A Celluloid Hero confronts a gun wielding villain as imaginary horror becomes maniacal modernity; an empty life in red typeface. Peter Bogdanovich directs and stars in his debut feature, homage to the legendary Boris Karloff and an insider’s view of the bitter realities of Hollywood filmmaking while creating a well-paced thriller whose violent nexus strikes back from the silver screen.
The story involves Byron Orlok an aging B-movie actor, exceptionally portrayed with dignity and class by Karloff, and his desire to retire from the rigors of a vapid business. Orlok is courted by a young hotshot director (played by Bogdanovich himself) to star in one last film while Bogdanovich cross-cuts with another story of an ordinary middle-class family and a clean cut son with an erotic fascination with firearms. The two seemingly disparate stories finally come together at a drive-in where the audience becomes victim, and the horrors of life prove more frightening than art. Bogdanovich uses clips from Roger Corman’s classic THE TERROR which stars Karloff as a fictional template for Orlok’s latest creation. He provides an often funny and caustic insight into the cutthroat movie-making business, as producers, advertisers and accountants become the butt of many jokes. Meanwhile, Bobby is a good looking All American guy, with a loving family and beautiful wife, showing no emotional warning signs on his suicidal road to nowhere. In one spooky sequence, Bobby is at the rifle range with his father, making small talk and cracking jokes. When his father goes down range to set up the targets, Bobby aims his rifle to find him in the cross-hairs…for no damn reason at all. When Bobby finally types his note and murders his family, it is done methodically and without emotion, actually taking the time to place the bodies in a comfortable position. Bogdanovich tracks his camera slowly across the floor, over the bloodstains, and climbs ever so deliberately towards the desk in a continuous shot until he focuses upon the typewritten letter, hacked out in red, the last testament of a madman.
Laszlo Kovacks’ wonderful cinematography captures both timelines with a claustrophobic tension, as Orlok the horror actor is brightly lit while bobby the average guy (whose acts are horror) is isolated in darkness, both cramped in the tiny worlds of vehicles and apartments. When Bobby climbs the refinery towers, Kovacks shoots with quick zoom like a bullet striking its target, a fatal frisson that brings a heightened and believable reality. The night sequence at the drive-in is equally compelling, as the oblique lighting provides cover from the deadly sniper.
The power of the story is that no reason is given, no flashback to some imagined provocation is offered, only the callous disregard for human life reduced to tin cans. Fortunately, Orlok may have made a career from being the villain but in his last appearance he proves to be the hero.
Final Cut: (B+)