by A.J. Hakari
The circumstances behind the creation of 1968’s Targets are akin to the sort of cinematic dare that’d leave a grin on Lars von Trier’s puss. When a young Peter Bogdanovich sought to make his directorial debut, the one and only Roger Corman agreed to finance, albeit with some caveats. Boris Karloff had to be cast (having owed Corman a couple days of work), and footage from Karloff’s previous spooktacular The Terror had to be incorporated somehow. Filmmakers who only wanted to get their feet in Hollywood’s door would have handed in a rush job without a second thought, but Bogdanovich was more ambitious than that, using this opportunity to bridge the gap between the horrors of the screen and those which we live alongside unwittingly. Targets exposes the men behind the monsters, both reflecting the cynicism with which many view chintzy old fright flicks and using it to embolden those same people against the real life nightmares next door.
Byron Orlok (Karloff) has had enough with show business. Though his name is still in high demand, the famous horror star is fed up with the movies and wants to retire with as much dignity as he can. But while the big-screen boogeyman’s cohorts try convincing him to stay in the game, a very real threat is about to strike within the heart of suburbia. Now is when Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), a friendly and unassuming young man, has chosen to put his sizable arsenal to use and embark on a shooting spree. From members of his own family to random passersby, no one is safe from Bobby’s sights, with the inevitability of his capture serving as all the motivation he needs to see his plans through to their full, deadly extent. Eventually, the cold-blooded killer makes his way to a drive-in theater where Byron is set to make his last public appearance, an arena where the two figures will confront one another and show what these “monsters” are made of.
Targets displays a prescience that’s preserved its chilling nature for almost fifty years. Just as the debate over what makes seemingly “normal” people commit heinous acts of violence rages on to this day, Bogdanovich doesn’t pretend to have the answers for why Bobby snaps, nor does he exploit the scenario for cheap, ripped-from-the-headlines thrills. His primary goal is to capture the confusion and stark terror that results when such a rampage is perpetrated by the most harmless-looking individuals, and he succeeds. Plainness is this picture’s greatest ally, as its bids for authenticity pay off with the absence of any unnecessary elements instructing viewers how to feel and when. Bobby’s spree is carried out in an eerie silence, with no clichéd musical cues or dialogue explaining the man’s inner workings in earshot. The casual way in which he picks off innocent motorists comes off every bit as frightening as Bogdanovich intended, and yet it works well with the levity Byron’s subplot provides. He spends the bulk of the film resigning himself to the fact that no one finds him scary anymore, which is Bogdanovich’s means of preparing us for the climax, wherein Bobby, for all the horror he’s unleashed over the past ninety minutes, is shown to be the pathetic coward that he is deep down.
Still, for as cleverly as Targets weaves these two narrative threads together, the picture’s storytelling can be a bit on-the-nose at times. As hands-off as he is where Bobby is concerned, Bogdanovich frequently has the players in the Byron side of the plot directly explain the themes they’re trying to get across to the audience. Some extra subtlety would have been a big help, but it’s hard to argue with the compelling results yielded from what the movie does accomplish. Karloff is an absolute delight as Byron, a performer convinced that he hasn’t any intimidating bones left in his body, only to prove otherwise the closer Targets creeps towards its conclusion. He even sells you on Byron’s self-deprecating view of his career, only for a scene as simple as a spooky fable told to his entourage to blindside and remind you of the hypnotic sway he held over viewers until the very end. O’Kelly, on the other hand, is a man of decidedly fewer words but no less of a magnetic presence, turning in a terrifyingly grounded performance as Bobby. His murderous tendencies aren’t so telegraphed that you can’t see him passing for an otherwise upstanding citizen before the shooting starts, but you get enough of an idea as to how his everyday life could push him over the edge, without having to be given an explicit motivation. The scariest villains are the ones we never see coming, and O’Kelly truly gives us one for the books.
It’s a bummer that Bogdanovich never made anything else like Targets, as he’s a total pro at conjuring nigh-unbearable tension with seemingly little effort. The young director didn’t just surpass expectations given his budgetary limitations; he swung for the fences and knocked a movie as observant as it is suspensefully crafted out of the park. One part thriller and one part showbiz satire, Targets remains captivating from its comedic first frames to its white-knuckle finale.
(Targets is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.)