Karloff’s thrilling swan song
In the decade of the 60′s, Peter Bogdanovich made himself a name as film critic and historian, quickly becoming a respected film writer for “Esquire” magazine thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge about the history of cinema and his great skill at writing fun, insightful and witty texts. Bogdanovich love for films made him to decide to move to Los Angeles and to seriously attempt to become a filmmaker himself.
On a lucky day, he met legendary producer Roger Corman, and Bogdanovich‘s career as a director started. After “assembling” a cheap B-Movie named ““ (as it was mostly edited from an earlier Russian film), Bogdanovich got his first real chance to make a film of his own when Corman allowed him to make a B-Movie with legendary horror icon Boris Karloff. Karloff owed Corman two days of work, so the only condition Corman put to make the movie was to hire Karloff for those two days and to use clips from Corman‘s previous film, “The Terror”. Bogdanovich accepted, and his brilliant debut “Targets” was the result.
Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) is just another normal young man living in a typical suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. His relationship with his wife (Tanya Morgan) is excellent, and is in very good terms with his parents (James Brown and Mary Jackson). However, behind his perfect life there are very dark thoughts, thoughts that one day make Bobby to decide to buy an arsenal of weapons. On the very same day, legendary actor Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) is preparing himself to make his final promotional appearance before retiring from the movie business after a long career as an icon of horror movies. While his very own secretary (Nancy Hsueh) and young director Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich himself) try to convince Orlok to reconsider his retirement, he doesn’t seem very convinced about the idea. At the same time, Bobby kills his family in the beginning of what will become a killing spree. These two monsters, the fictional and the real one will face each other when Bobby arrives at the Drive-In theater where Orlok will make his final public appearance.
Written by Bogdanovich and his then wife Polly Platt, the film is at its core a thriller in the classic Hitchcocknian style, although under the new perspective regarding violence and horror that were the norm in the years after Vietnam. It’s not difficult to see that the movie is a reflection of what the couple of writers thought about the dying decade and the changes the U.S. was experiencing. Two main themes run through the film: first, the story of Orlok feels definitely like Bogdanovich‘s ode to the horror films of the classic era, with the casting of Karloff as the icing of the cake. On the other hand, the story of Bobby, which drives the plot of the film, contrasts that romantic vision of horror with the crude present, as Bobby is a typical All-American man who behind his apparent perfect life, is a psycho who one day decides to become a mass murderer, just for the thrill of it. The movie plays with this duality between real life monsters and the ones from horror movies as main theme, and could be seen as an encounter between the old and the new.
Despite the extremely low budget he had (or probably because of that very same reason), director Peter Bogdanovich crafts his movie as a very natural and very real (almost in a semi-documentary style) account of the events. With an excellent use of long takes and incidental music to built up tension, Bogdanovich creates a haunting atmosphere of dread that together with the crude realism of the movie makes one of the most deeply disturbing portraits of the “young America” of the 60s. True, the plot is in many ways really predictable but Bogdanovich knows it, so he focuses his film on how the event happens instead of on the event itself. So, Bogdanovich takes his time to let us know the characters, in order to make the final confrontation a very engaging and suspenseful moment. The mix of the classic Hollywood style he loves and the constrains of independent film-making give the movie a very original and fresh look, pretty much in the same vibe as the French films of the Nouvelle Vague (which had a similar style and definitely were highly influential for him).
While Bogdanovich certainly deserves a lot of credit for the great results in “Targets”, without the presence of the legendary Boris Karloff, the movie simply wouldn’t be the same. In the almost autobiographic role of Byron Orlok, Karloff delivers one of his best performances ever, almost like a swansong before dying a few years later. A lot of humanity can be felt just by looking at the old star’s eyes. Tim O’Kelly is really frightening as Bobby Thompson, in the most famous role of his short lived career. Few is said about Bobby (and it’s better that way), and yet O’Kelly makes his character very real (scarily real) despite being almost a two-dimensional psycho based on what was known at the time about real life mass murderer Charles Whitman. The rest of the cast ranges from effective to mediocre, and this aspect is probably the film’s weakest part. Bogdanovich himself is a bit average as Sammy (another role that could be considered autobiographic), but that’s not really a problem, as the movie is completely owned by Karloff‘s impressive performance.
As written above, the performances by the supporting cast are of a pretty average quality, as most of the actors were young and unexperienced at the time. Probably because of that reason, Bogdanovich focuses mainly on Karloff and limits the screen time of the supporting cast to a minimum. Working with a low budget and on a limited schedule, Bogdanovich is forced to keep things simple, but despite his limited resources he manages to achieve great things. László Kovács‘ work of cinematography is remarkable and one of the key elements of the film, creating the thrilling atmosphere and mood the film needs. It would seem as if the director knew exactly the flaws his movie has and had done his best to cover them up. He even manages to give good use to clips from other movies (Corman‘s “ “, as the deal established, but also Hawks‘ “ “) and makes them an important part of the story. This taste for the cinema of the past would eventually become part of Bogdanovich’s style and the trademark of his career.
Despite the apparent simplicity of its plot and the fact that it truly shows its age badly, “Targets” is still a fascinating and deeply disturbing film, as its social relevance is still frighteningly valid in these days. Subversive, bold, and daring, Peter Bogdanovich‘s “Targets” is another of those films from the 60s that modernized American cinema at a time of great social changes. It’s respect for cinema of the past Conceived as a small, independent B-Movie, this classy and elegant debut is definitely one of the best films Roger Corman has produced, and also one of the most interesting debuts by one of his protégés. While his career as a filmmaker has not been easy, in this debut Bogdanovich showed a lot of promise, and without a doubt made a classic of the genre.