When a filmmaker—especially an auteur—is saddled with a set of mandates from the producers, the result can often be a misfire or a hodgepodge that doesn’t really work. It muddies the original vision. But if the director is creative enough, if they maybe have the gall enough, they can turn out something that not only works, but is exceptionally great. Roger Corman told the young Peter Bogdanovich he could make any movie he wanted, provided he use stock footage from the very expensive (for them) period horror film The Terror, and that he cast Boris Karloff who still owed him two days of work. Bogdanovich’s result was a superbly tense modern thriller that also acts as a fitting elegy to Karloff’s long and storied career: Targets.
This is actually a horrible trailer, and it’s wrong for a number of reasons. This was from the re-release of the film after Paramount bought the movie and Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in 1971 had been a hit, so they downplayed the presence of Karloff entirely—also because, well, he was dead at the time—and only showed the sniper scenes which showcase the director’s quick cutting. The other reason it’s wrong is that the trailer calls the young homicidal maniac “Joe” when his name in the film is clearly given as “Bobby.” That doesn’t make any sense at all. Also they say he’s an only child, but they talk about his brother a lot. Regardless.
Targets is like a diamond in the rough, the rare hamstrung low-budget feature that actually ended up benefiting from the forced inclusion of a particular actor. Karloff is masterful in his role, which would be one of the last in his long career, and he even agreed to work five days instead of the two he was contracted for and did so for no extra money. That’s how much he liked the script.
The movie is two different storylines on a collision course. First, we have Karloff as Byron Orlok, an aged horror icon who can no longer see the reason for continuing in the movie business after yet another part in yet another Gothic scary movie (and thinly veiled version of himself). The writer-director Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich himself) wants Orlok for his next picture, a totally modern movie and a completely different type of role for the old man, but Orlok wants out and Michaels is despondent. Orlok’s personal assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh) is also Sammy’s girlfriend, so she ends up having to be in the middle a lot.
Elsewhere—actually, literally across the street from the studio offices—a young returned Vietnam vet named Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) is buying guns to go hunting with his father. He and his young wife live with his parents and it appears that things are not going well. Bobby sees no way out of such a life, and even seeing Byron Orlok across the street doesn’t really cheer him up for long. The more he tries to fit in, the more alienated he gets …until he begins stockpiling an arsenal, takes out his wife and mother, and then heads up to a water tower to begin picking people off the highway.
These two storylines don’t seem to intersect at all, but the theme of one constantly informs the other. Orlok calls himself a relic of a simpler time, pointing to real-life, horrible, senseless violence happening every day all over the country. People don’t have room for “painted monsters,” he says. And Sammy constantly rebuts that that type of horror is exactly why someone like Orlok is needed, but the elder thespian admits he’s afraid of what the world’s become.
Eventually, Orlok agrees to do a special engagement at a drive-thru screening of The Terror and that just so happens to be where Bobby has gone to escape the cops. He gets his way up to the screen and begins picking off patrons in their cars which leads to the second incredibly tense and nerve-racking sequence in the movie. Orlok has to then confront the very thing he’s been terrified of the whole time.
I can’t say enough good things about Targets. A friend of mine has been telling me to watch it for years and I just finally got around to it. Boy, do I wish I’d gotten to it sooner. It’s a very gritty, sadly very prescient movie that is even more disturbing today. At the same time, though, it’s a very touching elegy to art and what it means to be an icon of something that seems passé, a look at how silly art is compared with reality and yet how important that art is because of it.
Bogdanovich deserves a lot of praise for this movie, but it didn’t hurt that he had a lot of famous Hollywood friends at the time from his years of journalism. Samuel Fuller, the acclaimed director and screenwriter, co-wrote the script to Targets with him uncredited, and Bogdanovich got advice from him and several other super amazing filmmakers on the rough cut. It’s not cheating I guess if your friends just happen to be people like Orson Welles. But still.
Targets is one of Karloff’s finest films and though he only worked a few days, he manages to easily be the heart and soul of the picture, around which the film unfolds. But many plaudits need to be foisted upon Tim O’Kelly as Bobby who manages to be both terrifyingly cold and effortlessly breezy. Particularly chilling is his visit to the gun shop to get the ammo needed for his sniping, immediately following his murder of his wife and mother. He eats an apple, so you know how big of an asshole he is. Sadly, O’Kelly’s career ended in 1970, for seemingly no reason, and he died in 1990 at the age of only 48. Both lead actors were toward the twilight of the careers.
If you get a chance to see Targets, take the shot. You’re in for a massive, major, offbeat treat.