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Targets (USA, 1968)


One of the pleasures of the October Horror Movie Challenge is that it gives me an incentive to catch up with a lot of films that have been on my radar for years, but which I have not made time to watch yet. Sometimes this leads to disappointment, as in the case of Blue Sunshine. On other occasions, happily, the film will turn out to be even better than I had hoped.

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Like Dementia 13, Targets came from Roger Corman providing funding and opportunity to a promising film-maker — in this case, Peter Bogdanovich. The story goes that Corman agreed to finance any film that Bogdaonvich wanted to make, as long as he used Boris Karloff, who owed Corman two days of work, and incorporated stock footage from an earlier Corman production, The Terror. Given that The Terror was a cod-Poe Gothic horror, it would have been easy for Bogdanovich to turn in something similar, following the standard AIP template of the sixties; instead he came up with a thoughtful script that was powerful enough to convince Karloff to put in an additional three days at a reduced rate. Karloff was gravely ill at the time, suffering from emphysema and rheumatoid arthritis, so this speaks even more strongly of his enthusiasm for the project; he died less than a year after shooting.

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Targets follows two parallel narratives which collide dramatically at the film’s climax. The first tells the story of Byron Orlock, an ageing horror actor who is so completely Karloff that it’s surprising that Bogdanovich bothered to change the name. A number of Karloff’s films are attributed to Orlock, including The Terror, the promotion of which is a key plot point in Targets. Orlock has decided to retire from acting, as he believes that he and the style of horror he represents are relics of the past, with no place in the modern world. An up-and-coming screenwriter, Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich and apparently modelled on Samuel Fuller, who did uncredited work on the script) is trying to convince Orlock to make one last film, a project which would differ from the hack work Orlock has been reduced to. The parallel with Targets itself is unmistakeable.

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At the same time, a young man by the name of Bobby Thompson is finding it impossible to control the urge to kill any more. After stocking up on guns and ammunition, Bobby begins a killing spree, escalating to sniping at cars on the freeway. His story was inspired by Charles Whitman, who had gone on a shooting spree in 1966. Escaping the police, Bobby hides in a drive-in movie theatre and realises that this is the ideal place to continue killing. This theatre is also the location for Byron Orlock’s final public appearance, and events come to a climax as Orlock arrives.

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It could be argued that Targets is more of a film about horror movies than a horror film itself. It is tense and violent, but it would be easy to classify it as a thriller if not for the role played by Byron Orlock. Orlock’s confrontation with Bobby Thompson represents the clash between old and new horror. Targets comes from a time when horror was starting to move away from its Gothic roots and beginning to use horrors from the real world, such as psychopathic murderers. The surprising point that Targets leads us to is that these real-world horrors are less potent, precisely because they are mundane.

Like most Corman productions, Targets is a low-budget affair, but the strong characters and emotional depth of the script make it into something far more compelling and disturbing than a schlock horror film. The lack of a musical score only serves to make the film starker. While Targets may not offer many scares, it is deeply unsettling.

While Targets wasn’t quite Karloff’s final film, it still serves as a fine monument to an exceptional screen presence, and a reminder that the horrors of old aren’t to be taken lightly.

The Dead Inside (USA, 2011)

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Travis Betz is gradually defining a new sub-genre of poignant romantic horror musicals. His previous feature, Lo, did wonders with a simple theatrical set and a handful of performers, telling us a heart-breaking story of a young man who summons a demon to track down his lost love. With The Dead Inside, Betz both expands and contracts his scope.

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Most of the film takes place inside the various rooms of a flat belonging to a couple named Fi and Wes. Wes is a photographer whose regular work on weddings is sapping his love of his art; Fi is a writer who had hit a block with the latest novel of her zombie series, The Dead Inside. We are occasionally taken inside the narrative of the book, with the actors who portray Wes and Fi taking on the roles of Fi’s zombie protagonists. These scenes are amongst the funniest in the film, as the zombies have a gormless and cheerful charm, bickering as they try to find a way into a barricaded room which holds their next potential human meal.

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The mundane problems of work and ennui facing Fi and Wes are overshadowed when a ghost enters their life and starts fighting Fi for possession of her body. Wes is faced with trying to first understand and then cope with how this changes Fi and their relationship. These problems are echoed within the troubled narrative of Fi’s novel. As the situation escalates, The Dead Inside moves firmly into horror territory.

