After Karloff's death in 1969, there were a handful of his movies that had yet to trickle into theaters and did so over the next two years. They are undistinguished work, to which the great thespian gave every last bit of energy that his failing body could muster. For those connoisseurs of his work, there is but one movie that serves as a fitting epitaph - Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 masterpiece Targets. To watch it is to witness a paradigm shift in Horror, as the Gothic accoutrements of castles, mad scientists and supernatural creatures yield to the psychological horrors of a new chromium age. Death now comes at the tip of a jacketed bullet, and those who are its victims may never know why -- or at whose hand they perished. Horror has become random, and we are all now a little less safe.
Karloff's role as fading horror star Byron Orlok makes Targets a film a clef, a part that cleaves so close to the truth as to be bittersweet, if not downright sorrowful. His is a time that has passed, as filmgoers only want to see nubile young women chased by knife-wielding maniacs (as true as that may have been in 1968, it sounds about ten years ahead of its time). To illustrate the power yet to be had in old-fashioned horror, Orlok contemplates telling the crowd that will assemble for a drive-in theater promotion (a site later to be marked by carnage) the tale from W. Somerset Maugham, "Appointment in Samarra." Director Bogdanovich is wise enough to do it in one shot with a slow pull-in, and Karloff delivers the tale in one take.
But...it's the story of where this little epigram came from that provides an added layer of wistfulness. It's taken from one of the final scenes in Maugham's last work for the theater, Sheppey. Written in 1932 (and dedicated to actor Sir John Gielgud), the play tells the story of a simple Cockney barber (nicknamed Sheppey for his birthplace) who has the great good fortune to win the Irish Sweepstakes. While everyone who knows Sheppey imagines how they will also benefit from his newly-won wealth, Sheppey has different plans...and proceeds to give the money away to those he feels could best benefit from his generosity - even should the recipients be thieves and prostitutes. Having been richly blessed, he decides to do the work of Christ on earth, and, like the Parable of the Sower, some of his seed lands on stony ground. At the end of life, Sheppey is visited by Death, and says with a rueful smile that Death would not have been able to find him had Sheppey returned to the isle of his birth. In reply, Death relates the story of...An Appointment in Samarra.
The play was performed in London in 1933 with Ralph Richardson in the cast, and Karloff would surely have been aware of the monologue's context. A man may do great works upon the earth, as the beneficent Karloff did, but in the end...
Readers of the Jar are familiar with my earlier posting about Phreaky Philm Phridays, a two-year tradition of teens gathering together to watch classic horror and science fiction films. On our last night together we watched Targets, and in the beat before Karloff begins the monologue, I said to the group of 30+ assembled, "This is why this man was great."
When he finished, the teens replied with one word; "Wow."
Who among us could ask for a better epitaph than that?