Stripped to Kill (1987)

In a career defined by inconsistences and exploitation of passing fads, the one constant to Roger Corman’s instincts as a producer is that the knows how to make money. He even proudly marketed his own autobiography on that conceit, titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. That’s why it’s so bizarre to hear Katt Shea recall in a recent interview with Blumhouse’s Shock Waves podcast how difficult it was to pitch her wildly successful debut feature to Roger Corman in the mid-1980s. If you boil Stripped to Kill down to its bare essentials, the film is basically just 15 (!!!) strip club routines, a few scenes of horrifically gruesome violence, and an extremely offensive twist ending that has aged about as well as a fart in a jar. It’s possible that Corman’s queasiness with the film’s #problematic conclusion was a smart instinct, and he should not have caved to Shea’s repeated, insistent pitches on the film. I doubt being politically correct ranks as highly in the producer’s mind as making enough money to fund his next picture, though, as evidenced by the existence of Stripped to Kill 2 and Katt Shea’s continued employment under his wing. Shea had a distinct, neon-soaked vision for a movie so sleazy it made Roger Corman afraid of making money; even if Stripped to Kill is so morally offensive that it should not exist, you still have to admire that accomplishment.

Two Los Angeles detectives stumble into an investigation of a serial killer who targets local strippers. Both detectives want to use this opportunity for a promotion to the homicide division, but only the woman of the pair has to strip for it. Undercover among strippers while her male coworkers cheer her on from the audience (to boost the appearance of her popularity), our heroine finds herself torn between staying focused on the investigation and losing herself to the unexpected pleasures of sexual exhibitionism. Her initial prime suspect for the stripper murders is far too obvious of a misdirect, meaning the real murderer is hiding in plain sight among the main characters. There isn’t much time for the audience to pick up on clues ourselves, though, as the film is (under$tandably) much more concerned with packing in as much sex & violence as it can manage in it brisk 88min runtime. There are brief glimpses of backstage stripper drama in the film that recall the backroom politics of sex work in flicks like Working Girls & Support the Girls, but they’re inevitably interrupted by flashier, more attention-grabbing indulgences: misogynist hyperviolence, leather fetish strip routines, explosions, etc. Even the opening credits of the film are accompanied by a full-length strip routine set to sub-Lou Reed beat poetry, just to squeeze in a little more bare flesh without wasting any time. It’s remarkably easy to lose track of the undercover cop’s hunt for a crazed killer among all this hedonism (a thread the cop loses herself as she comes to enjoy her new trade), which almost makes the unnecessary transphobic twist ending even more offensive, since the film makes very few narrative strides to justify it.

To be fair, Stripped to Kill is offensive long before the arrival of its killer reveal. The way it gawks at women both performing onstage and privately engaged in lesbian foreplay, then turns around to gawk at those same bodies being mutilated by a misogynist killer leans into the ickiest trappings of the sex thriller genre. The violence on display in this film is upsettingly brutal; women are strangled, tossed off bridges, raped, set aflame, and dragged behind giant commercial trucks. It has a shockingly gruesome mean streak for something that’s ostensibly meant to be sexually titillating (given the space it allows for more than a dozen strip routines, which often punctuate its kill scenes). There is something transgressively perverse about watching a young woman recreate this misogynist violence herself, especially in the case of Katt Shea believing in this project so passionately that she effectively bullied Roger Corman into greenlighting it. In its best moments, Stripped to Kill recalls the same 80s LA grime Jackie Kong exaggerated to a cartoonish degree in her cult classic horror comedy Blood Diner. Played straight here, the misogynist violence & sexual exploitation on display feel like a detailed time capsule of the era’s sleaziest sleaze – decorated perfectly with big hairsprayed mops of curls, high-wasted black lace lingerie, and intense washes of neon lighting. As shameless as they are, the sex & crime that defines most of Stripped to Kill are perfectly in tune with the hardboiled LA detectives & drug-addled street punks that populate its sleazy, greasy world. It’s just that sometimes that sleaze results in a badass moment (like women kicking an offending john to pulp in a back-alley act of vigilante stripper justice) and sometimes it results in poorly-aged cringe (the ill-considered twist).

It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether Stripped to Kill’s merits outweigh its faults. As its never-ending pileup of strip routines & grotesque murder scenes continually muscled out any room for genuine, legitimate drama, I found myself impressed by its wholehearted commitment to sleaze. Your own appreciation of that commitment will depend on your personal taste for unembarrassed, hyper-sexualized, politically careless trash. Thankfully, Roger Corman himself was won over by the film’s box office receipts despite his early reservations with Katt Shea’s pitch, and the young director was able to churn out a few better-respected titles under Corman brand – notably Poison Ivy, Dance of the Damned, and Streets. I’m looking forward to seeing how her keen sense of sleaze evolved in those pictures, but also a little weary of her instincts after the conclusion of this one.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #80 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Best of Matt Farley & Not of this Earth (1988)

Welcome to Episode #80 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eightieth episode, Brandon & Britnee review the holy trinity of Matt Farley’s backyard movies under the Motern Media brand: Local Legends (2013), Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012), and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2009).  Also, Britnee makes Brandon watch Traci Lords’s mainstream debut, the 1988 Jim Wynorski remake of Roger Corman’s Not of this Earth. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

The Horrors of Music Television in Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)

One of the more bizarre aspects of the initial slasher genre boom of the 70s & 80s is that it’s oddly just as prudish as the “road to ruin” exploitation pictures of the 1950s. In the 50s pictures, teens who dared to experiment with sex & drugs, especially girls, would swiftly be met with a violently tragic end as punishment. This formula allowed audiences to both indulge in the sexy, transgressive behavior of rebellious teens and wag a morally righteous finger in their direction once they get their inevitable comeuppance. Although packed with far more nudity & bloodshed, the slasher genre was generally just as condemning of teenage rebellion as the “road to ruin” pictures before it. Its teen characters were chopped down by humanoid monsters like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees instead of dying at the hands of syphilis or car crashes, but slashers were just as obsessed with punishing wayward youngsters for straying into the temptations of marijuana & premarital sex. The original entry in the Roger Corman-produced Slumber Party Massacre slasher series both participated in and satirized this time honored tradition. Written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown, 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre is a straightforward slasher film that still punishes teens for their hedonistic behavior, but delivers its kills by way of an oversized, phallic drill that points to the absurd gender politics of its genre. What’s much more interesting than that subtle subversion in the mechanism of punishment, however, is the way its sequel, 1987’s Slumber Party Massacre II, updated the source of its teenage moral transgressions to something more blatantly modern.

