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Commentary Last Updated: Sep 19th, 2006 - 00:41:44

Threats: Real and imagined
By Mickey Z.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 19, 2006, 00:38

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The terrorists want to kill us. Our government wants to tap our phones. The CIA wants to haul us away to secret prisons. Corporations want to poison our water, our air, and our food. You've got hurricanes, moody loners, e. coli, undocumented immigrants, drug dealers, shoe bombers, Mad Cow Disease, child molesters, welfare cheats, reality show contestants; if we were to believe the hype, there is much to fear in our daily lives. Here's the rub: Distinguishing the genuine threats from the fabrications is often difficult in a society so dependent on media imagery. It's no wonder so few people went to see "Snakes on a Plane" this summer. We already have liquids on a plane to deal with. Who needs cinematic frights and shocks when reality -- or at least our perception of reality -- is enough to leave us quivering in the fetal position?

And speaking of convenient segues, does anyone remember director Peter Bogdanovich's auspicious celluloid debut? It was a low budget 1968 film called "Targets," starring none other than Boris Karloff as Byron Orlok, a veteran horror film actor. Orlok has retired from acting because real life has become so terrifying that audiences are no longer frightened by the type of horror movies that made him famous. In the film's riveting climax, a sniper named Bobby chooses as his targets the patrons of a drive-in theater showing the real life Karloff in "The Terror."

"Bogdanovich attempts to show us just how lethal weapons are," writes film critic Danny Peary in his book, "Cult Movies." "He forces us to look through the gun sights with Bobby and help him line up his victim. It is frustrating -- we want Bobby to miss but each time we see his aim is true. It is bad enough when unidentified people fall dead, but often Bogdanovich will have Bobby take aim at someone and pull the trigger only to find himself out of bullets. While he reloads we have time to get to know and suffer with the intended prey."

After picking off the projectionist, Bobby climbs down from his sniper perch only to be confronted by the aforementioned Byron Orlok (Karloff). Although Orlok is unarmed, Bobby is perplexed by the image of the real Boris Karloff who seems to be also walking towards him on the immense drive-in movie screen. The confused Bobby, no longer able to recognize the real threat, shoots at the screen -- the "fake" Orlok -- and is promptly disarmed the "real" Orlok before being arrested.

"The scenes in which Orlok complains that real life is so horrifying that horror films have lost their ability to scare anyone remind us that we are watching a movie," Peary writes. "While Bogdanovich places the sniper in a screen where 'The Terror' (1963), a not-very-scary Roger Corman horror film starring the real Boris Karloff, is being projected, to prove that Orlok is correct in thinking 'real' life more frightening than horror films, he is also reminding us that no matter how terrifying we find Bobby's actions in 'Targets,' it is only a movie we are watching and doesn't compare to the real real thing."

Unfortunately, discerning "the real real thing" from imagined evils is not just the stuff of ambitious directorial debuts.

Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at

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