Targetsrecommended viewing

American psycho
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1968
Director: 
Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: 
Tim O'Kelley, Boris Karloff, Arthur Peterson, Monte Landis, Peter Bogdanovich
The Setup: 
A nice American boy snaps and starts shooting random people.
Discussion: 

Another film recommended by the new boyfriend of my ex [the other was Joy Ride], this one also turned out to be quite interesting, and contain many surprises: It's was Peter Bogdanovich's film just before The Last Picture Show, it was written and edited by Bogdanovich, it stars Boris Karloff, and it's a Roger Corman film. There is a lot of trivia out there about this movie, among them that Corman told Bogdanovich that he could make anything he wanted as long as he stayed under budget, used Boris Karloff for two days shooting [which Karloff owed under contract], and that he use footage from The Terror, an earlier Karloff film. Gossip is that Karloff liked the script so much that he agreed to shoot as long as Bogdanovich wanted, but only be paid for two days.

We open with footage from The Terror [also starring a young Jack Nicholson], only you don't know that at first, so you're sitting there going "This can't be the film…" until the end credit comes up. It's a bit De Palmian. We are in a screening room with Karloff as Byron Orlock, a legendary but aging horror actor inspired by Karloff himself. I must say, age has only made apparent what a VERY handsome man Karloff is. The director—played by Bogdanovich himself—is already planning Byron's next picture, for which he has apparently written an amazing screenplay that will be a massive shift for the actor, but Karloff has decided to retire. They are all shocked and talk about how he's such a huge star and the next picture requires him, but Byron says he's too old and "out of date," and that he wants to step aside and let the next generation take over. One thing you'll just have to ignore is the paradox between Byron being a huge box office draw at the top of his game and the simultaneous viewpoint that his career is over and he's on the far end of a decline.

We meet our other main character, Bobby, as he's looking through his rifle sights at Karloff's head. He's across the street in a gun shop, and buys a rifle. When he takes it out to his car put it in his trunk, we see that he's amassed quite an arsenal. He goes inside his parents' house, where he lives with his wife. We can hear them talking in the other room while Bobby wanders around the house, looking at pictures and checking out the place as though he is completely unfamiliar with it. Then they have a very Rockwell-esque family dinner. By the way, Bobby is a very clean-cut looking fellow in the Robert Kennedy mold.

SPOILERS > > >
So we start going back and forth between Byron and Bobby's stories. Both of them are relatively absorbing, the film as a whole is very deliberate and psychological, but in retrospect I'm not sure I can even discern the purpose for these scenes. Anyway, the producers have been wanting Byron to go to this opening of his new film at a drive-in, and he's been refusing, but at last he relents. Bobby's story has also progressed rather uneventfully, with him starting to mention that every now and then he just has the uncontrollable urge to kill people. Anyway, one day he's having a minor disagreement with his wife when he just pulls out a gun and shoots her. Then he goes and kills his mom, then his dad. We then have a scene of his dragging their bodies down halls and arranging them in beds that runs at least six times longer than the murders themselves. He leaves a note saying that they're sleeping now, but when they wake he WILL kill them. He also says he knows he'll be caught, but he'll kill many more people before then. He drives around, and finally spies these huge oil drums beside a freeway. I mean those huge tanks at a refinery that are about four stories tall—I don't know what they're called. He climbs on [in real time] and arranges all his guns out there, then starts shooting at passing motorists. It's a chilling scene, as the drivers have no idea what's happening, and we can tell when he's hit one by when it suddenly starts swerving all over the road. The police finally arrive, and he climbs down [in real time] and escapes.

More stuff happens, a lot with Karloff, including a scene in which he's meeting this young "hip" radio personality who doesn't seem like the most intelligent form of life out there. The radio guy says "your flick blew my mind!" and Byron hilariously replies "Obviously."

The police are getting closer to Bobby, and he ditches them and pulls into a drive-in theater—the very one where Byron is scheduled to appear that night. He goes behind the screen and sticks his gun through a hole in the screen. When the movie starts, he begins shooting random people. At the end, Bobby is chased around the front of the screen, and at the climactic scene he is seeing Byron approaching on the screen and Byron approaching right in front of him, and he can't distinguish between the two. Byron gives him a good smacking, like the father figure that he is, that leaves Bobby shrunk in a corner, like the under-developed man-child that he is. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END

Okay, here's the deal: this movie is inspired by the case of Charles Whitman, who climbed the tower of the University of Texas at Austin and started picking off random folks. You can read about him here. It also has echoes of the JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations. The most common interpretation, which makes sense, is that Karloff represents the old-style, baroque horror of yesteryear [remember his line about how he has to "make way for the new generation"], and Bobby the new horror, which is mundane and everyday, happens in broad daylight and is random. At the end, we have an audience that is literally being victimized by the horror movies they consume—the movie screen is shooting at them—and we see that Bobby cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. I think this could have been better supported if we had some material about Bobby being obsessed with horror movies or TV violence. But in the end, I don't think it's an accident that the new evil is defeated by a good old-style patriarchal smackdown.

The main thing that was apparent through the movie was Bogdanovich's style in terms of these long takes of mundane events—cleaning up the bodies, climbing the oil tanks—although once I started to read about the movie I began to wonder if this was really Bogdanovich's style, or if he was just trying to pad out the running time to full length. In any case, for the most part it works, and when it doesn't, you can just fast-forward, because once can clearly tell when nothing is happening and when events start up again. It's also remarkable how cleverly Bogdanavich worked in the footage from The Terror quite organically—although I honestly wish I knew WHY it had to be in there in the first place [I guess I should have listened to the commentary], and how he created a movie around Karloff in such a way that made the most of Karloff and made him indispensable to the story.

I was surprised afterward to find that most critics like this movie, and some LOVE it. Then again, it does all center on cinema and have a very meta-cinematic idea as its showcase. It is very good, I kind of can't believe it's a Corman film. On the other hand, it does go on pointlessly, and after its over it does seem like a 30-minute idea stretched [well-stretched, but nonetheless] to 90 minutes. But these are quibbles. If I could stretch a 30-minute idea to 90 minutes and have it all come out this compelling, I'd be thrilled.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, especially if you are interested in random public violence.