Marijuana & premarital sex had been triggering teen deaths in exploitation pictures dating all the way back to the 1950s, long before slashers added machetes & kitchen knives to the recipe. Slumber Party Massacre II modernized the formula by introducing an entirely new source of teenage transgression, one highly specific to the 1980s: music television. In the five years between the first two Slumber Party Massacre releases, MTV had proven to be a kind of cultural behemoth instead of a flash-in-the-pan novelty. Suddenly, the already sinful business of rock n’ roll had a direct line to youngsters’ television sets, where it could tempt them into darkness with all of the sex, drugs, and partying their little eyes could take in. MTV had come to visually represent the teen rebelliousness that ruined so many fictional lives in exploitation cinema past and the Corman-funded, Deborah Brock-directed team behind Slumber Party Massacre II were smart to adapt that visual language to the slasher genre format. It’s still a film where teen girls are murdered for straying from their parents’ protection to experiment with sex & alcohol. The difference is that the mechanism used to punish them is not a scary man in a mask wielding a comically oversized kitchen utensil. Instead, the victims in Slumber Party Massacre II are hunted by a personified representation of MTV culture. In its own absurdist way, the film literalizes parents’ fears about rock n’ roll invading their homes to destroy their children’s lives. Better yet, it does so with a cartoonish slapstick energy usually reserved for a Looney Tunes short that keeps the mood consistently light instead of browbeating the audience for indulging in its sex & fantasy violence.

The youngest survivor of the titular slaying in the first Slumber Party Massacre, Courtney, is now high school age, living alone with an overly stressed mother who shares her anxieties over her traumatic past. Instead of spending her birthday weekend visiting her sister (who also survived the massacre) in the hospital, Courtney convinces her mother to allow her to go on an unsupervised road trip with her small group of close friends. All four girls in this crew are members of a jangly, Go-Gos reminiscent garage band and plan to spend the weekend away practicing new songs. They, of course, also plan to drink excessively & sleep with hot boys. In the days leading up to this getaway, Courtney has recurring nightmares featuring a demon in a leather jacket, billed simply as The Driller Killer, who warns her not to have sex on the trip or else. Of course, being a teenager, Courtney inevitably ignores this warning and deliberately sheds her virginity with her biggest crush. The exact second Courtney has sex for the first time, the transgression gives birth to the rock n’ roll demon, who escapes from her nightmares and hunts down every one of her friends & bandmates with a giant, guitar-shaped drill. The physical manifestation of MTV culture, The Driller Killer is dressed like Andrew Dice Clay, except with a vampire collar on his biker jacket. Before drilling each teen dead with his unignorably phallic guitar, he suggestively delivers rock n’ roll one-liners like “I can’t get no satisfaction,” & “C’mon baby, light my fire.” He also had a rock n’ roller’s sense of open-ended sexuality, applying his drill to victims of all genders instead of reserving it just for the girls, like in the first film. The only way this sex demon could’ve been more MTV is if his name was Downtown Julie Brown.

Not all of Slumber Party Massacre‘s MTV horrors rest on The Driller Killer’s leather clad shoulders. Besides its two music video tangents highlighting Courtney’s garage band, the film generally adapts music video language to its visual style. Drastic comic book angles, fog machines, and intensely colored lights shape a lot of the aesthetic of its nightmare sequences & third act slayings. The film’s sets, which include empty condo developments & construction sites, also recall early MTV-rotated rock videos that were cheaply, rapidly produced to feed the young channel’s bottomless need for content. The teen girls in the film are highly aware of this then-modern medium too. Minor scream queen Heidi Kozak, who plays the band’s drummer, exclaims in a pivotal scene, “Someday we’re going to be in movies and rock videos and everything, because my song is going to be a hit,” and, more directly, “MTV, here we come!” This declaration is promptly followed by the girls stripping down to their underwear (or less) and erupting into a dance party/pillow fight that could easily pass for a mid-80s hair metal video if it weren’t for all the nudity. The sequence is often viewed from the television’s POV, as if the music emanating from it was directly influencing their drunken behavior, enticing them to commit sins that will immediately get them killed. The broadcasted film soundtrack they’re dancing to is also none other than the Corman-produced classic Rock n’ Roll High School, which had its own significant impact on music video culture before MTV ever existed.

Slumber Party Massacre II can sometimes be a nihilistically violent exploitation piece in the way that all slashers are, but mostly it just mirrors the light-headed inanity of pop music as a medium. Song lyrics like, “I wanna be your Tokyo convertible,” and scenes like the dance party/pillow fight keep the tone goofy & charmingly absurd. Even the film’s rock n’ roll demon, although a murderous creep, never feels like the kind of nightmarish threat that usually terrorizes wayward teens in this genre. The film not only modernizes the slasher formula by shaking off its 1950s cobwebs and updating its teen transgressions with a borrowed MTV flavor; it also makes its violent downfall seem just as fun & enticing as the sins that trigger it. Given the choice to either live a chaste life or die by the hands of MTV, it’s likely a lot of mid-80s teens would’ve eagerly chosen death, which feels like a different sentiment entirely from the third act downfalls of the “road to ruin” era of exploitation cinema. It’s funny that it had to return to the demonized image of a 1950s rock n’ roller to free itself from that era’s moralist trappings.

-Brandon Ledet

Scorsese’s Search for His Own Bonnie & Clyde

Arthur Penn’s 1967 free-wheeling crime thriller Bonnie & Clyde is often cited as the start of the so-called New Hollywood movement that reached its creative & cultural heights in the 1970s. An upstart director making heroes out of amoral, cop-killing bank robbers struck a chord with the youth culture of the day, especially in its gleeful depictions of shameless lust & ultraviolence. Other young directors were inspired to make their own antihero hagiographies in its wake, now with financial backing from major Hollywood studios – names like Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme, and so on. Opera-composer-turned-filmmaker Leonard Kastle was far less inspired by the film, particularly in the ways it failed to fully subvert Hollywood glitz & glamor. With his first (and only) film The Honeymoon Killers, Kastle set out to right the wrongs of Bonnie & Clyde, explaining “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Kastle wanted grime in his true crime cinema, something much closer in aesthetic to early John Waters provocations like Multiple Maniacs than anything mainstream Hollywood would dare to produce. To help accomplish this goal, Kastle employed a fresh-out-of-film-school Martin Scorsese to direct his picture, a true life drama about the theft/murder spree of Raymond & Martha Beck, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers of the 1940s. Scorsese previously made a huge critical splash with his vibrant, energetic, and above all grimy debut feature Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, a film that made him appear perfect for Kastle’s pet anti-Bonnie & Clyde project. The partnership was short-lived, however, with Scorsese only surviving a couple weeks of production before being replaced in the director’s chair by Kastle himself (and several other uncredited collaborators). That didn’t stop Young Marty (to refer to him by his SoundCloud rapper name) from directing his own answer to Bonnie & Clyde, however. Instead, he paid his dues as a New Hollywood brat by taking his Bonnie & Clyde-aping ambitions to a much more traditional collaborator for his contemporaries: Roger Corman.

