Slight spoilers for the end of the film.
This isn’t on the “official” film list I put together for the Easy Riders Raging Bulls marathon, but I watched it on a whim the other day and was quite taken with it, so decided to slip in a post about it anyway. Targets is the first feature from director Peter Bogdanovich, likely the most obviously cinephiliac New Hollywood filmmaker, and though his love of and dependence on cinema history is evident in just about all of his films, nowhere is it more pronounced than here.
Boris Karloff, in one of his final film roles, plays aging horror actor Byron Orlock, a cultured Brit typecast in monster movie roles just like Karloff himself was for just about his whole career. Orlock decides out of the blue to retire, much to the consternation of up-and-coming writer/director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich), who has just written a serious role specifically for him that Michaels believes would be worthy of his talents. The fact that Michaels is dating Orlock’s assistant (who would presumably return to England with him upon his retirement) is also a factor. Meanwhile, a parallel plot thread follows Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), a clean-cut young man who seems perfectly normal except perhaps a slight obsession with guns and an indefinable sense of ennui about his home life with his wife and parents – until he calmly takes a sniper rifle up on a water tower and starts picking off targets at random on the freeway.
These two plotlines come together when Orlock finally agrees to make a personal appearance at a local drive-in where his most recent film is being screened; a location Bobby has also chosen for his next sniping set-up. Thematically, though, the plots are more interrelated that simple coincidental proximity. Orlock is retiring not only because he’s tired of acting in the same roles all the time, but because he believes that the very essence of the roles he plays is outdated. He points out a story in the paper about another random shooting spree, saying that this is the real horror, these are the real monsters – the old-style Universal monsters made from make-up and special effects simply can’t have the same kind of power that they once did in the modern world.
Yet when Bobby and Orlock come face to face, the irrelevant movie monster and the chilling modern killer, it is Bobby who shrinks in fear from Orlock, suggesting that the movies continue to have some primal hold over us that we may not be able to quite explain. This idea is explored a lot more mystically in Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (which takes off from a young girl’s experience of seeing Frankenstein) and others, but even though Bogdanovich’s take on it isn’t particularly subtle, it’s still quite effective in its way, largely due to Boris Karloff playing Orlock. The meta level of the film almost threatens to overtake it – in many ways, Orlock IS Karloff (Bogdanovich barely bothered to change the character’s name), and you could easily argue that Targets itself is the serious film that Bogdanovich’s alter-ego Michaels has written for Orlock. It’s a very fitting first film for Bogdanovich, a riff on his own love of classic film, his own sense of its continued relevance, and his own position coming into filmmaking later in its history than he probably would’ve liked.
That’s not to suggest that the meta level or the cinephile approach are the only things to enjoy about Targets, though. The Bobby section of the storyline is quite harrowing on many levels. He embodies the “but he seemed like such a nice boy” idea to its fullest, yet with an underlying creepiness that exists even when he’s behaving just like a nice boy. The way we first see him arrive at his home, entering silently and wandering around staring at, almost taking stock of, items around the living room while his wife and mother in the other room wonder when he’s going to get home. The alert yet detached way he watches television with his family, the light from the TV flickering across his impassive face. The very methodical way he lays out a dozen guns, most of which he couldn’t possibly need, on top of the water tower. The fact that no reason is giving for his actions, nothing in his background to suggest instability, no event that make him snap, is all the more chilling. And that contrasted with Orlock’s very warm, though world-weary, very human persona is what makes the film work, especially in the final section.
The film plays like a B-movie, and basically is that – low budget, not a lot of showiness, but with a nice sense of camerawork, especially in Bobby’s home. But there’s a lot more to it than you’d expect, and it was great to see Karloff in a different sort of role. Definitely up there among the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently.
Writer/Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Story: Peter Bogdanovich and Polly Platt
Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich, Nancy Heueh
Country: United States
Running Time: 90 min.