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Considering the limited sets, budget and cast on show, The Dead Inside never becomes dull or predictable, and is beautifully shot. The strong emotional relationship between the protagonists makes their trials all the more poignant, and the mood shifts markedly with humour, horror and musical numbers. This is the richest combination of warmth, loveable characters, horror and tragedy I have encountered outside a Jonathan Carroll novel.

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There is no escaping the fact that The Dead Inside is a musical, and this may be enough to put off many potential viewers. The musical numbers are limited, and the songs are generally catchy. Moreover, they add wonderfully to the already strange tone of the film, and show us aspects of the characters’ inner lives that may otherwise have stayed hidden.

The Dead Inside is my favourite film of the month so far, and it is going to be very difficult for anything to top it. I recommend it if you want to see a film with heart, even if that heart is wriggling with maggots.

Blue Sunshine (USA, 1978)

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Blue Sunshine is the first real disappointment of the month. This may be because it has dated badly, or that it built up a reputation as an overlooked cult classic that it simply couldn’t live up to. My personal suspicion is that it simply isn’t a very good film.

I’ve anticipated watching Blue Sunshine for over 25 years. Back in my youth, I used to work near Waterloo station in London, and I spent many lunchtimes wandering around the street market in the Cut. A few stalls sold cheap videotapes, and I always used to stop and browse through them, despite owning neither a VCR or a TV set (I wanted to be a writer, and had no time for such frippery! Also, I couldn’t afford them on my wages). Blue Sunshine would often catch my eye, with its striking cover image of a bald-headed woman staring ahead, haloed in a blue circle, and the blurb about killer hippies tapped into my fascination with the Manson family.


In Blue Sunshine, a man named Jerry Zipkin is witness to a mass murder committed by a friend who is suffering from severe hair loss. Zipkin does as any rational person would and pushes his friend in front of a truck before going on the run, letting the police believe that he is responsible for all the murders. Piecing together a some random information from a photo caption and a parrot, he comes to the conclusion that his friend and a number of other bald murderers all took the same batch of tainted LSD and have become follically challenged psychopaths. Still pursued by the police, he decides to put things to rights himself.

In some respects, Blue Sunshine is a classic 1970s paranoid thriller, with a lone protagonist working to uncover a web of conspiracy while on the run. In this case, though, Zipman acts with little more coherence than the insane murderers he is investigating; I hoped this similarity would lead to an interesting revelation, but it went nowhere.


Maybe the goal of Blue Sunshine is similar to that of the far superior Night Moves — to examine what happens when an incompetent protagonist gets involved with a mystery beyond his understanding. Unlike Night Moves, however, the random exploits of Zipman just lead to an unexcitingly neat and unfeasible resolution.

There are a few moments of tension in Blue Sunshine, and at least one scene involving a baby sitter which almost earns it the label of being a horror film. On the whole, though, it both looks and feels like a 1970s network TM movie of the week. I half expected it to wrap up with a to-camera message about the dangers of drugs.


Blue Sunshine isn’t a terrible film by any means, but it is a dull one. For a horror movie, that may be the greater sin.

The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (Germany, 1967)


Some films demand to be watched purely for their titles, be they Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body? or The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? While The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism definitely falls into this category, it offers many strange delights beyond a lurid title.

One drawback of having watched many hundreds of horror films is that I often find myself bored with the same plots, imagery and ideas coming up over and over. This why I gravitate toward European horror films from the 1960s and ’70s – they come from a place and time of experimentation, vivid imagery and outright bloody-minded weirdness. While I’ve come to expect this from Italian, Spanish and French films, it’s heartening to see that the Germans had their stab at vibrant lunacy as well.


The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (my fingers are going to cramp typing that out) opens with Count Regula (the Dr Sadism of the title, portrayed by a stony-faced Christopher Lee) in a dungeon, awaiting execution for the torture and murder of twelve virginal girls. His executioner, obviously a fan of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, hammers a spiked metal mask onto his face and then takes him outside to be drawn and quartered. We cut quickly from his death to a one-legged man 35 years further on (but still apparently in the 18th century or so) explaining the dark history of Count Regula to a rapt crowd.

The one-legged man turns out to be an agent of the supposedly deceased Count Regula, sent to pass invitations to the Count’s castle to a select group of guests. When the guests reach the nearest town, the townsfolk act with the fear and denial that is demanded of them by their role in the story, but a suspiciously streetwise and well-armed priest comes to their aid, and our protagonists are soon on the road to the sinister and bizarre castle of the Count.