Many New Hollywood players got their start working for Corman, from Peter Bogdanovich working on bullshit projects like Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women to Peter Fonda testing out early revisions of Easy Rider in Corman productions The Wild Angels & The Trip. Although they were both working under AIP, Kastle was much less valuable as a career-starter than Corman, as he approached The Honeymoon Killers as a singular-obsession passion project, while it was typical for Corman to juggle a dozen productions at once. It’s probably best for Scorsese’s overall career, then, that he was fired from Kastle’s picture to instead pursue his own Bonnie & Clyde romantic thriller under Corman’s wing, but the circumstances of that change-up are a little baffling. Kastle reportedly booted Scorsese from The Honeymoon Killers for taking too much time to set up, shoot, and break down individual scenes, delaying production to great cost. It’s unclear whether Scorsese had taken to heart the lesson of needing to prioritize speed over artistic fussiness by the time he worked with Corman on his next feature or if the increased budget of that production allowed for more careful preparation on a day’s shoot. Given Corman’s own notoriety for cheap, rapid-fire filmmaking, it’s most likely that Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable career lesson in the firing, one that would become much less useful by the time he was allowed the financial freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted in sprawling epics like GoodFellas, Silence, and Gangs of New York. Scorsese was capable of delivering his auteurist vision on an AIP schedule & budget, as evidenced by pictures like Who’s That Knocking? & Mean Streets, but his heart wasn’t really in it. That’s not only indicated by his firing from The Honeymoon Killers, but also by the quality of the Bonnie & Clyde knockoff he eventually completed for Corman instead: Boxcar Bertha. There’s a slickness & attention to detail in Scorsese’s best works that could not shine through under AIP’s prohibitive budgets & shooting schedules, even when he was shooting his pet-favorite subject of cool-looking antihero criminals behaving badly.

1972’s Boxcar Betha splits the difference between Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers, leaving itself a middle-of-the-road mediocrity in the process. Given the grimy, ultraviolent aesthetic he carved out in early pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver, you’d assume Scorsese’s own take on the Bonnie & Clyde template would be in line with Kastle’s, but those instincts did not translate to the screen in this instance. Barbara Hersey & David Carradine star as train-hopping armed robbers in the 1930s South, never quite matching the spiritual ugliness of the Lonely Hearts Killers nor the Hollywood glamor of Bonnie & Clyde. Boxcar Bertha is listed as a “romantic crime drama” on Wikipedia (a descriptor that fits all three of these works well enough), but it mostly functions as a road trip movie, detailing a loosely connected string of anecdotes as its romantically linked antiheroes drink, rob, shoot, gamble, and prostitute their way across the 1930s railways. This ramshackle lifestyle earns them much unwanted attention (and gunfire) from the law, ultimately to predictable tragedy. It’s a rote tale of Depression Era Southern pastiche, one with far fewer distinguishing details than either The Honeymoon Killers or Bonnie & Clyde, which is surprising given that its source material is entirely fictional. While both Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers were based on true stories heavily reported on in the papers, Boxcar Bertha was an adaptation of a fictional novel from the 1930s, Sister of the Road. That didn’t stop Corman from including a “based on a real story” title card at the start of the picture, solidifying its function as a Bonnie & Clyde mockbuster. In most ways, Boxcar Bertha feels far more akin to Roger Corman’s typical output than Scorsese’s, which isn’t all that surprising considering how green the director was at the time. The film was a stepping stone to New Hollywood infamy for Scorsese, one that faithfully took the shape of New Hollywood’s own stepping stone to mass audience success.

Like most directors’ early collaborations with Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha’s greatest asset to Scorsese was an opportunity for hands-on experience. The most he puts himself into the work (not counting the literal instance of his cameo as one of Bertha’s johns) is in the excruciatingly Catholic imagery of a character being crucified with railway spikes for their crimes. The rest of the film is a straight Corman mockbuster of Penn’s seminal film, the exact opposite of what Kastle set out to achieve in The Honeymoon Killers. I suppose Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable lesson himself in booting him from that anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, but it’s very tempting to wonder what The Honeymoon Killers might have been like if Scorsese had remained onboard throughout. Maybe Scorsese’s Honeymoon Killers would have been just as great as the film Kastle delivered on his own. Maybe the lethargic shooting schedule would have tanked the picture entirely and there never would have been a Honeymoon Killers in the first place. Either way, the result certainly would have been more interesting than the far less blasphemous Bonnie & Clyde echoes of Boxcar Bertha, easily the dullest Scorsese pic I’ve seen to date.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Dementia 13 (1963)

Before the New Hollywood movement busted up the established dinosaurs of the Studio System, one of the best ways for young outsiders to break into filmmaking was through the Roger Corman Film School. Because the maniacally frugal producer would hand off cheap, quick film shoots to anyone he suspected might be competent enough to handle the task, many young filmmakers who would later define the New Hollywood era cut their teeth with on-the-job training making films for Roger Corman & AIP: Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fonda, Hopper, Demme, etc. There was a kind of freedom to this pedal-to-the-floor cheapo genre film production cycle, but many projects Corman handed to his de facto “students” were . . . less than ideal, considering their art cinema sensibilities. That’s how the world was gifted weird mishmash projects like Peter Bogdanovich getting his start directing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women by smashing together scenes of over-dubbed Soviet sci-fi films with new footage of beachside bikini babes. Another future New Hollywood upstart, Frances Ford Coppola, got his foot in the door recutting & dubbing those same Russian sci-fi films alongside Bogdanovich in the editing room. Coppola also got his own start directing “mainstream” narrative features (as opposed to his earlier nudie cutie work) through a hodgepodge project Corman handed to him in a rush. Hastily slapped together on the back of $20,000 of budgetary leftovers from another AIP production, Coppola’s Dementia 13 is one of those Corman projects like Blood Bath or The Terror that are left almost entirely incomprehensible by their corner-cutting, behind the scenes shenanigans. The film afforded Coppola the opportunity to experiment with his sense of craft on the job, though, as he strived to make a more serious, artful picture than what’s usually expected from Croman fare. The results were mixed, but worthwhile.

