Tag Archives: Charles Whitman

Final Exam (1981)

final-exam-2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Killer stalks college campus.

A killer (Timothy L. Raynor) is on the loose and stalking a North Carolina college campus. No one knows why he is doing it or who he is, but the body count keeps rising. It’s up to Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) and her friend Radish (Joel S. Rice) to try and stop him before it’s too late.

I’ll start off with a few of the things that I liked about the movie, which helped set it apart from other slasher films and if it weren’t for the stupid ending I would’ve given it more points. The fact that it takes place on an actual college campus and we are able to see all aspects of it including the dorms, the classrooms and even its cafeteria is a big plus. Too many slasher films have a supposed campus setting, but it never looks like one while this film managed to give me a nostalgic feeling about my own college days and the cast are at the right age group to play the students.

The dialogue between the characters is more amped up here than in the usual ‘80s horror film. This was intentional as writer/director Jimmy Huston wanted more emphasis placed on the characterizations than the gore. Although much of what is conversed about is extraneous and does not help progress the plot it still made the characters seem more human and less like a cardboard caricature.

I was also surprised with a scene involving a group of students pretending to be masked gunmen carrying out a mass shooting on the campus. It later turns out to be a fraternity stunt, but it made the film seem ahead-of-its-time and even prophetic especially with the way the Radish character talks about Charles Whitman and others like him who indiscriminately kills large groups of people for no reason. It was also interesting to see how the characters responded once they found out it was only a joke. Many of the students laugh it off while these days most would be traumatized and when the police respond to the call of a shooting only one officer arrives while today it would’ve been an entire SWAT team.

Spoiler Warning!

The scenes involving the killer are where the film falls apart. For one thing he seems to have superhuman strength even though he doesn’t look to have gargantuan sized muscles. The opening segment has him standing on a car hood as the vehicle is moving and somehow lifting another male body out of the driver’s seat and through the roof with only one hand, which I don’t think would be possible. Also, when he lifts the driver out of the car it stops, which should’ve been enough for the killer, who is still standing on the car hood, to lose his balance and fall down, but he doesn’t.

My biggest gripe though is that we are never given any explanation for why he kills or even any clue to his identity, which makes sitting through this generic thing seem all the more pointless. Granted sometimes the backstories to the killer’s motives can be hooky and fans of this film consider it ‘refreshing’ that this one didn’t have one, but in reality everyone that lives on this planet has a backstory and the characters in movies are supposed to represent real people, so an explanation of some kind is still necessary. If it was just a random killing by a stranger with no connection to the school at the very least give the killer a name, which could’ve been done by the police in the denouncement when they came to survey the crime scene.

It’s quite possible that the filmmakers intended this to be a random killing spree due to the earlier scenes involving the fake mass shootings, which could be considered foreshadowing and Radish’s continual conversations involving the topic of shooters killing people for no reason, which is fine. However, this idea doesn’t completely hold up because there is a segment where Radish finds some dead bodies in a locker room and then runs back to his friend Courtney’s dorm room for help, but the killer is already there waiting for him, which means he would’ve had to have known that these two were friends and which specific dorm room Radish would go back to and thus negating the idea that the killer was just a random stranger.

End of Spoiler Alert!

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: June 5, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 29Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jimmy Huston

Studio: Motion Picture Marketing

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Deadly Tower (1975)

deadly tower

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sniper in the tower.

This made-for-TV movie chronicles the events of August 1, 1966 when 25-year-old ex-Marine Charles Whitman (Kurt Russell) climbed to the top of the University of Texas campus tower and shot and killed 16 people while wounding a total of 32. The story intercuts between scenes showing Whitman preparing for the shooting while also looking at the private life of Officer Ramiro Martinez (Richard Yniguez) who eventually climbed up the tower to stop Whitman’s slaughter.

For the most part the film is taut and methodical and well above average for a TV film although Gilbert Roland’s voice over narration was unnecessary and a bit cheesy. The only time there is any music is during the scenes showing Whitman killing his mother and wife with a knife, which gets a bit too overly dramatic, but otherwise it comes off almost like a documentary making the viewer feel that they are right there as it is happening. It was filmed at the Louisiana State Capitol, which looks a bit different than the actual clock tower, but still similar enough that it works.

Russell who had just come off starring in a long line of Disney films is perfect in the role and even closely resembles the real Whitman. The fact that he has very few lines of dialogue is an asset and helps to make the character more foreboding and threatening. The rest of the all-star cast does pretty well although Forsythe’s character seems added simply to promote the gun control issue. Clifton James appearance as one of the police sergeants was misguided because he had already done a comic caricature of a redneck sheriff in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, so it was hard to take him seriously here and it took me out of the movie a bit because it kept reminding me of that one as well as his goofy policeman role in Bank Shot.

