help but think of the beltway snipers case that took place on the East Coast in 2002 or, more recently, the theater shooting last year in Aurora, Colorado.  Targets doesn't glorify its killer (it doesn't even spell out his motivations), but it does show people helping each other to stay out of harms way, as well as one individual who heroical (and cathartically) stands up to the monster.

In the finale at the drive-in, Karloff is given his most triumphant moment in his confrontation with Bobby, putting himself in harms way, before using his cane and a few well placed slaps to bring him down.  "Is that what I was afraid of?," asks Karloff in the end, staring at this shaken, disturbed young man.  Even with this victory, Karloff (and the monsters of old he represents) would step aside (for the most part) and make way for real life monsters like Bobby (masked stalkers, crazed killers, knife-wielding maniacs, madmen who work not in gothic castles, but in suburban neighborhoods and metropolitan areas) who would become commonplace, dominating the cinema for years to come.

Recommended Viewing.

*note:  contains squealing tires, not on dirt.