Urged by AIP to deliver a quick, cheap riff on Psycho, Coppola filters a Hitchcockian mad-killer plot through a Gothic haunted house template. Packed with axe-murders, underwater doll parts, badly dubbed performances, and gradual descents into madness, the film often feels like a cheap black & white take on giallo surreality. Like giallo, it values imagery over narrative coherence, requiring a Wikipedia read-through of its basic plot after the end credits roll. It opens with a Psycho/Carnival of Souls-style setup of a lone woman in flight from her past crises. In this case, she’s a money-hungry schemer who pretends that her late husband is still alive so she can ingratiate herself to his mother for inheritance money. She moves in with the “not” dead husband’s family in their Gothic manor, which is lousy with hidden passageways and dark family secrets. The family is unhealthily obsessed with the drowning of their youngest daughter years in the past, a weakness the woman hopes to exploit to con them out of their money. What happens from there is up for interpretation, as the past drowning death and a series of current axe murders open the film up to hazily-defined mysteries befitting of the world’s most incomprehensible gialli. Although the producer afforded Coppola total freedom to write & direct the film he wanted, Corman was frustrated with its incomprehensible plot, which he decided to punch up with a series of changes that dampened its art film appeal: Irish accents dubbed over with unenthused American ones; Jack Hill-directed inserts of comic relief; a runtime-padding intro that administered a mental stability test to the audience in a William Castle-style gimmick. Corman didn’t clarify the plot of Coppola’s film so much as he compromised its overall artistic vision. If there’s any consolation, it’s that it’s clear the film would have would have been a total mess either way.

What an interesting mess, though! Although not as fun as similarly incomprehensible horror cheapies like Blood Bath or A Night to Dismember, Dementia 13 at the very least provides a stage for a young Coppola to test out his visual experiments to varying success, without any real stakes for them having to pay off (it wouldn’t be the first or last time someone wasted AIP money). As it opened on a double bill with the excellent sci-fi horror The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, possibly Corman’s best directorial effort outside The Masque of the Red Death, it’s clear that the student had yet to become the master. Like many other future New Hollywood film nerds, though, Coppola was better for the Roger Corman Film School having afforded him an opportunity to gain mainstream experience behind the camera, even if the immediate results weren’t as compelling as a Targets or even a Death Race 2000.

-Brandon Ledet

Swamp Women (1956)

I’ve come to think of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as my childhood “bad” movie training wheels. It’s a crutch I no longer need to enjoy my Z-grade schlock, thanks to years of training under the tutelage of the show. As much as I appreciate that schlocky schooling, it often bums me out that the show has become an unavoidable authority on many of the public domain B-pictures they’ve covered, to the point where if you google the picture most immediate results will be jokes the sarcastic robots made about it. The early Roger Corman directorial effort Swamp Women (also known as Cruel Swamp and, on MST3k, Swamp Diamonds) is one such picture, which is unfortunate because I find the movie interesting enough on its own terms to not need the distraction of MST3k’s commentary diluting it. It’s a difficult position to defend, though, since Swamp Women hits so many of my personal obsessions as a trash-gobbling movie nerd. A cheapo Roger Corman crime picture about cop-hating “bad girls” misbehaving in Louisiana swamps, Swamp Women hits about as close to home as possible to my specific cinematic interests without including drag, witchcraft, pro wrestling, or outer space. The film is far from a knockout, but it is very much my thing. It’s easy to see how someone who’s not a New Orleans-based trash hound could need a little extra help from MST3k to make its basic premise enticing, but those days are long behind me.

An undercover police woman conspires with a prison warden to infiltrate a locked-up girl gang. The plan is to trick the girls into exposing their stash of stolen diamonds. She helps the hardened criminals stage a jail break (with only performative resistance from the warden) and, in return, they allow her to tag along in recovering the diamonds from their deep swamp hiding pace. Along the way they capture an innocent couple touring the Louisiana wilderness, reducing the cast to five women and one tied-up man – an indication of the level of sleaze that persists throughout. Swamp Women is incredibly faithful to its “bad girls” crime template, entirely obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a genre that would be later perfected in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. What it lacks in narrative innovation, though, it more than makes up for in how perfectly cool its central girl gang comes across onscreen. When they first break out of jail they have two immediate concerns: regret that they didn’t get a chance to shoot back at the cops and how soon they’ll be able to find “something decent to wear and some lipstick.” They look incredible even as they pick fights & trudge through the gator-infested swamp, sporting perfectly coiffed hair, razor sharp Joan Crawford eyebrows, and gigantic knives holstered in tight blue jeans. There’s nothing the film can manage to stage plot-wise that can match the pleasure of hanging out with these badass women, something that’s practically admitted aloud in an absurdly long sequence where they get drunk to brunch jazz and convert their tight jeans to cutoff hot pants with their comically large knives. Corman only barely pretends that out interests & sympathies aren’t supposed to lie with these degenerate women, but with the undercover cop who’s there to take them down. Why bother?

Because Swamp Women is so genre-faithful, its most distinguishing characteristic is its choice of locale, something even heavily referenced in its (unenthused) contemporary reviews. This was only Corman’s fifth directorial effort (in his second year of filmmaking, because he’s a beast), so he was still at a stage in his career when he was personally traveling the country selling his films directly to distributors. Around this time, New Orleans had just opened its first drive-in movie theaters, the owners of which were also interested in getting into film production. Corman gladly took their money, filming Swamp Women on location in Louisiana (and thanking New Orleans mayor deLesseps Morrison in the credits for the city’s cooperation). Because it was a Corman production, the actors were required to perform their own stunts in the actual Louisiana swamp, putting themselves in danger of the same gators & snakes the movie itself uses as thrilling threats to its misbehaving girl gag. I’m sure it was a miserable shoot, but the gator footage & moss-decorated trees really do make for a more interesting backdrop than a sound stage or urban environment ever could have (even if the live gators and their intended victims never do share a single frame). In my favorite example of the film padding its own runtime, Corman also opens this 70min feature with roughly ten minutes of touristy, people-watching Mardi Gras footage. Playing documentarian, Corman captures the 1950s Krewe of Rex rolling down Canal Street (in color!), followed by masked revelers—all looking exactly the same as they would in the 2010s (except with maybe fewer outright racist costumes, which are featured front & center here). Even if the movie’s bad-girls-gone-worse plot holds little interest for you, the footage of 1950s Louisiana might be enough to make the film worthwhile.