From this point onwards, it’s torture, deathtraps, twisted artworks, creepy crawlies and necromancy all the way, delivered in a style that is part Salvador Dali, part Edgar Allan Poe and part bad acid trip. The story isn’t incoherently surreal, but it is thoroughly dreamlike in its execution.

The credits and the original German title of the film (Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel) would have us believe that The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism is based on Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, a claim as accurate as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre being based on a true story or the remake of The Haunting having anything but a passing resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s novel. Sure, there is a pendulum in The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism, but the rest of the script is pure hallucinogenic word abuse.


It really is difficult to convey how weird a film The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism is. This weirdness isn’t apparent from a plot description, or even cataloguing some of the scenes; it’s a cumulative effect of snippets like a priest drawing guns on a cowardly coach driver to the complete lack of consternation of the other passengers; said coach driver passing between trees with human body parts hanging from them but only being upset by the presence of crows; a servant who wanders around a dark castle with an unlit candelabra; a random corridor in the dungeon filled with vultures; and an escape plan based on making a ladder from a wooden leg. Over time, you will start to wonder if you are really watching this or if you’re dreaming. If you don’t find yourself saying “What the fuck?” at least once every five minutes, you’re watching the wrong film.

All of this is made even weirder by the incidental music. Much of it is appropriate for the Gothic atmosphere, but every now and then a refrain will come in that sounds like it belongs in a Children’s Film Foundation short or a Carry On feature. It’s difficult at these points not to wonder if The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism is a knowing parody, or if it has simply pushed its genre tropes so hard that they have broken.


I can’t imagine that it’s biologically possible to be frightened by The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism, but it is still a feverishly entertaining and memorable film. I’ll leave you to decide whether this is for the reasons the film-makers had in mind.


Viy (Soviet Union, 1967)


This rare example of Soviet horror cinema is based on “The Viy” by Nikolai Gogol, supposedly influenced by the folk tales he heard as a child in Ukraine. Its title comes from the name of a demon that appears late in the tale, but the story is primarily one about witchcraft and revenge.

The story follows the misadventures of a seminary student who rejoices in the name Khoma Brutus. Khoma is a classic literary rogue, combining charm, cunning, cowardice and a complete disinclination to do the right thing until he is given no other choice.

Given a short break from their studies, Khoma and two similarly miscreant students travel from the seminary, get lost in the fog and are forced to seek shelter on a farm when night falls. An old woman they meet on the farm turns out to be a witch, who rides Khoma through the air like a steed. When they land, Khoma grabs a stick and beats the old woman half to death, at which point she turns into a much younger woman. Khoma flees in terror.


Upon arriving back at the seminary, Khoma’s teacher instructs to go to the home of a Cossack chieftain whose daughter is gravely ill; the daughter has asked for Khoma by name, although Khoma has no idea who she is. Inevitably, he discovers that the daughter is the witch he assaulted, and she has died while Khoma was en route. The chieftain now insists that Khoma stands vigil over the body of his daughter for three nights and prays for her absolution. Khoma of course tries every way he can to get out of this, but he is outnumbered and generally hapless.


As Khoma carries out his duties, it becomes apparent that the witch is seeking vengeance upon him from beyond the grave, calling upon the forces of Hell to achieve this. The assaults on his person and his faith escalate as his nerves fray, leaving him fearing that we will not survive until the end of the third night.

Ukrainian termites are scary

There is a light, wry tone to Viy that continues even as the supernatural horrors mount. Khoma’s interactions with his hosts/captors have a bitter humour to them, and Khoma himself never loses his charm. No matter how bad things get, he is aways capable of sardonic wit or impromptu Cossack dancing, as long as he is fortified by enough vodka.

The special effects are a mixed bag. The makeup for the vampires, werewolves and demons is simple but effective, the flying coffin has a manic energy to it that would be at home in a Sam Raimi film and back projection is used in imaginative and disorientating ways. However, the demon Viy, when he appears, looks silly and shoddily constructed.

They did the mash…

There is nothing about Viy that is even remotely frightening, but it is a fun, pacey romp with monsters aplenty, which makes it perfect Halloween viewing.

Gogol’s story also served as inspiration for the Yugoslav film, A Holy Place and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, but Viy remains the only faithful adaptation to date. This is unlikely to change when the action movie Viy 3D is released next year. I wish I were making that up.

Viy is available on YouTube, and includes English subtitles: