by RICHARD WINTERS
In 1967, producer Roger Corman gave fledgling director Peter Bogdanovich the green light to make any movie he wanted as long as he followed two stipulations. The first one was that he had to use footage from Corman’s earlier film The Terror and the second one was that he had to use the services of Boris Karloff as Karloff still owed Corman two days work per his contract. This movie is the result of that agreement, which kind of works and kind of doesn’t. It ends up coming off as two movies rolled into one.
The first story deals with a young, clean-cut man who starts to have homicidal urges. The second story involves an aging actor played by Karloff, who decides he wants to retire despite the appeals of his agent and film studio. He plans to attend a showing of one of his films (The Terror) at a local drive-in where the sniper is waiting to shoot him.
I enjoyed the scenes involving the sniper a lot better and felt it helped elevate this film from the typical exploitation fare. The character is based very closely on Charles Whitman, an all-American ex-marine who on August 1, 1966, climbed to the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin and shot 32 people, killing 14. It was one of the very first mass-shootings in American history and it caused worldwide headlines.
Tim O’Kelly, the actor who plays the gunman, looks almost exactly like Whitman. What I liked about this part of the film is the way it follows the character around and shows his interactions with his family. Like in real life there were no indicators, or violent past. It is creepy watching him say grace at the dinner table, or having wholesome conversations with his wife when you know what’s going to happen. The film goes into almost meticulous detail with the build-up, but I still found it to be gripping despite the fact that there is very little action and no music.
The scenes of the shootings are uniquely done. Like in the actual incident, he shoots his mother and wife first and then puts a towel over their blood stains while carrying their dead bodies back to their bedrooms so it would look more ‘tidy’ when the police came. This is all done with a docudrama approach, which heightens the impact and realism.
The scenes involving the sniper shooting at people while they drive in their cars along a busy freeway are excellent as well. It was done on an actual freeway and the viewer watches the action from the killer’s perspective through the telescope of his rifle, which is chilling. The cars veering off the road and people getting shot all look very real and it is impressive. The only fault here is that Bogdanovich had the killer climb up on top of an ordinary tank at a oil refinery to do the shootings. The clock tower in the actual incident was a very distinctive building and it would have been stronger visually had they found another, more unusual structure here as well.
The scenes involving Karloff are rather weak and tend to be cluttered with a lot of uninteresting dialogue. Bogdanovich casts himself as the screenwriter for Karloff’s next proposed project. I always thought it was a bit weird for a director, especially one that at the time was young and unknown, to cast and direct himself in his own movie. I know Woody Allen and Spike Lee, as well as others have done this, but it always seemed a bit narcissistic to me. However, I must also mention that I saw Bogdanovich in person just a few months ago and he hasn’t seemed to have aged a day.
The climactic sequence in the drive-in is poorly handled. The dark lighting makes it hard to follow the action. The final confrontation between Karloff and the killer is dull and unimaginative. The only good point about this scene is that it gives you a chance to see both Randy Quaid and Mike Farrell in their film debuts playing two of the sniper’s victims.
The film ends with a bird’s-eye view of the drive-in’s empty parking lot taken the next day with the sniper’s car being the only one there. It was taken during the early morning hours so the sunlight gives it a surreal look. It also has a moody feel because there is no music and only the sound of blowing wind as the credits scrawl over, which normally I would like. However, the police would certainly have impounded his car and gone through it for clues and certainly would not have let the car just sit there, which ends up muting this otherwise inspired shot.
It is hard to know what category to put this film into. At times it seems like a horror movie, and then at other points it’s a drama. Some may even argue that it is a sentimental tale of an aging actor moving into the final years of his life. Personally I wished it had gone all out as a horror film because all the ingredients were there, except the tension was not consistent enough. Under the conditions that he was given I think Bogdanovich did a pretty good job. If you are a fan of Bogdanovich then you will want to check this out because it is different from any of his later works.