With or without the MST3k commentary, I cannot issue an open recommendation for Swamp Women, an exceedingly minor trifle of a picture. I can only report that I was personally charmed by its depictions of cop-hating “bad girls” on a swampy crime spree and fascinated by its inadvertently documentarian record of a 1950s Louisiana. Maybe this is the exact kind of minor pleasure that deserves to be remembered only through the MST3k lens, but I personally found enough to enjoy in the film on its own to not need the sarcastic robots to hold my hand through it. Other schlock-hungry reprobates with any personal affinity with Corman and/or New Orleans have a chance of feeling the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Blood Bath (1966)

As a producer, Roger Corman’s tireless mission to miraculously make money out of scraps of garbage is legendary. He’d often reuse sequences from previous productions, purchase foreign films for American re-edits, rip off his own intellectual properties for self-cannibalized premises, and all other kinds of scrappy cinematic recycling imaginable just to sell a cheap genre picture for a tidy profit. I can’t argue that the 1966 Corman production Blood Bath is the pinnacle result of this kind of absurd, behind the scenes pragmatism gone mad, but it does deserve credit for gathering all of Corman’s penny-pinching schemes into a single project. Corman initially co-produced the Yugoslavian noir picture Operation: Titan with plans to reissue it as an American release. He then hired notable schlockmeister Jack Hill to direct new scenes to recontextualize the film for an American audience, which Hill did by transforming it into an oddly self-serious rip-off of the classic Corman comedy Bucket of Blood, a campy satire of beatniks & artist types. Unsatisfied with Hill’s treatment, titled Portrait in Terror, Corman then hired a third director, The Velvet Vampire’s Stephanie Rothman, who added an entirely new A-plot about a shapeshifting vampire to the mix. You’d think this cocktail of genres & premises would lead to an incoherent mess, which might partially be true, but the final version of Blood Bath Stephanie Rothman delivered is charming in the way that it’s blissfully insane. Corman threw every one of his tactics on how to cheaply scrap together a picture at the screen in a single go and the result is just as fascinating & amusing as it is creatively compromised.

The similarities between Blood Bath & Bucket of Blood’s basic plots are undeniable. A community of comically pretentious visual artists are disturbed when models form their community are reported dead or missing, then appear in the work of a colleague. Hill’s contribution to the film seems largely to be the Bucket of Blood-style humor of this arts scene drama, especially when the artists experiment with new processes for applying paint to canvas, such as shooting it out of a gun or directly applying it via a model’s face. According to Hill, Rothman “ruined” the picture with her vampirirc contribution, which shifts the work into a much more serious, psychedelic tone. If anything, she made it interesting & distinct, steering it away from a straight Bucket of Blood retread. Instead of the awkward bus boy Dick Miller plays in Bucket of Blood, Rothman crafts a villain that goes through Jekyll & Hyde transformations from passionate artist to centuries-old vampire with insatiable appetite. She maintains some of Hill’s humor, even including sequences that are essentially beach blanket parties with bikini babes. This humor is made to clash with a more serious, surreal tone, however, as her vampire/painter struggles with a classic Madonna-whore complex. He is romantically drawn to beautiful women, but transforms into a bloodthirsty monster whenever they make a pass at him, a dynamic that gives the movie a thematic point of view on top of a ridiculously fractured premise. I’m in love with the insane collage that emerges in the final draft of Blood Bath and that credit goes just as much to Rothman’s eye as it does to Corman’s machinations as a producer.

You’ll find very few films that can deliver this much movie in such a short amount of time. At just 60 minutes in length, Blood Bath is filled to the brim with seemingly incongruous, but oddly beautiful sequences: an underwater vampire kill, a rip-off of the carousel sequence from Strangers on a Train, surrealist scenes of women taunting the camera/killer from inside paintings & dreamlike desertscapes, interpretive dance, noir foot chases worthy of The Third Man, etc. Rothman & Corman’s mismatched film collage has no business even being watchable, much less as oddly fun & engaging as it feels as a “final” product (Corman later added several minutes of bikini-clad dancing to fill out more time for a TV-broadcast of the film). Jack Hill deserves some credit for lightening up the mood of the noir sequences with his own layer of beatnik-satirizing Bucket of Blood retreads, but it’s really Rothman’s surrealist eye & Corman’s insane production instincts that make Blood Bath so mesmerizing. Obviously, not all audiences are going to have a stomach for this kind of production-level incoherence, but I urge anyone interested in Corman’s weirdo decision making as a business man to give this picture an honest chance. Besides its easy-to-digest runtime and immediate appeal as an eccentric horror film, Blood Bath is also currently in the public to main and available to watch on Archive.org, so you really have no excuses to give this damned-from-conception Frankenfilm a chance.

-Brandon Ledet

Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 (2016)

“How many movies did Roger Corman make that never got released? One.”

When the last failed attempt to competently adapt the Fantastic 4 comic book series for the big screen hit theaters in 2015, I foolishly decided to give all past attempts a chance and watched all four craptastic Fantastic 4 features that have been produced since the 1990s. The only film of the batch that was at all enjoyable happened to also be the only one that never saw an official release. The notoriously campy, 1994 Roger Corman-produced Fantastic 4 film is rumored to have been made solely so that co-producer Bernd Eichinger could retain the film rights to the intellectual property he later leveraged for a much larger paycheck with the 20th Century Fox Fantastic 4 production in 2005. Although Corman’s goofy $1 million Fantastic 4 production was shot, edited, and printed into a final, marketable product ready to be shipped to movie theaters across the world, it never saw an official commercial release. The details of these backroom shenanigans have always been a little murky, as the Corman film was intended to be dumped quietly into the void by folks behind the scenes, which is a total shame given that it’s a much more enjoyable work than the major studio Fantastic 4 travesties that have been released in its wake. Now, the documentary Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 has arrived to promote the very existence of this lost VHS gem and to shed some light on the mysterious forces that sabotaged its would-be theatrical release.

