TARGETS (1968)

The most horrifying fantasy thrillers, for me, are the kind that can be based in reality. Watching zombies ripping people apart doesn’t phase me at all. Watching a film like “Hostel”, a concept that could actually be happening, makes me squirm. Fantasy thrillers (horror films) are supposed to be escapism, but when that line between total fiction and “ripped from the headlines” starts to blur, the results can be disturbing. Disturbing but also potentially well done.

My review concerns the 1968 movie “Targets”, by Peter Bogdanovich and stars the legendary Boris Karloff. I would like to say, for the record, that it is with sad irony I had chosen this to be the review for August edition of Pazz before recent events occured. I have debated the selection, but ultimately I want to make clear a few things before I continue. This is a modern horror film from the 1960s. It is not overtly gory or tasteless, but does deal with the sensitive nature of tragic, senseless shootings. I chose it mostly out of my admiration of Boris Karloff. It is not for everybody, certainly not those who would be offended by the subject matter. But I consider it to be a competent film with good characters and suspense.

Here is my original review before recent events:

“Targets” is two stories spiralling towards each other. The first one about an old Horror film actor, Byron Orloc (Karloff) retiring from movies because he feels his style is old fashioned and campy in modern society. The other story is about homocidal maniac Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), who goes on a shooting spree. 2 styles of horror that collide in Bogdanovich’s first starring/directing/producing film for Roger Corman. Peter Bogdanovich plays Sammy Michaels, a bit of a tribute to Samuel Michael Fuller, who helped write the screenplay and refused to take credit. He befriends the cantankerous Orloc, who stubbornly announces his retirement from horror films, much to the chagrin of the studio heads, Sammy and Orloc’s personal assistant, Jenny (played by Nancy Hsueh). The studio, in an attempt to cash in on Orloc’s iconic status, pushes him to make an appearance at a drive-in theater that will be playing one of his classic films (“The Terror” by Roger Corman and Karloff). Unbeknownst to everyone, gun crazy maniac Bobby has started a shooting spree that climaxes at the drive-in with terrifying results.

As a 1968 film, it has a bit of a dated feel to it, and maybe it is too “clean” for today’s audience, but this is an effective film. Every decade has a tragedy of this nature, which brings eerie familiarity to the subject, and O’Kelly’s Bobby is so clean cut, so “Richie Cunningham” if you will, no one would ever fathom the violence beneath the surface. The film only hints at why he snaps. He lives an ideal life at home with his parents and his lovely caring wife. They eat meals together, watch TV together, etc. So picture perfect, yet there is a war in Bobby’s head. His motivations are so subtle, so undetectable when the camera does a close up, it makes him all the more monstrous when he finally drops into madness by calmly shooting his own wife and mom. Bobby could kill you and then eat a sandwich like nothing happened.

The film neatly balances the two stories, cutting from Bobby’s normal everyday activities to Orloc, Jenny and Sammy. I like the friendship triangle that commences between the three. Sammy, who admires Orloc and is in love with Jenny, is frustrated by Orloc refusing to read Sammy’s script written just for Orloc. Jenny is devoted to Orloc, is in love with Sammy, and is frustrated by Orloc’s potential retirement back to England where she might never see Sammy again. Orloc enjoys both their company, and realizes his complication but he is tired of the studio system, tired of being a film “property”. He feels that the world has moved on, that horror films no longer need his style to be succesful. It is an incredible moment when he finally comes face to face with that modern horror in the form of Bobby during the final showdown. “Is THAT what I was afraid of?” he exclaims in shock when they collide.

The film has no soundtrack, except when Bobby listens to music from his car radio. Normally, I judge a movie’s soundtrack as an important part of the film, but here it’s absence makes the film much greater. One takes the film more seriously without it. The romance between Jenny and Sammy is downplayed, never stealing from the film, but it creates sympathy for the two minor characters. Bogdanovich and Hsueh deserve credit for a decent performances in the film. Karloff is incredible, enthousiastic with his tired, bitter character. One would never guess he suffered so many physical ailments while filming. Unlike Orloc, Karloff very much enjoyed making films up until his death in 1969, and liked Peter’s screenplay so much, he shot 5 days of film, but excepted no pay after his contractual 2 day obligation. The interesting story behind this film is Roger Corman asked Peter to make a movie with several conditions in that Karloff had to be in it for 20 minutes, 20 minutes of footage from Corman’s “The Terror” had to be in it, and then film 40 more minutes of a story with other actors. Peter wrote the aging actor story for Karloff and then based the other 40 minutes off the tragedy of Charles Whitman, who snapped and started a shooting spree at the University of Texas in 1966.

The film recieved great reviews and was praised by by critics and the heads of Paramount studios, who bought the film to distribute it, but was released shortly after the tragic shootings of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy.

Though the box office was minimal, this film propelled Bogdanovich’s career, and deserves a look for those who can handle the nature of the violence. I consider it to be one of Karloff’s most underrated films. As Orloc, Karloff gets to tell one last creepy story in an interview scene, and transcends beyond being the usual horror movie character with a rare moment of heroism when chaos breaks out at the end. Usually, we think of “Frankenstein”, or “How the Grinch stole Christmas” when talking about Karloff. Sometimes we joke about his descent into terrible low budget horror schlock, the fate of many iconic horror fantasy actors (his last three films were absolute garbage, which is a shame for such a talent).

But, while “Targets” is disturbing and violent on some levels, it is Boris Karloff’s finest hour.

About the Author

Jon Hodges
Jon Hodges
Jonathan has enjoyed doing community theater since 1989, and has been involved with shows in Van Wert, Wapakoneta, Waynesfield and Fostoria as well as Lima Encore. He is a judge for the Northwest Ohio Film Festival. Jon feels that the human imagination is one of the greatest adventures to share, and it is always fascinating to see others bring something to life. The second greatest adventure to share is a good dose of chocolate.