The film also takes liberties with the actual events in strange ways that makes no sense. For instance in the film when Whitman comes upon the tower receptionist he simply guides her to the elevator and tells her to leave, but in real-life he knocked her to the ground and split her head open before later shooting her. Also, in the film the first victim that he hits from the tower is a male, but in the actual incident it was an 18-year-old female who was eight months pregnant. The story also erroneously credits Martinez with the one who killed Whitman when the later autopsy found that all four shots that Martinez fired at Whitman missed him and it was actually the two shots fired by Officer Houston McCoy who stepped in after Martinez had emptied his rounds that proved to be the lethal hit. In fact Officer McCoy’s name gets changed here and is listed as C.J. Foss and is played by actor Paul Carr as a minor throwaway part that is barely seen at all.

Both McCoy and Martinez sued the producers for the inaccuracies. Martinez was upset because his wife was portrayed as being pregnant and Hispanic when in reality she had been German-American. The sidelight drama of some marital discord between the two was also apparently untrue and should’ve been left out completely as it adds nothing and bogs the thing down as a needless Hollywood-like soap opera.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Director: Jerry Jameson

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD (Warner Archive)

Targets (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: He kills his family.

In 1967 producer Roger Corman gave fledgling director Peter Bogdanovich the green light to make any movie he wanted as long as he followed two stipulations.  The first one was that he had to use footage from Corman’s earlier film The Terror and the second one required that he use the acting services of Boris Karloff as Karloff still owed Corman two day’s work per his contract.  This movie is the result of that agreement, which kind of works and kind of doesn’t and seems more like two movies rolled into one.

The first story deals with a young, clean-cut man starting to have homicidal urges. The second scenario involves an aging actor played by Karloff, who decides he wants to retire despite the appeals of his agent and film studio. He plans to attend a showing of one of his films (The Terror) at a local drive-in where the sniper is waiting to shoot him.

I enjoyed the scenes involving the sniper and felt it helped elevate this film from the typical exploitation fare.  The character is based very closely on Charles Whitman, an All-American ex-marine, who on August 1, 1966, climbed to the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin and shot 32 people, killing 14. It was one of the very first mass-shootings in American history and it caused worldwide headlines.

Tim O’Kelly, the actor who plays the gunman, looks almost exactly like Whitman. What I liked about these scenes is the way it follows the character around and shows his interactions with his family. Like in real life there were no indicators, or violent past.  It is creepy watching him say grace at the dinner table, or having wholesome conversations with his wife when you know what’s going to happen.  The film goes into almost meticulous detail with the build-up and I found it gripping despite the fact that there is little action, or music.

The shootings are uniquely done.  Like in the actual incident, he shoots his mother and wife first and then puts a towel over their blood stains while carrying their dead bodies back to their bedrooms so it would look more ‘tidy’ when the police came.  This is all done with a docu-drama approach, which heightens the impact and realism.

The scenes involving the sniper shooting at people while they drive in their cars along a busy roadway are excellent as well.  It was done on an actual freeway and the viewer watches the action from the killer’s perspective through the telescope of his rifle, which is chilling. The cars veering off the road and people getting shot are vivid.  The only fault here is that Bogdanovich had the killer climb up on top of an ordinary tank at an oil refinery to do the shootings.  The clock tower in the actual incident was a very distinct structure and it would have been stronger visually had they found another one that was similar to it.

The parts involving Karloff are weak and tend to be cluttered with a lot of uninteresting dialogue.  Bogdanovich casts himself as the screenwriter for Karloff’s next proposed project.  I always thought it was a bit weird for a director, especially one that at the time was young and unknown, to cast himself in his own movie.  I know Woody Allen and Spike Lee, as well as others have done this, but it always came off as a bit narcissistic to me. However, I saw Bogdanovich in person a few months ago and he hasn’t seemed to have aged a day.

The climactic sequence in the drive-in is poorly handled. The dark lighting makes it hard to follow the action.  The final confrontation between Karloff and the killer is dull and unimaginative.  The only good points here is that it gives you a chance to see both Randy Quaid an Mike Farrell in their film debuts playing two of the sniper’s victims.

The film ends with a bird’s-eye view of the drive-in’s empty parking lot taken the next day with the sniper’s car being the only one left.  It was shot during the early morning hours so the sunlight gives it a surreal quality.  It also has a moody feel because the only sound is of blowing wind as the credits scrawl over, which I liked. However, the police would certainly have impounded his car and gone through it for clues and not have let it just sit there.

Under the conditions that he was given I think Bogdanovich did a commendable job. It is hard to know what category to put this film into.  At times it seems like a horror movie and then at other points it’s a drama. Some may even argue that it is a sentimental tale dealing with an aging actor moving into the final years of his life. Personally I wished it had gone all out as a horror film because the ingredients were there except that the tension was inconsistent. Fans of Bogdanovich may want to check this out because it is radically different from any of his later works.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 15, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated R

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video