As an informational experience, Doomed! doesn’t accomplish anything that couldn’t be achieved through a longform “oral history” article on a well-funded film blog. It’s more of a Wikipedia-in-motion style of post mortem on a superhero film that never officially saw the light of day than it is a Tickled-style exposé on the dark forces that greenlit the production just to sabotage its release. The interview pull quotes that appear as onscreen text and act as chapter breaks between talking heads awkwardly call into question why this even had to be a movie at all, instead of a series of print interviews & YouTube clips. It’d be foolish to expect anything more than that from a crowd funded documentary about a film only available on VHS bootlegs & less-than-legal YouTube uploads, but keeping those limitations in mind definitely helps soften any major criticism that could be lobbed at Doomed!. Stories about how the movie was fast-tracked into production, passed on by Lloyd Kaufman, filmed at a studio warehouse condemned by the fire marshal, and advertised in theaters with a legitimate trailer despite the apparent conspiracy to never release it all make for interesting anecdotes, but do little to distinguish the documentary as its own work of art. What makes Doomed! worthwhile instead is the pathos it manages to mine from the cast & crew who worked on the film, people who sank immeasurable time, passion, and money into an effort that was conspired to become a meaningless waste by design behind their backs.

In the early 90s most superhero media was considered to be kids’ stuff, with most Marvel films in particular, including early attempts to bring Spider-Man & Captain America to life, not really providing much hope that the landscape would change into the comic book-dominated nerd future we live in today. The success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film changed that perception, however. Although folks working on the 1994 Fantastic 4 might have had reasons to be concerned about the limitations of working within Roger Corman’s direct-to-VHS era, with his quick-paced production schedule & indie-level scale of budget, they also had enough encouragement from the cultural zeitgeist at large that the film might be a huge financial success. A project hundreds of Hollywood nobodies sank all of their hope into as their big break into major A-list success, one that had explicit verbal assurance that it would reach a wide theatrical distribution and a trailer that screened before other major action films, never saw the light of day until it was bootlegged & ridiculed years down the line. The first sign the cast & crew had that the powers that be behind 1994’s Fantastic 4 might not have had total faith in their work was when Marvel legend Stan Lee publicly trashed the film at that year’s Comic-Con before production even wrapped. Everything from that point on is hurt feelings & dashed dreams. Doomed! is most essential as a document when it captures that sense if betrayal from those most hurt by the film’s cancellation. Like with a lot of movies sets, the crew had developed a tight-knit, familial sense of camaraderie during production and it’s a little sad to see them all look back bitterly on sinking together with a ship that was doomed before it even left the port.

If you want to see a great document of the cheap, wild production style of Roger Corman filmmaking, I recommend checking out Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel instead. If you want to see a great documentary about a passion project that becomes unruly during production and is sabotaged out of existence by sinister film industry types, check out Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau instead. Already-established fans of the Roger Corman Fantastic 4 movie (like myself) are likely to seek out Doomed! for its cool tidbits about how The Thing’s animatronic facial expressions were achieved or how, exactly, copies of the film were ever leaked out. Then again, those fans were likely to be the exact people who funded this documentary on Indigogo in the first place. If you’re already on the hook for Fantastic 4, this film works well enough in tandem with that would-be cult classic as supplementary material. Doomed! aims to achieve more than that, nakedly calling out for an official, decades-late commercial release for Fantastic 4 as a kind of victory for the folks who were wronged in the conspiracy of its initial non-release. Only time will tell if it’s successful in that respect. In the meantime, folks who aren’t already onboard with 1994’s “lost” Fantastic 4 can only look to Doomed! for a small, quietly sad story about a group of hopeful up-and-comers having their dreams built up and immediately crushed by a shared project that’s just beyond their control. Even if just for that one aspect, though, it’s still worth a recommendation.

-Brandon Ledet

When Corman Taught Bogdanovich How to Mine the Past

Peter Bogdanovich built his best works on the sturdy shoulders of nostalgia. Titles like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and (March’s Movie of the MonthWhat’s Up, Doc? all gaze backwards to cinema’s cobwebbed past for their tragic, romantic, and comedic thrills. To be able to earn the opportunity to go on that major studio hot streak, though, Bogdanovich had to pay his dues under the wing of a producer who jump-started the careers of many New Hollywood hotshots, living legend Roger Corman. Corman found Bogdanovich while he was a young film critic & historian and eased him into filmmaking as a craft through the editing room before affording him the opportunity to direct his first two features in dirt cheap productions that eventually became Targets & Journey to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. While films like What’s Up, Doc? find Bogdanovich working unrestrained in his nostalgic love letters to the past, Targets asks what happens when he’s pressured into making a violent, exploitative thriller in a contemporary context. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women asks even more of the director, having him cobble together a barely coherent picture out of premade Soviet sci-fi films. The resulting discomfort Bogdanovich shows for his material in both cases might be antithetical to the spirit of his usual M.O., but they do bring an interesting contempt for and disinterest in modern culture to the surface, a seething, disgusted anger that in part informs his usual choice to live & work in the past.

“To whom it may concern: It is now 11:40 A.M. My wife is still asleep, but when she wakes up I am going to kill her. Then I am going to kill my mother. I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.”

One of the most immediately interesting things about Targets is the boundaries Roger Corman put on the project from the outset. Bogdanovich was instructed that he could make any movie he wanted as long as he cast horror legend Boris Karloff, who owed Corman two days’ work, and used footage from the (utterly incomprehensible) Corman production The Terror. Knowing the way Corman used to plan & promote his films at the time, I assume Bogdanovich was also expected to include some kind of exploitative element, of either the sex or violence variety, to get some coveted butts in seats. The fact that Targets is even half as great as it is, despite these parameters, points to a tremendous talent on Bogdanovich’s end. Corman was no stranger to cannibalizing scraps of his own work to squeeze a quick picture out of little more than thin air (which is largely why The Terror exists in the first place), but the results were rarely, if ever, as good as the minor miracle a young Bogdanovich pulls off here. Karloff was so impressed with the film’s script that he put in an extra three days’ work unpaid to see it to completion (which would sadly be his last appearance in a widely-distributed Hollywood film). Instead of distributing the film independently through AIP, Corman pushed to have Targets picked up by a major studio player for a wide release, a decision that paid off wonderfully. Bogdanovich turned the crumbs of films he seemingly didn’t even like into an enduring work that’s still discussed favorably decades later. And he did it with an open contempt for a culture he seemed to see as spiritually bankrupt.

