1968 was a pivotal year in the United States. There were the duel assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Kennedy’s death ended the dream of Camelot while King’s death resulted in riots, neighborhoods burning, and racial tensions reaching new heights of discontent. In Vietnam, troop levels went over 500,000. The Siege of Khe Shan and the TET offensive caused Americans to wonder if the war was winnable. Emotionally and politically dead, LBJ refused to seek or accept another term as President. In August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by violence between protesters against the war and the Chicago police force. Vietnam was the first television war, blurring the senses between real and fictional violence. Unlike today, audiences back then were not use to watching the 6 o’clock news and seeing the blood of American soldiers flowing in the mud…unless it was just a movie.
In August of that year, “Targets”, a small film directed by a young novice director named Peter Bogdanovich was released to generally good reviews and not so good business. The film contains two narratives, one about Bobby Thompson, a seemingly all-American young man and the second about Byron Orlok an aging horror movie star, whose paths will cross blurring real vs. fictitious violence in our society.
Bogdanovich was already well known as a film writer for Esquire magazine; a film programmer for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; a champion of such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan and many others, all of who, he helped bring back to the attention of cineastes. Bogdanovich’s book, “Who The Devil Made It?” is a collection of interviews with these directors, and many others, is an essential read for film lovers. Bogdanovich, along with his then wife Polly Platt, would soon leave New York for Los Angeles where he hoped to break into the film industry. He would meet Roger Corman at a film screening, and eventually was offered a job directing. His first jobs for Corman were on films like “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” where he was given two Russian science fiction films and told to add some additional footage resulting in a new film. “Targets” was his first film from scratch, well almost. According to Andrew Yule in his Bogdanovich biography “Picture Shows: The Life and Films of Peter Bogdanovich,” Boris Karloff owed Corman two days of work. Corman gave Bogdanovich the opportunity to make “Targets” if he incorporated about 20 minutes of outtake footage from Corman’s “The Terror.” He would then be able to use Boris Karloff for approximately another 20 minutes of new footage and he could shoot an additional 40 minutes to fill out the feature, that way Corman had a new Karloff film. Bogdanovich and Platt would write the story and screenplay (according to IMDB Sam Fuller had a hand in writing also) and direct. Corman sold the film to Paramount who purchased it for $150,000 netting Corman a profit of about $20,000.
Bogdanovich devised a story about a young man named Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), he is married, unemployed, very polite to his parents; calls his father sir. The father and son hunt together and seem to be a happy middle class family, though Bobby hints at some strange thoughts he has been having. Bogdanovich parallels this story with a second story about aging horror film star Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) who wants to retire saying that the horror in his films cannot match the horror that is going on in today’s real world. These two seemingly unrelated tales will converge in a dramatic ending.
When the film begins, we are viewing scenes from the low budget Roger Corman flick, “The Terror” (Bogdanovich ended up using only anout three minutes of Corman’s film) with Karloff and a young, then unknown actor named Jack Nicholson in the role of a handsome Lieutenant. Bogdanovich nicely merges these scenes from Corman’s existing footage into the new story.
The film within a film, “The Terror” is having its premiere at a local drive-in and Orlok is scheduled to make a personal appearance to help promote it. Meanwhile Bobby Thompson, the seemingly all-American young man is meticulously preparing to murder his wife and mother, and then continues his murderous shooting spree by first picking off unsuspecting drivers on a highway from the top of a water tank and later than evening at a drive-in. The same drive-in Byron Orlok is making a personal appearance to promote his film.
Of the two narratives, the Thompson story has the greater substance though for a cinephile, the Karloff sequences and particularly the scenes with Bogdanovich as the young director Sammy Michaels are enticing. Here you have the real Bogdanovich, the young and upcoming director of the film portraying a young and upcoming director, and you also have Boris Karloff, one of the greatest horror stars of all time portraying Byron Orlok, one of the greatest horror stars of all time. Bogdanovich also pays homage to one of his director idols, Howard Hawks, by showing scenes of “The Criminal Code,” a 1931 film directed by Hawks in which Orlok/Karloff stars, playing on a TV.
In real life as in reel life, the horror film as Orlok/Karloff knew it was ending. Slasher films of the 1970’s would forge a new gorier titillating horror film far removed the atmospheric, mood drenched films of the past. Today’s horror films are filled with special effects, bloody gore, bug infested creatures spitting out venom that makes Linda Blair’s pea soup antics look enticing enough to eat. As for Orlok, he was right to retire, his time had past and so had Karloff’s who died the following year after “Targets” was released.
The character of Bobby is loosely based on the true story of mass murderer Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas, who in August of 1966 became one of the most infamous mass killers ever known when he shot and killed 14 people, wounding 31 others, from the tower of an administration building on the University of Texas campus. The Whitman sniper shootings were shocking. Unlike today where we unfortunately here all too often about sniper shootings (Washington D.C. Malvo/Lee), school shootings (Columbine, Virginia Tech) and mass murder (Ted Bundy), the Whitman shootings were still rare enough to send shock waves around the country. The shootings seemed to be just another symptom of all the violence and turmoil that was going on at the time.
True, Whitman was not the first, only a month earlier Richard Speck killed eight nurses in Chicago. A few years earlier in the 1960’s, the Boston Strangler went on a two year murdering spree killing 13 women. Go back a little further and there were the two “In Cold Blood” killers, and in 1958 Charlie Starkweather whose murderous rampage would be the inspiration for a series of films including Malick’s “Badlands” and Stone’s “Natural Born Killers”. Today, television shows like “Criminal Minds” have made mass murderers a weekly entertainment event.
Films about fictional and real life mass killers have been with us throughout the history of movies, Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”, Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux”, and Capra’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” are just a few examples. The first modern day serial killer movies were probably Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom.” Today films about mass killers still fascinate, remain controversial, and are more violent than ever. “Silence of the Lambs” and its sequels, “Summer of Sam”, “Seven”, “American Psycho,” “The Bone Collector” and “Zodiac” are some of the most recent films. Of these films, Fincher’s “Zodiac” is a few notches above the rest, a masterfully constructed film, with excellent performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. “Zodiac” was unfairly ignored during the awards season.
Though the acting in “Targets” by some of the cast members is not top quality and Bogdanovich never really explains what drives Bobby to do what he does, he makes up for it with some superlative camera work. A good example is the shootings of his wife and mother. We see Bobby is sitting behind a desk; his wife enters the room, curious as to what he is doing. As she approaches him to give him a kiss, Bogdanovich gives us a close up of her leaning forward, her face staring straight into the camera. We then get a quick cut to a close up under the desk, Bobby’s hand is holding a pistol, he pulls the trigger killing her. His mother’s murder and aftermath are done in one long take.
“Targets” is a terrific, self-assured first feature film and one well worth revisiting.