Although Targets (1968) is not quite the masterpiece debut film of Peter Bogdanovich, as some have claimed, it is a compelling, near-valedictory film for star Boris Karloff. Being an almost autobiographical story, it should have served as a near-perfect coda for the actor. Instead, Karloff wanted to die acting, and for the first time in his career since 1931’s Frankenstein, he did not have a plethora of offers. Producers knew that the horror icon was almost literally on his last leg, and the cost of insuring him was undoubtedly a problematic casting factor. The final offers came from Jack Hill to make a series of low budget Mexican horrors, but it is best to conveniently imagine those under the rug.
Targets serves more as a last, satisfactory glimpse at the Karloff screen persona, as opposed to being a successful film on its own terms. It also is the film debut of director Peter Bogdanovich, who miscast himself in the film in order to save money. In part, this was due to having Roger Corman as his tight-fisted producer. Pragmatic in his business approach as usual, Corman wanted to use clips from his previous film with Karloff, The Terror (1963) as filler, and granted Targets a twenty-three day shooting schedule and $125,000 budget. From this simple instruction, Bogdanovich crafted a surprising, awkwardly innovative narrative, which the artist in Corman responded to, advising Bogdanovich: “Shoot it like Hitchcock.”
Karloff plays aging horror star Byron Orlok , screening his latest film, The Terror. Much to everyone’s surprise, Orlok announces his retirement. Script writer Sammy ( Bogdanovich) waxes angst; he has finally written a screenplay, one which hints at something akin to the plot of Targets itself. Feeling like a Gothic anachronism amidst the authentic horrors of the newspaper headlines, Orlok refuses to read the script. The studio heads encourage Sammy to dissuade Orlok from his decision. Orlok and Sammy get drunk and screen Karloff’s Criminal Code (1931, dir. Howard Hawks), the film which lead to his casting as the monster in Frankenstein (1931). Orlok agrees, albeit reluctantly, to promote The Terror at a local drive-in cinema.
Targets then roughly shifts to its parallel narrative: Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) who sports a Baptist haircut as the husband and son of diehard Republican gun-lubbin, red, white and blue super-patriot suburbanites. Cue massacre.
This is the more compelling plot, ultimately rendering the Orlock narrative a bit prodigal, despite Karloff’s very satisfactory depiction of Orlok.
Looking at Targets in hindsight, it may be tempting to see Bogdanovich’s film as prophecy after a string of infamous media-inspired shooting events (as John Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver led directly to his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981, or James Holmes’ massacre in an Aurora movie theater during the premiere of Dark Knight Rising). Life imitating art? Art imitating life? It is hardly that simplistic, nor can Targets serve so accessibly as a model.
Bobby’s domestic scenes are the most unsettling, awash in grisly rural hues. His Charles Whitman-like sniper escapades reveal Orlok’s drive-in horror host gig as clunky medievalism. That, of course, is Targets intent , but it tries so hard to be clever and profound that by the time we get to the cinema-under-the-stars shootout, we feel the residue of a naive fusion. Considering our growing apathy to the aftermath of pop culture inspired violence, perhaps Targets‘ coarseness is all too apt.