Targets is essentially two films running simultaneously, but separately, until they violently clash in the third act. One film is the recognizable Peter Bogdanovich work that drowns in its own rose-tinted nostalgia for the past. The director himself plays a young filmmaker begging Boris Karloff’s aging horror actor to make one last film before retirement. Within this meta context, the two old-timers (one in his 70s and the other in his 20s) spout nostalgic platitudes about why cinema is dead and how modern culture has gone to shit. You can hear background characters exclaiming things like, “Antonioni is a genius.” Bogdanovich himself complains, “All the good movies have been made,” and goes out of his way to point out 1931’s The Criminal Code as it plays on TV, declaring, “Howard Hawks made this! He really knows how to tell a story,” a precursor to his full length love letter to Hawks in What’s Up, Doc?, I suppose. Karloff, who appeared as an actor in The Criminal Code, echoes these sentiments, lamenting that his style of old school horror is now treated as high camp and that Vincent Price had more or less replaced him in the public consciousness (which would become especially true once Price also started starring in meta works like Madhouse Theatre of Blood). The second, competing film that runs in tandem with this Back In The Day gab fest is a cold-hearted gun control thriller about a Vietnam veteran who snaps and calmly murders his family (once leaving the note transcribed above) before moving on to murder large numbers of complete strangers, seemingly just because he can. It’s a dialogue-light subplot that deliberately recalls then-recent national tragedies like the University of Texas sniper & the assassination of JFK, while addressing both gun control laws & the mental toll of war on the nation’s youth. While the Karloff/Bogdanovich half recalls a culture that supposedly used to be robust and nostalgia-worthy, the titular half of Targets (excuse the expression) takes aim at exactly why modern culture is such a sickly, inferior alternative.

“The motion picture you are about to see can be called today a fantasy of the future, but one day, maybe not too far distant, audiences will be able to look back on it in the same spirit in which we view pictures about the first covered wagons crossing the plains.”

Before Bogdanovich could move onto the big studio successes that followed Targets, Corman squeezed one more rapid fire production out of the director. With an even cheaper production budget and even more ludicrous restraints & conditions, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is likely the most passionless effort Bogdanovich has ever put in as a filmmaker. It’s a quick, dirty job, far from the spirited political skewering of modernity in Targets, that only helps to define the then-budding auteur as someone completely disinterested in genre films & camp. When Corman first hired Bogdanovich, he employed the young critic in the editing room for Soviet sci-fi pictures he purchased for distribution in American drive-ins. Bogdanovich & then-nobody Francis Ford Coppola would re-edit the Soviet schlock to remove any obvious anti-American sentiment from its Space Race imagery and retell their central stories through drastic editing & dialogue-dubbing. It’s through this process that Corman asked Bogdanovich to direct his second feature. The young filmmaker was tasked with combining footage from two Soviet pictures, Planet Bur & Nebo Zovyat, into a single narrative and then adding new footage of attractive women to the formula, since AIP refused to distribute it otherwise. The result is a tamer version of Nude on the Moon by way of the incomprehensible production The Terror, a compromised mess so dispassionate Bogdanovich wouldn’t even accept credit for the work, billing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women as being “directed by Derek Thomas.

Here’s Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women‘s plot synopsis according to IMDb: “Astronauts landing on Venus encounter dangerous creatures and almost meet some sexy Venusian women who like to sun-bathe in hip-hugging skin-tight pants and seashell brassieres.” The reason the astronauts almost meet the Venusian beauties, of course, is that the women’s scenes were filmed & inserted after-the-fact. There was no danger of them ever coming in contact with the astronauts in a shared space. Like Targets, this work feels like two entirely separate films running their course simultaneously, except in this case they’re afforded no opportunity to collide for any thematic significance. In the futuristic space exploration timeline, the 1998 space travellers fight a wide range of alien terrain monsters (with some legitimately cool special effects work backing them up), which eventually include a pterodactyl. This flying dino is the talisman meant to connect the film’s two disparate storylines, as the sunbathing Venusian babes worshipped the now-dead pterodactyl as a god. They declare the invading Earth men to be “demons” and vow their revenge for that rude-at-best faux pas of god-killing, but they obviously never follow through on that impulse. Lead by Marilyn Monroe knockoff Mimie Van Doren, the women mostly just lounge on a seaside beach in their clam shell bras & cheap blonde wigs, patiently waiting for the film to end & looking cute doing it. Corman initially didn’t want to pay for sound mixing in the picture, so Bogdanovich had the women communicate through body language & facial expression, a choice that reportedly turned the film into incomprehensible garbage. To help make a clear storyline at all intelligible, the director later added voiceover “telepathy” to their communication dynamic as well as an overall narration track (recorded by Bogdanovich himself) that often plays simultaneously with the film’s dialogue. Overall, it’s a half-hearted mess of a picture Bogdanovich barely imprinted any of his own personality on (outside his voice and love for young, busty blondes), but obviously took a lot away from in terms of how to build a story in the editing room and how to assemble entirely new pictures out of the scraps of already-produced media.

Bogdanovich is not at all subtle about his distaste for modernity and his nostalgia for The Good Old Days in Targets. Nor does he attempt to hide his disinterest in sci-fi schlock in Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. When passionately singing the praises of Bringing Up Baby in What’s Up, Doc?, he lovingly conjures images & comedic tones of the past with such a soft hand it could nearly go unnoticed that his Barbara Streisand comedy is practically a beat for beat remake of the Katherine Hepburn classic. With Targets, he’s much less tactful. He announces himselfon camera, that Howard Hawks was a great filmmaker and then proceeds to deliver a slice of self-loathing exploitation cinema where a young, handsome, square-jawed killer snipes unsuspecting movie-goers at a drive-in theater. Shots of the killer’s guns & ammo are directly juxtaposed with images of whirring film strips in the projection booth. And if his feelings on the subject weren’t already clear, he directs a literal specter from the Old World, Karloff, to stop the killer by physically slapping some sense into him, thus saving the day. Targets finds Bogdanovich young & angry, ready at a second’s notice to throw a punch at a culture he felt he was decreasing at value at an exponential rate. It’s fascinating to see someone who usually works with a much softer hand lashing out within the confines of a genre he likely has no personal interest in: the ultra-violent thriller. Instead of making the violence of his film tantalizing or entertaining, he delivers what must have been uncomfortable trip to the drive-in, considering the location & the cold brutality of Targets‘s bloody climax.

