Targets Acquired

Criterion Collection rereleases ‘Targets’, Peter Bogdanovich’s prescient directorial debut

After absorbing decades of American films and spending considerable time interviewing old masters like Hitchcock, Welles, and John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich and his wife Polly Platt were ready to make a film of their own. Veteran producer Roger Corman decided to give the couple their chance to make a schlocky but profitable exploitation film. Kudos to Corman, who generously offered on-the-job training for plenty of fledgling directors such as Scorsese and Coppola. The Criterion Collection recently gave Targets, Bogdanovich’s prescient directorial debut, a rerelease.

Today’s Hollywood might learn something about innovation from Corman’s gonzo, zero budget, just-get-it-done aesthetic. You don’t necessarily need to use comic book franchises or go to an expensive film school or make a bajillion dollar investment to create an effective, engaging, and engaging film. What makes for interesting movies is for the money people to give young, edgy talent some opportunity and let talented, erudite young people try their ideas out. Given a little time, tremendous talent can bloom.

Corman had none other than the great Boris Karloff contractually obligated to give him a couple days’ worth of work, and so he figured Bogdanovich and Platt could quickly cobble something together by adding in some old footage of Karloff from one of his cheap early horror flicks, mix in some random plotting, and call it a day. Instead, they intuitively juxtaposed the spooky screen legend of yore with the seemingly innocuous monster that was gradually becoming the public’s new nightmare.

Part of what gives the film authenticity is that some of the main characters are essentially playing themselves. Octogenarian Karloff is Byron Orlock, a genteel but washed-up old horror star who is sick of show business. His resigned attitude is close to Karloff’s weary state of mind while appearing in his last-ever film role. Certainly understandable, given that he’d played the likes of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and sparred multiple times onscreen with Bela Lugosi, especially brilliantly in The Black Cat. Bogdanovich plays an earnest up-and-comer who just wants Orlock to read his script and help him get going in the business. They bond over heavy pours of Scotch and grouching that the cinema’s best days are long gone–which is amusingly wrong given that exciting era for movies–while watching one of Karloff’s first appearances, in a Howard Hawks film no less, on late-night TV.

What they don’t know is that at the same time, a local lad named Bobby has Orlock literally in his sights. We first see Bobby gazing at Orlock through the crosshairs of a scarily large gun he’s about to buy across the street. Bobby doesn’t look like anything remarkable. If anything, we’re unnerved by how underwhelming he is, munching candy bars and living with his perky blonde wife at his parents’s house in sunny suburban California. We see that boyish Bobby isn’t quite right in the head when he opens the trunk of his car to reveal a massive pile of heavy-duty firearms and a ton of ammunition. When he does some father and son bonding over target practice in the backyard, he even nonchalantly puts his dad in his sights for a couple of moments.

Bogdanovich and Platt—whose tragically underappreciated career was examined in a recent season of the hit film history podcast You Must Remember This—were inspired by the contemporaneous story of Charles Whitman. Whitman was a bright, troubled former Marine and Eagle Scout who one day in 1966 killed his wife and mother before climbing up a tower in the middle of the UT-Austin campus and started shooting at random people. Local TV aired the horrific 90 minutes live. Targets sets its climactic massacre at a drive in, reminding us that the simple act of watching can have dangerous implications.

Old Karloff proves that he still had the goods. At one point he delivers a masterful monologue telling an ancient parable about an “appointment in Samarra” in one perfectly timed take. His rich English voice (Karloff enjoyed a late career resurgence by intoning the memorable theme song to How the Grinch Stole Christmas) tells us an ominously fatalistic tale. The inclusion of the scene adds a certain dark poetry to the story’s otherwise “taut realism” as the accompanying essay by the critic Adam Nayman puts it.

The most interesting choice Bogdanovich and Platt make is that they don’t really pathologize their killer. They don’t provide any specific motive or explanation for Bobby’s matter-of-fact murder spree. His All-American boy vibe does seem off; he looks a little like a fun house version of Ron Howard. Bogdanovich specifically designed the foreboding-looking house that oppressively drab house the oh-so-nuclear family lives in. The family routinely prays before dinner, murmuring with approval about seeing a real-life movie star in public, and watching dumb TV in their cave-like living room. The only real decoration is the ominous row of shotguns on the mostly empty walls.

Despite those subtle hints about the insipid world Bobby inhabits, that’s not a reason to start randomly killing people. Because the film leaves that important aspect of the story unexplained, we’re at a loss as to why Bobby is such a psychopath. Targets forces us to confront the killing spree’s essential meaninglessness, at least on Bobby’s part, which makes an experience that the movies often treat gratuitously land with a queasy thump.

Bobby’s victims are mostly completely random, which paradoxically makes their deaths that much more haunting. Stalin apparently once said that “the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic.” On one level that’s true, or perhaps better to say accurate. How many times do you hear on the news that X number of people in whatever place died today and then go about your business? But, of course, on a deeper level it’s utterly untrue: a million deaths are in fact a million individual tragedies. Since Targets shows the random murders from Bobby’s clinically detached perspective, we understand the eerie indifference he has towards his own actions. Even in a desensitized age, that casual dehumanization should chill us to the bone.

Given the current debates (or lack thereof) about gun control Targets was eerily prescient all those years ago to demonstrate how (un)believably easy it is for Bobby to score his weapons of mass death. He barely needs to explain anything to the shop clerk, goes through zero background checks, casually puts everything on his dad’s tab, and he walks off with his weapons in about five minutes of screen time. The obvious point about how casually Americans approach gun restrictions is certainly well taken, especially now. What’s even scarier to consider is that ultra-ordinary Bobby might not even have any prior red flags on his record, which means there really isn’t anything stopping him.

At one point, Orlock laments over how his classic brand of spookiness is nothing compared to what you can read in the daily newspaper. He holds up a front page’s blaring headline about recent mass death to prove his point. Audiences at the time were probably aware then, and we certainly know now, that he doesn’t really have to convince anyone. Filmed in late 1967, with the coming year’s political assassinations, Targets was both compelling and unexpectedly scary in a ripped-from-the-headlines sense, especially when it attracted major studio distribution. Understandably, a jittery public was in no mood for its sense of who the new monsters really were.

These days we’re not at all removed from Targets’s bleak vision of casual mayhem. We’re more accustomed than ever to the idea of the psycho killer being the boy next door, and we’re never surprised when a mass shooting occurs. And maybe that’s why it’s also not surprising that we can’t seem to take specific steps to maybe try and stop the next one from happening. We shouldn’t be complacent about the threat of real-life violence any more than we should let the fictionalized version excite us. What gives Targets its unnerving power after all this time is that it refuses to sensationalize its subject, even when it’s close to the sensationalized world of cinema.


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Matt Hanson

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

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