Peter Bogdanovich‘sTargetsis a wholly unique product of film history, being caught right in the middle of Old and New Hollywood. It’s the kind of angry and cynical thriller that would become popular in the 1970s, while also having a clear admiration for the classic studio films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The movie isn’t just about these things, it’s a byproduct of them. Targets is Bogdanovich’s debut feature, a movie that stars the classic horror icon Boris Karloff and was produced by the legendary Roger Corman, a figure who made incredibly transgressive films and helped pave the way for many New Hollywood figures. If you’re looking for a solid thriller, then you can’t miss Targets. But if you’re a film fan who’s looking for a bit more, maybe a fascinating piece of movie history that’s way ahead of its time, then you can’t do better than this.
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Targets is a 1968 crime thriller that hit at a highly formative time for the movie business. ’68 was a huge year in general, setting the stage for New Hollywood by being jam-packed with game-changing releases, one after the other. Special effects were revolutionized by 2001: A Space Odyssey, the boundaries of horror were shattered by Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, and over in its own corner, Targets was quietly shaking things up.
‘Targets’ Is the Perfect Collision of Old and New Hollywood
Targets follows two separate storylines that are waiting to collide at any moment. One narrative follows Byron Orlock (Boris Karloff), an aging horror actor who has become disenchanted with the business and wants out as soon as possible, but before being able to axe his career, he has to make one final public appearance at a drive-in screening of one of his films. Another follows Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), a young man who is married, lives with his wife and parents, and spends his free time collecting and shooting guns with his dad. Early on, he begins to show signs of being mentally disturbed and eventually goes on a shooting spree around Los Angeles, one that leads to Orlock’s screening.
Targets is a tough watch today. We’re living in a world where there’s seemingly a mass shooting every other week, so firing up a movie about a shooter doesn’t sound like anyone’s first choice. If you know anything about the movie, it’s likely that you’re aware of its violent nature, so the direction that the plot goes won’t surprise you. First-time watchers, on the other hand, should know what they’re in for.
If you’re unaware of where Orlock and Thompson’s stories are headed, then the first half of the film is going to seem disjointed. Orlock spends the first half of the movie doing his best to get out of the movie industry, with his scenes playing out like standard classic drama (they can even be a bit silly at times). Thompson’s story, on the other hand, feels way more like a modern movie. The scenes that follow him at home, at the gun store, and driving from shooting to shooting are more in line with the films of David Fincher and Martin Scorsese than they are the other movies that Corman had produced. Early in the runtime, Thompson checks himself as he slowly starts to lose touch with reality and even tries to get help from his wife, but does so at a bad time. It appears that this has been coming for some time, and soon after, Thompson acts out in violence.
Bobby Thompson Was a New Kind of Movie Villain
In 1968, it wasn’t common for films to focus on characters like Bobby Thompson. By and large, horror films still followed monsters and radioactive beasts, not realistic killers. Targets even takes note of this fact. One of the first scenes in the film finds the screenwriting character Sammy Michaels(Peter Bogdanovich) trying to convince Orlok to read his latest script and take part in his next film. Orlok refuses and defends his decision by declaring that no one is afraid of his type of classic, gothic horror anymore and that they refer to his works as “high camp”. He then slams a newspaper down with a headline reporting a recent mass shooting, exclaiming that the real world is what scares people now. Bogdanovich knew exactly where the movie industry was headed. It’s apparent that he could feel the disinterest in things like the Universal monsters settling, played into these themes in his screenplay, and capitalized on it all by having Frankenstein’s Monster play Byron Orlock.
Boris Karloff Always Rules
Boris Karloff is fantastic in Targets. By 1968, his long-running career as a horror icon had stretched back decades. He was a deeply established staple of the genre, appearing in countless chillers and monster movies throughout his career. Of course, his defining role was as Frankenstein’s Monster in the Universal Monster movies, but he would also notably play Imhotep in The Mummy, and appear in Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Like Karloff, Orlok is a horror icon. Everyone knows his name, he’s the entire draw for a drive-in screening, and when he turns Sammy Michaels’ offer down, Michaels says he’ll offer the role to Vincent Price. Byron Orlok is a big deal!
Boris Karloff plays the role much how he was likely feeling in real life. He’s somewhat flattered by the praise that he receives (depending on who gives it), but by and large, he’s tired and just wants to leave Los Angeles so that he can return to England. It’s fun watching Karloff play such a real character for once. For most of the film, he gets to put his charm on as an older fellow who just can’t be left alone by nagging industry heads. There’s even a quick gag that sees him jumping at his reflection, he’s really having fun in this movie. For fans of Karloff, Targets is an essential viewing, if anything to see him tackle the closest thing he’d have to an autobiographical role.
‘Targets’ Is a Different Flavor of Peter Bogdanovich
As for Bogdanovich himself, Targets is a bit of an anomaly in his filmography. Seeing that he would go on to exclusively direct comedies and dramas, it’s interesting to see that he got his start with such a bleak and depressing thriller. That being said, Orlok’s earlier scenes before getting tied in with Thompson are funnier than they are given credit and feel somewhat in line with what’s to come for Bogdanovich. The film was low budget, and if it’s anything like other Corman films, it likely had a quick production.
Despite its traditional cinematography and the little amount of money behind it, Targets does have a few visually inspired moments. After Thompson kills his family, the camera is kept low to the ground, slowly panning across the floor, over random household objects, and eventually descends upon an explanatory note that he left behind. There’s a masterfully lit and framed shot of Thompson sitting behind the drive-in screen, aiming down his sights at unsuspecting audience members. In the film’s final moments, we see Orlock approaching Thompson from far away, meanwhile, his character in the projected film approaches the screen, ultimately “cornering” the shooter from both sides. Targets is a mostly standard movie visually, but here and there, Bogdanovich’s eye is given a bit of room to shine.
Peter Bogdanovich would go on to a long career of directing, acting, screenwriting, and even working in the avenues of criticism and film history. He was a multi-talented force in the industry and would influence countless future filmmakers of all kinds, and would pass away in January 2022. Boris Karloff would close the curtain soon after Targets, with the film being his last North American production, and passing on in February 1969. A fitting and reflective film to go out on, indeed. As for Corman? Well, he’s just doing what he’s always done, still producing B-movies at 96 years old. With these three massively influential Hollywood figures colliding like lightning in a bottle for one project only, you can hardly find a movie that is as interesting a document of film history as Targets.