Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968)
USA, 1968 Dir: Peter Bogdanovich
Starring Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich, Athur Peterson, Monte Landis, Nancy Hsueh
Targets opens as a Gothic horror, like any of a dozen Roger Corman B-movies, with Boris Karloff stalking around his 19th century mansion. Then the lights come up and Karloff is seen watching the film with studio executives. Playing a version of himself, under the rather obvious but amusing moniker of Byron Orlok, Karloff is the ageing horror star who decides to call it a day, stating “I’m an antique, out of date … an anachronism. The world belongs to the young. Make way for them, let them have it.” Immediately after these words, the film cuts to Karloff as seen through the lens of a rifle. Young Bobby (Tim O’Kelly) has just made an easy purchase of a new rifle and ammunition using his dad’s chequebook. Within the first few minutes, the film’s intentions are clear – it’s ring out the old, bring in the new in terms of horror.
Targets came about through a strange set of circumstances, when B-movie maestro Roger Corman realised that Boris Karloff owed him three days filming. With the proviso that sequences from one of his previous Gothic horrors must be incorporated, Corman gave film critic and aspiring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich the chance to direct his first feature using the old footage and three days with Karloff. The obvious conclusion that Bogdanovich would simply make a creaky old B-movie were dispelled when the young director instead created something daringly new out of the necessary elements. Simultaneously a celebration of the classic Gothic style which had dominated Hollywood since the 1930’s and a critique of the old methods in the face of very real terrors that existed in 1960’s (and modern day) America, Targets is a brave piece of mainstream cinema. Rather than sit amongst the traditional American horror films of the 1960’s, Targets has more in common with the challenging works of the American New Wave instigated with Bonnie And Clyde in 1967. Indeed, Bogdanovich would go on to become a key figure in the first flourish of this New Hollywood, alongside Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn, and Targets can be seen as one of the first attempts to present modern-day violence with an appropriate level of seriousness.
The two narrative strands of the retiring Karloff and the disturbed Bobby interweave with each other throughout, until they finally merge in the closing sequence. The scenes with Karloff are poignant and warm, whilst the scenes with Bobby are chilling and cold, with Bogdanovich using an effective colour scheme to express the mood of the contrasting narratives. Karloff’s scenes are bathed in yellows and browns, like autumn years viewed through a whisky glass, conveying a cosy warmth befitting the story of the “antique” actor recalling his old-fashioned movies. Conversely, Bobby’s scenes are filled with blues and whites, making them feel sterile and unemotional, befitting the story of a cold-blooded murderer disconnected from the world around him. Although coldly stylized, the stark reality and matter-of-fact presentation of Bobby’s murders are incredibly frightening. Unlike the rousing music and stock effects which accompany the Gothic opening, Bobby’s attacks are presented in their authentic sound-scape, mostly silences punctuated by loud gun shots. The sequence of Bobby killing his family and calmly putting their bodies to bed is all the more terrifying for it’s domestic setting and non-sensational approach. This really was a new direction for the horror genre, chilling in a different way even to the contemporary horrors of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), because the Bates motel actually feels very much in the Gothic mould. Targets horrors are all too real, occurring in undimmed daylight. All the more alarming though – Bobby is a charming, well-mannered young man who commits his crimes as if they were a natural extension of his everyday life. “Hardly ever missed, did I?” he happily boasts after a spate of shootings.
The film’s final sequence has a riveting premise as Bobby shoots through a hole in the screen into the audience of a drive-in, the victims unable to see him but are themselves visible from the light of the film. The melodramatic soundtrack of the drive-in movie (the same Gothic horror from the opening scene) heard through the cinema’s speakers whilst Bobby picks off members of the audience seems sickeningly inappropriate, yet reveals the pertinent truth that certain things are just too horrific to suit the manner of sensationalism. Karloff’s concluding words “is that what I was afraid of?” speaks volumes about the stripped-down reality of horror films with a contemporary setting. No dressing up of large sets, no monstrous make-up, no strikes of lightning – just a boy with a rifle.
What is most striking about Targets is how incredibly assured it is with it’s own knowing deconstruction of cinema. Bogdanovich even plays a version of himself called Sammy (named after writer-director Samuel Fuller, who advised on the film) who is trying to prepare a new horror film that will show Orlock in a different light, as indeed this film allows Karloff’s acting to shine in a role of rare sincere depth (it’s a wonderful performance from the veteran in one of his last films before his death in 1969). This film has as much to say about the art of filmmaking as it does about contemporary violence in the USA. For a low-budget picture from a first-time director, Targets is a brilliantly confident and detailed film, but it had little effect in 1968, proving unpopular with audiences after the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. It’s only important effect was securing Bogdanovich good notices, leading him on to greater heights of success in the 1970’s. But 40 years on, Targets can be seen as remarkably portentous in the way that it literally passes the baton between the old (the Corman Gothic cycle) and the new (gritty thrillers and slasher movies of the 1970’s). It is equally effective as both a horror-thriller and as a critique of the gun laws in the USA, arguing that the real threat could well exist in your own home, as opposed to those of a 19th century mansion. Both can be scary, but Targets ensures that contemporary home-grown terrors are the more disturbing.