It's time for us to rethink what constitutes a horror film, especially in this time of exquisitely poured-over daily bloodbaths. I know that, in literary circles, the horror genre has split into “fantasy horror”--Frankenstein, Dracula, ghosts and the sort--and “modern horror,” which considers serial killers, madmen and mass murderers. But why doesn’t this distinction exist as strictly for movies? Most viewers don’t feel films about reality-based multiple murderers deserve to be included in the horror genre, even though these monsters are scarier than any ol’ mummy or wolfman. I mean, is Seven a horror movie? Deliverance? Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer? I Stand Alone? Or Funny Games? I think yes.
In Targets, Peter Bogdanovich’s sobering look at the varying distances between fantasy and modern horror, Boris Karloff portrays Byron Orlock, an embittered old screamfest idol who’s announced his retirement from Hollywood because he's sure the real world has become scarier than any of the cheapos he’s been making. While he’s in L.A. for the drive-in premiere of his last film, one of these worrisome true-life horrors is unveiling in another part of the city, as the all-American Thompson family is too busy with the daily grind to notice the breakdown going on inside the head of their Ken-doll son, Bobby (Tim O’Kelly). Byron’s and Bobby’s worlds collide, but not before Bogdanovich stages one startling act of violence after another. No movie, ever, has matched Targets for vile, matter-of-fact depictions of random violence (though there’s very little blood). We quiver, matching Bobby short-breath-by-short-breath at his every pull of the trigger. Adding salt to open wounds, the director shoots this berserking in an unforgettable quasi-documentary style (the scene with Bobby taking potshots at highway-bound cars while munching on a Baby Ruth will make you wince).
Bogdanovich was one of the first to make a film about modern monsters, predating The Honeymoon Killers, Helter Skelter, and the similarly Charles Whitman-based TV movie The Deadly Tower. That the filmmaker did it while simultaneously paying tribute to the great Karloff, who gained his fame playing fantasy monsters, is no mean feat. Plus he's even one of the leads in Targets, unbilled as Sammy, Karloff's put-upon director (it's a sarcastic, showy performance in which sometimes I swear Bogdanovich is doing a Jimmy Stewart impersonation). Here I have to mention my favorite scene in the film: Karloff's recitation of the classic horror tale "A Date with Death." It was performed in one take, in a hotel room setting, as the camera slowly pulls in on the English actor's ancient face. The final moments of this monologue are especially stupendous because Bogdanovich told Karloff to think about his own death at the tale's final line, and it shows.
There are a lot of details to comment on here. The sharp cinematography here is by Laszlo Kovacs, who impresses with scenes of mysterious darkness (as where Bobby is smoking a cigarette, waiting in the night for his wife to get home), blinding brights (sniping on the oil tankers), and pretty chiaroscuro (Byron's hotel room). Kovacs landed his union card because of this film and went on, with most everybody who toiled behind the scenes on Targets, to collaborate with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on Easy Rider. Next, let's give a shout-out to Polly Platt, Bogdanovich's then-wife and muse; it was she who gave him courage to mount this film, plus she provided its excellent art direction (the cool blues in Bobby's parents' soulless house are appropriately maddening). Let's make note, also, of the fact that the idea for the film really first sprang from the head of legendary director Samuel Fuller, who refused any credit but still gets a "Thank You." And pay attention to the kooky pop songs that play on Bobby's radio--they were provided to Bogdanovich from Sonny Bono's collection of rejected demos. Bono trashed them, giving them away for peanuts, but I think they all have a Nuggets (or at least a Pebbles) compilation-style zing to them.
Of course, Targets famously begins with the ENDING of another film, Roger Corman's Karloff / Jack Nicholson classic The Terror (so weird to see a movie start off with the title THE END flashing up on screen)! As well, there's a long look at an earlier Karloff film, Howard Hawks' mortifying 1932 prison drama The Criminal Code. Then, for drive-in fans, there's some exciting documentary-like footage of a 60s-era ozoner's concession stand, playground, box office, marquee, projection room, car park, and even some glimpses inside the drive-in screen itself.
And, by the way, Bogdanovich didn't intend this movie to be about gun control so, while I think the anti-gun, Charles Whitman/Lee Harvey Oswald statements at the film's outset add to the chills, Bogdanovich fought the studio over them and lost. But despite that, Targets from 1968 remains a wonder.