A Review by The Mike
Starring: Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly
Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich
Rated: R for violent content
Movie Released: 1968
With a lot of buzz circulating in the online community about Boris Karloff and Roger Corman of late, I have been reminded often of a film that shows a lot about each of the two men and their impact on cinema in general. That film is Targets, a magical conjunction of varied talents and hot-button topics that never ceases to amaze me.
The story behind Targets is as interesting as the story within it. As told by Bogdanovich, he was given the chance to direct this film (his first, after working as an assistant with Corman) with a few conditions – he needed to use Karloff (who “owed” Corman two days work), he needed to use footage from Corman’s latest picture with Karloff (The Terror, which also starred Jack Nicholson), and he needed to stay under a $125,000 budget. Bogdanovich took the chance, and decided to make a film loosely based on the case of Charles Whitman, a University of Texas student who had perched in a tower and started sniping before killing himself the previous year.
Of course, a sniper story and Boris Karloff don’t really seem to mix, especially when you must use footage from a Victorian-era horror film set in a castle by the sea. But after a lot of brainstorming and several re-writing sessions with indie film-making legend Samuel Fuller, the script for Targets arrived.
Bogdanovich decided to get rid of one of his handicaps early on, starting with the footage from Corman’s past film. But, after a few moments, a pretty stern THE END appears on screen, and things fade to black. The reveal shows us Karloff in character for this film, as an aging horror star named Byron Orlok who’s watching the film he just completed with the director and producers. When pressed by studio bigwigs for opinions on his next project, the frustrated old man relates that he’s tired of the business and that this was his last film.
But we’re not through with Karloff, or the footage from The Terror. The film carries on with more of Orlok, letting us follow him into his daily life where he tries to convince his employers (including his last director, played by Bogdanovich) that he’s serious about getting out of the business. Orlok states that he’s tired of making these pictures in hopes of scaring audiences who’re so cynical, and that he feels like a “museum piece” most of the time. He waxes about how time has passed him by, how all the wars and violence have desensitized people to the boogeymen that he brought them, and that he doesn’t feel like there’s a place for him anymore. But, begrudgingly, he does end up deciding to do one final promotional appearance for his film’s premiere at a local drive-in theater.
On the other side of the script is the story of a young man named Bobby Thompson, the film’s Charles Whitman. We don’t learn a lot about Bobby, aside from the facts that he’s a Vietnam vet and an insurance salesman, but we learn quickly that he doesn’t seem to care any more. He shows this by taking a gun to his wife and parents, then heading out with his rifle to find targets wherever he can. This leads to scenes of murderous terror on a highway, on city streets, and finally in a local drive-in theater.
I won’t relay anything else about the story, but you can probably guess that there aren’t two different drive-in theaters.
Targets is a fascinating and gripping film in every regard. Killers like Bobby were very fresh to American cinema, and the commentary on society and film-making (complete with a slight, but respectful, jab at Corman–esque producers) is spot on. That said, it’s safe to say that Karloff makes this picture. To put it in more modern terms, this film is Karloff’s My Name is Bruce or JCVD – his chance to look at his place in cinema, turn to the camera in his own way, and let us know what he really is. Like those recent films, there’s a bit of fabrication, but there’s no fooling the people that have watched Karloff and know his work. This is what we believe Boris Karloff would be like in these situations – and that leads to plenty of smiles between the dark moments.
Targets was a doomed film in many regards after production ended. Despite being bought by Paramount for distribution in early 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy made a film like this unreleasable, and it was not pushed outside of critical circles upon release. The film did get Bogdanovich recognized, however, as he went on to make The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and many other films over a career that’s still going.
Doom also struck the star. Unlike Orlok, Karloff had no intention of leaving acting, but this would turn out to be his last major American role before his death in February of 1969 (Though, films he had already made were still being released as late as 1971.). At one point in the film, Orlok exclaims “If this is going to be my last appearance, I’d like to do something“, and proceeds to make plans to tell a terror tale to the crowd at the drive-in that night. It’s clear from that point forward we’re seeing the master look back at what he’s done and remember how much of an impact he’s made, and loving every minute of it.
For anyone who’s a fan of Mr. Karloff, I can’t recommend this film enough. It’s a wonderful reminder of an era when the terrors we love began to fade away as the dangers in the world brought us newer, closer fears. But, the fantastic climactic scene is also a reminder that we’ll always have our old boogeymen to look back on, and that they might just have a few good shocks left in them when we need them most.
Boris, I’m sorry that you didn’t get the chance to give us that one last thrill. But as you rest in peace, know that your turn as Byron Orlok helps Targets live on as one of my favorite films of all-time.