Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
United States of America
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
It is now 11.40 am. My wife is still asleep but when she wakes up, I am going to kill her. Then I am going to kill my mother.
I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.
In a house in Los Angeles, a relic from another time reclines into a chair and thinks about his past. He goes by the name of Byron Orlok, which was a name that at one point meant something. He used to be one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood. Horror was his specialty, becoming the go-to man for studios who wanted to make sure their latest creep fest made money. But now, almost nobody remembers him. He looks at his young friend Sammy Michaels, a young up-and-coming writer/director, and says, “Oh, Sammy, what's the use? Mr. Boogey Man, King of Blood they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream.” His young friend tries to cheer him up. But it is no use, Orlok has officially announced his retirement and has finally come to terms with the fact that the world will forget about him.
In another part of town a young man named Bobby Thompson walks into a gun store. He buys several cartridges of ammunition. He is no stranger to the shop. He has gone there several times to get hunting supplies for his excursions with his father. But something seems different about him this time. The salesman looks at him and asks, “What’re you hunting this time?” Bobby eerily replies, “Gonna shoot some pigs.” He leaves the shop and goes to his car which is filled with rifles, pistols, and ammunition. Within a few hours Bobby will kill his mother and wife before going on a shooting spree from the top of an oil refinery. As the bodies pile up, the only clue about his whereabouts is a note that reads that he knows he will be captured. But before he is, many more people will die.
Both of these men, Byron Orlok and Bobby Thompson, represent two different eras of fear. Orlok represents a more innocent time when all the public had to fear were scary movies about zombies and ghosts. Bobby represents the new public awareness brought on in the Sixties, the decade that America lost its innocence, where the brutal realities of internal strife and a hopeless war abroad were brought home. It’s clear that they cannot coexist. There must be a reckoning…
Such is the story behind Peter Bogdanovich’s premier film Targets. While it may play like another dime store B-movie, it is actually a penetrating look into the heart of American society and the forces that rule and dominate its psyche. A devout film lover, Bogdanovich made this film when his mentor Roger Corman told him that he could make any film that he wanted as long as it stayed under budget. To Bogdanovich’s great luck, not only was he given creative control, he was given access to one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Boris Karloff (most famous for his role as the original Frankenstein's Monster in James Whale's Frankenstein), because he owed Corman two days of work. Instead of making a cheap knock-off thriller, Bogdanovich used his scarce resources to create one of the best films of the Sixties that nobody remembers.
Karloff of course plays Orlok (a name taken from the vampire Count Orlok in Nosferatu) to perfection, perhaps because he was playing himself. Indeed, that is probably what Bogdanovich had in mind. Karloff and Orlok had many similarities: they were both legends past their prime, they were horror movie stars, and they were both tired, old friendly men. Unlike his rival Bela Lugosi who spent his last few years wasting away under the influence of addiction, Karloff lived a much happier life. Despite his onscreen persona, he was a friendly man who frequently gave to children’s charities, even dressing up as Santa Claus every Christmas to hand out presents to physically disabled kids in a hospital in Baltimore. But despite his kindness, by the end of the Sixties he was still a bygone fossil. In fact, Targets would be the last major American film that Karloff would star in. And his age showed, too. By the time shooting took place, Karloff only had half of one lung left and had to sit in a wheelchair between takes wearing an oxygen mask. But the fact remains that throughout his (and Orlok’s) career, he played villains and monsters that played fair. They killed people, sure, but they never broke the rules.
Contrast Orlok’s character with that of Bobby Thompson. His character was based on the real life serial killer named Charles Whitman, who went on a killing spree in the observation tower at the University of Texas in 1966 after killing his mother and wife. While Whitman was influenced largely by a brain tumor, Thompson has no excuse. He is a young man who is fed up with society. It is implied that he was in Vietnam, so he is the perfect representation of a nation that was getting ready to implode on itself. In contrast to Orlok, the old symbol of horror that played fair, Bobby is the new face of horror. He is the face of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr (both of which occurred just before Targets was released). He is the face of the post-traumatic stress disorder felt by thousands of Vietnam veterans. He is the reason that society cannot take Orlok seriously anymore. Why be afraid of make believe when reality is terrifying enough.
The film does have showdown where Orlok confronts Bobby at a drive-in theater. Orlok was there for one last promotional appearance before retirement. For Bobby, the rows of people sitting in cars make a perfect shooting range. Their confrontation is a little forced and today’s jaded audiences may think that it is a joke, but their meeting is symbolic of goodness and decency making one last stand against the new forces of societal evil.
Peter Bogdanovich, who would later go on to direct such classics as The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973), was one of the first members of the New Hollywood movement along with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas. A devout film lover, he was just as much a film historian as he was a director. And it shows in Targets, as it would in his later movies. In fact, movies are a constant motif in Targets: Karloff playing a poorly-veiled version of himself, long conversations about movies between Sammy and Orlok, the final rampage at the drive-in theater. Maybe he is trying to make a point about film’s role in society. Or maybe he was just trying to make a cinematic valentine to one of his favorite actors. Targets can be interpreted either way. But the one thing that is certain is that Targets is a powerful film. Bogdanovich proves himself as a formidable artist with his debut film. He masterfully draws out the tension surrounding Bobby, watching him like a spectral viewer as he prepares himself for the murders. The scene where he first starts shooting off the top of the oil refinery is worthy of the finest Hitchcock. And then there is Karloff. What an incredible man, what an incredible performance. His last role in this film is a fitting tribute to the career of a man who represented fear for millions of wide-eyed spectators. It is a shame that the likes of Bobby Thompson had to show up and ruin his legacy, and his society, with the pull of a trigger.