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CRITIC AT LARGE

Bogdanovich's Special 'Terror' of Boris Karloff

January 02, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

William Henry Pratt would have been 100 years old last Nov. 23 and it seems ironic that that most English of names (suggesting as it does small tidy gardens and furled umbrellas) should have been transmuted into Boris Karloff, attached to that ostensibly Transylvanian master of the macabre.

Karloff, who died in 1969, is being memorialized Jan. 18, with a centennial retrospective organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the academy's theater in Beverly Hills.

One of the participants in the program will be Peter Bogdanovich, whose career as a film maker Karloff helped to launch.

Bogdanovich, a young film critic and historian in New York, had come to California in 1964 hoping to make the kind of movies he'd been writing about. (Critic-into-film maker had become a French tradition but Bogdanovich was to be the first American to make the switch, although James Agee and other critics had written scripts.)

He became a sort of odd-jobs assistant to Roger Corman, eventually working on the script and doing second-unit direction on "The Wild Angels." Corman in 1967 told Bogdanovich that Karloff owed the New World studio two days' work on a previous contract and that Peter could have the days if he could come up with a script. He could also use as much as 20 minutes of film left over from a Corman movie called "The Terror," in which Karloff had starred. ("Waste not, want not" was one of several Corman mottoes.)

"Polly Platt (then Mrs. Bogdanovich) and I came up with a plot about an aging horror star--very much like Karloff himself--attending the premiere of his last film at a drive-in."

There were some problems of plot resolution and Bogdanovich went to his friend, the director Sam Fuller, for guidance. "He had a lot of criticism. We'd written Karloff out pretty quickly--we only had those two days. Sammy said we should rewrite it as if we had him for the whole picture. Sam spent a whole afternoon pacing up and down and giving us plot suggestions.

"I wanted to put his name on the script but Sam said, 'Nah, they'll think I did all of it.' That's a generous friend."

The notion of the plot was that real-life horror was worse than anything in "The Terror," which had become the film within the film. Fatefully, as it turned out, Bogdanovich invented a wimpy mass murderer, like the one who had recently killed several people, sniping from a tower at the University of Texas. The film killer shows up at the drive-in.

"Karloff was 79 when we were shooting in the spring of 1967. He said, 'Do I have to say these terrible things about myself?' He knew he was playing himself. There was a line---'I couldn't even play a straight part any more'--and he wondered particularly about having to say that. But I pointed out that he was playing a straight part so I thought he could go with the irony of the line, and he agreed."

The role could finally not be squeezed into the two days. "We begged, borrowed and stole and got an extra three days. But we still shot 50% of the film in five days." In the end very little of "The Terror" was actually used.

After Karloff did a 2 1/2-minute scene of a man thinking about death, the crew broke into applause. Karloff's wife Evie, who was on the set, had tears in her eyes, Bogdanovich remembers. "I think it had been a long time since anybody applauded."

It is, in fact, one of the curses of success that actors tend to be type-cast. Once Karloff's voice, sepulchral and with a slight lisp, proved so well-matched to menace, it was hard for movie makers and moviegoers to see him in any other guise, although on stage at least he could display a nice gift for comedy, and he played Capt. Hook in "Peter Pan."

He was a talented and generous actor, and when he saw "Targets" a year later Karloff expressed gratitude at having been able to do the role.

By the time Bogdanovich finished editing the film in mid-1968, both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Distributors shied away from a film with an assassination theme. By a further unpleasant coincidence Bogdanovich's fictional killer, like King's assassin, drove a white Mustang and used a 30-06 rifle.

Eventually Robert Evans, then running Paramount, and Charles Bludhorn took the film. But it had very limited distribution, although it has become a cult classic. "I discovered the other day it's out on cassette and I asked Paramount how many copies had been made. There were 4,000, they say. Four thousand! There were eight prints of the film."

Karloff had emigrated from his native England to Canada, working as a farmhand and then as an itinerant actor. In Los Angeles he did a bit as an extra in 1916, but drove trucks to support himself. Then in 1931 he played the monster in James Whale's "Frankenstein" and his voice gave him a star career.

Bogdanovich's own career after a smashing start has had its own ups and downs. He is just finishing post-production on "Illegally Yours," a romantic comedy starring Rob Lowe. He made it for the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, whose current financial crisis does not augur well for the film's planned February release.

He is also doing a weekly film commentary for the revamped CBS morning news program, reviewing the holiday openings, assembling clips on the careers of Cary Grant and other stars.

The emotional storms that followed the death of his young love, Dorothy Stratton, and the financial debacle that followed his buy-back of his film "They All Laughed," in which she starred, appear to have abated. But he is saying little.

"I've always made the mistake of saying too much. Cary Grant once warned me, 'Dear boy, never tell anyone you're happy. That's not what they want to hear. And never, never tell anyone you're in love. Never.' "

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