It’s amazing that Targets is even watchable, taking into account the limitations of its production, but the film was so good that it launched Bogdanovich’s career, making works like What’s Up, Doc? financially possible. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is much less successful in its triumphs over production restraints and finds Bogdanovich in the rare position of uncaring workman filmmaker. Besides the obvious novelty of the director of What’s Up, Doc? having ever made a violent thriller or a sexed-up sci-fi adventure pic in the first place, both films are interesting in the way they likely informed how Bogdanovich would continue to mine past, already-established works for a new, recycled purpose. The Roger Corman film school process was infamously a sink or swim, learn by doing affair and it’s fascinating to watch Bogdanovich learn how to put his obsession with the past on film through the lens of two especially-cheap Corman productions before he even knew how to tread water.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this look at how it found inspiration in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and last week’s discussion of why it’s the spiritual inverse of Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968).

-Brandon Ledet

Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968) as the Inverse of What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

There’s a fun section in Jason Zinoman’s narrative history of the creation of modern horror Shock Value that discusses the creation of Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets. After working for years as the film programmer for MoMA and doing some AD/second unit work, Bogdanovich met notorious producer/director Roger Corman at a premiere, and Corman offered the younger man the opportunity to direct a movie, with a few caveats. First, the film had to star Boris Karloff. Second, Bogdanovich had to include a fair amount of footage from another film project, The Terror, which also starred Karloff; further, Bogdanovich would only have Karloff for two more days of shooting, which he owed Corman for contractual reasons. Finally, Bogdanovich would only have ten more days to film the rest of the movie. When he scoffed, Corman  supposedly said “I’ve shot whole pictures in two days!” If you’ve ever seen a Corman movie, you know that’s probably not hyperbole, and is in fact equal parts boast and threat.

Bogdanovich then drafted a script that Karloff enjoyed so much that he committed a full five days to the film that would, ultimately, be his swan song. Karloff stars as Byron Orloff, a kind of elder statesman of the silver screen and a thinly veiled version of himself. Orloff is a former horror icon who suddenly decides to retire after a screening of his latest flick, much to the chagrin of young director Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich), who has finally written something that he feels is actually worthy of Orloff’s stature and ability. Orloff’s classy and witty assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh, think Janine from Ghostbusters but warmer and more stylish) is also unenthusiastic about this decision, given her genuine affection for both her boss and for Sammy. Worse still, Orloff completely dismisses the idea that he attend a premiere of the new film, despite already committing to the event. Meanwhile, Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) is across the street buying a rifle, which he adds to a veritable armory that he’s building in the trunk of his sporty convertible.

Bobby returns to the home that he and his wife share with his parents, and he tells them about seeing Orloff, but his joy about this is short lived. We see that baby-faced Bobby is a veteran, and he tries but ultimately fails to find the words to tell his wife that there’s something wrong inside of him that he can’t voice. As the Thompsons chuckle at Laugh-In and they bathe in the light and radiation of the television set, a drunken Orloff likewise watches his own TV, which is playing one of his (really Karloff’s) earliest films, The Criminal Code. He also entertains an equally inebriated Sammy when the latter appears at his doorstep; the two watch the film together and praise Howard Hawks. Sammy has come to convince the actor to read his script; Orloff, however, calls himself an anachronism. His horror is of the past, he says, and the reinterpretation of his work as “high camp” wounds him. He picks up a newspaper and shows Sammy the headline, about a shooting of six people by a “youth” with a rifle: this is the real terror, Orloff says. The two eventually pass out, and when Jenny arrives the next morning, a hungover Orloff, apparently moved by Sammy’s pleas, relents to attend the premiere. Across town, Bobby’s killing spree begins, as he and Orloff both set an inevitable course toward the same drive-in theater.

For a first film, and especially one made with such bizarre constraints, Targets is astonishingly well-made. There are directors who, in their entire career, never manage to paint the screen with light and color the way that Bogdanovich does here. The Thompson home is one of severe shadows juxtaposed with lavender walls and immaculate countertops, with a camera that weaves through the house like a cobra, catching every cold detail of Bobby’s seemingly perfect life and observing the Thompsons through a doorway, watching them while they in turn watch TV. Full of one-shots, swinging doors, and first person perspective: the view of Bobby’s ostensibly warm and fulfilled life is ironically cold and clinical, and the eye that follows him is documentarian and removed. Orloff’s home, by contrast, is empty and silent, the elderly actor kept company by the sound of his earlier work, but the camera treats him like a friend and not a subject. It’s stunning. The role of light even takes on an important part of the narrative at the end of the film, as the attendees of Orloff’s drive-in appearance attract the sniper’s attention when they activate their interior lights or headlamps.

The subtleties of the script are so faintly traced that you can see the critic’s eye in Bogdanovich’s work. This is most notable with the Thompsons, as the only possible clue that gives us any insight into Bobby’s motivations is his unusually deferential and devotional attitude toward his father, whom he addresses as “sir” and looks up to in a childlike reverence (Mr. Thompson also bosses his wife around brusquely). The subtext never becomes textual enough to provide you any real insight, and it wouldn’t matter if it did; Bobby is cold-blooded, a killer, and there’s no excusing him. The parallelism between Bobby and Orloff is masterfully handled, with each bound up in the expectations of others and a monster in their own unique way, one with a bright future and one whose days are fewer ahead than behind, but the two exchange fates when they meet beneath the flickering of the projector.

When we discussed What’s Up, Doc?, we talked about the way that the film felt timeless in its incorporation of references to films, cartoons, songs, and narrative devices of the past. Despite its age, that later Bogdanovich film feels fresh, and it’s undeniably a good thing. Targets is the inverse, a film that reflected forward rather than backward, a strangely prophetic and disturbingly prescient look at the future of gun violence. There’s almost no reference to gun culture, but the film drew inspiration from the University of Texas tower shooting that had happened a mere two years previously, and we’ve seen that narrative play out again and again and again in recent years, including the particularly relevant shooting at the Aurora movie theater. Further, Bobby looks like the perpetrators of this domestic terrorism: he’s boyishly handsome, blond and charming; he comes from an ostensibly Christian home (based upon the family’s pre-meal prayer) and has a close relationship with his doting parents. His crimes are completely unmotivated, which was a sticking point for contemporary critics who failed to realize that this didn’t detract from the terror but in fact contributed to it. It, too, is timeless, but for all the wrong reasons.

Even without that context, however, Targets is effective in the way that its antagonist’s dispassionate spree killing is horrifying and unnerving. My roommate was fascinated by the film’s humanity and the way that the victims of the shooter are defined by their reactions to this event that’s unfolding around them, comparing the movie to a Coen Brothers film, which is a strong point of contact. It’s a strong effort for a first-time director and is terrifically fascinating in its subject matter and composition; once can only hope it will become less relevant in years to come, but I doubt it.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how it found inspiration in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond