Targets starts the way so many old horror films do, opening on a dark and stormy night outside of an old gothic castle, before revealing itself to be a film within a film, as the lights go up and we're in a smoky screening room with the director, producers, and the aging, tired star of the film, Byron Orlock (played by Boris Karloff). Orlock announces suddenly that he is retiring from the business, which of course doesn't go over well, the producer of the film yelling "if it weren't for me, the only place you'd be playing is the wax museum!" The director, Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich), is dispatched to try and convince Orlock to do otherwise. This happens in Orlock's hotel room over many drinks, in which Orlock talks about being a relic of a bygone era of Hollywood, how his brand of terror doesn't have a place in the modern world, pointing to a newspaper article about a youth that killed six people at a supermarket, adding "no one's afraid of a painted monster anymore." Sammy desperately wants Orlock to do his next picture, his self interest readily apparent, but after much understanding (and drinking), eventually they come to an agreement; Orlock will do one final scheduled public appearance, the next night at a drive-in theater.
Orlock's story is interweaved with the parallel and seemingly unrelated story of an all-American young man named Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) who is slowly coming unhinged. After purchasing a rifle and putting it in the trunk of his car with his many other purchased guns, Bobby drives home to his loving parents and his adoring girlfriend. Their domesticity rings of normalcy; they have dinner and watch TV together, they engage in idle conversations, and Bobby and his father even go target shooting together, his father a gun enthusiast. The next morning, Bobby methodically and unemotionally shoots his girlfriend and mother, as well as a grocery delivery boy who has bad timing. Bobby heads out to purchase more ammunition before driving out to the freeway and stopping at a power plant, where he climbs a tower and begins indiscriminately, but accurately, shooting at traffic, wounding and killing several drivers and passengers. Fleeing the scene, Bobby holes up in a drive-in theater, planning on continuing his rampage as night falls. It is here that these two stories intersect, the tale of our aging horror star and an example of the true life terror that he feels replaced by.
Peter Bogdanovich gained notoriety in the early '60s as a film critic and as a programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, showcasing films by Hollywood legends Howard Hawks and John Ford, before becoming interested in making movies himself. He would get a job as an assistant to director/producer Roger Corman on the 1966 biker movie The Wild Angels (starring Peter Fonda, Dianne Ladd, Bruce Dern, and Nancy Sinatra) and impressed Corman so much that he was called to direct a new picture. The job, of course, came with some conditions. Boris Karloff owed Corman two days worth of work, so he had to star in the film. Additionally, Corman had some footage from a (then) unreleased 1963 film called The Terror starring Karloff (as well as a young Jack Nicholson and veritable character actor Dick Miller) that had to be used. (The Terror is notable for containing early, uncredited direction work by Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and even Nicholson).
Bogdanovich and his writing partner (and future ex-wife) Polly Platt were at first baffled by how to incorporate the already existing footage into a new movie, before frustration led them to concocting the idea of using it as a movie within a movie. The rest of the story was inspired by a 1965 sniper attack on Highway 101 in California, as well as the more famous case of Charles Whittman, who in 1966 killed his wife and mother before climbing a bell tower on the University of Texas campus and opening fire on people randomly. He would kill 16 and wound 30.
Unsure about the screenplay he had, Bogdanovich took it to a mentor of his, legendary filmmaker Samuel Fuller, who took the script and in one session, basically rewrote the entire thing, establishing the structure and pace of the film. Bogdanovich wanted to give Fuller credit for the rewrite, but he refused, instead giving the young director some advice: "save your money for the ending."
The almost 20 minute ending to Targets is an excellent example of the economy of storytelling and the power of editing, as well as being oddly pertinent to modern tragedies. Bobby the sniper hides out in a drive-in theater, and when darkness falls, he makes his way behind the movie screen and climbs some scaffolding, cutting a small hole in the screen, intent on opening fire on the unsuspecting crowd. Bogdanovich makes sure to show what's happening at the gate, inside the projection booth, at the concession stand, in the office, and the arrival of our main cast. The tension is only cut when Bobby starts shooting, done with a series of smash-zoom cuts, providing maximum impact along with the shock of sudden violence.
Tim O'Kelly does a good job in the film, he portrays Bobby as completely normal (he likes Baby Ruth candy bars) but with a quiet coldness, displaying a false closeness to his loved ones, which builds the anticipatory tension. When asked by the guy at the gun store what he's gonna be hunting, he replies, "gonna shoot some pigs," both a direct quote from Charles Whittman as well as an indication of Bobby's unemotional detachment. O'Kelly is more than effective, but the movie belongs to Boris Karloff.
Karloff plays Orlock (who is a thinly veiled version of himself) as a reflective and thoughtful man, one at the twilight of his career, wanting to leave on terms of his own design, even if it means pushing those that care for him away. Karloff doesn't hide his age, his troubled health (you can clearly see the braces on his legs), using a cane to get around during the movie. In a scene where Karloff and Sammy are making plans for their drive-in appearance with this hippie-doofus radio disc jockey, Karloff decides against the standard and boring pre-prepared audience questions, opting to tell a short scary story, The Appointment in Samarra, which showcases Karloff's prowess with such material. Karloff is of course famous for portraying Frankenstein, The Mummy, Mr. Wong, and the narrator in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but Targets is among the best of his most overlooked works, along with The Old Dark House (1932), The Body Snatcher (1945), and Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963).
The cinematography is quick, flowing, documentary-like during the scenes with Bobby, as well as the drive-in finale. The scenes with Karloff are a little stiffer, but that is due to his health and the short shooting schedule they had. This is an early credit for cinematographer László Kovács, who would breakout with the following year's Easy Rider, and would work with Bogdanovich another 5 times, most notably on 1973's gorgeous Paper Moon. Kovács would also go on to do Five Easy Pieces (1970), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Freebie and the Bean (1974), Shampoo (1975), Ghostbusters (1984), and Say Anything... (1989).
Bogdanovich does a fine job acting in the film, much more lively and not nearly as deadpan as his work would be on HBO's The Sopranos, but after Targets he wouldn't act again for another 10 years. His follow-up to Targets would be the biggest success of his career, The Last Picture Show (1971). That would be followed by some successes, such as What's Up Doc? (1972) with Barbara Streisand and the excellent Paper Moon (1973) with Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, before a series of flops and failures, led off by Daisy Miller in 1974 and Nickelodeon in 1976. He would also direct Mask (1985) with a big faced Eric Stoltz and Cher, as well as The Thing Called Love in 1993 (one of River Phoenix's last performances), before descending into a long stint of TV movies. He also has developed quite a penchant for neckerchiefs.
The film would end up being sold to and released by Paramount Pictures, and would receive positive reviews. Unfortunately the film would suffer from poor timing, as 1968 would see the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr (April) and Robert Kennedy (June). Opening in August, the film would do little business, as the public wasn't interested in a film about a sniper. Watching Targets today one can't help but think of the beltway snipers case that took place on the East Coast in 2002 or, more recently, the theater shooting last year in Aurora, Colorado. Targets doesn't glorify its killer (it doesn't even spell out his motivations), but it does show people helping each other to stay out of harms way, as well as one individual who heroical (and cathartically) stands up to the monster.
In the finale at the drive-in, Karloff is given his most triumphant moment in his confrontation with Bobby, putting himself in harms way, before using his cane and a few well placed slaps to bring him down. "Is that what I was afraid of?," asks Karloff in the end, staring at this shaken, disturbed young man. Even with this victory, Karloff (and the monsters of old he represents) would step aside (for the most part) and make way for real life monsters like Bobby (masked stalkers, crazed killers, knife-wielding maniacs, madmen who work not in gothic castles, but in suburban neighborhoods and metropolitan areas) who would become commonplace, dominating the cinema for years to come.
*note: contains squealing tires, not on dirt.