Criterion Prediction #59: Targets, by Alexander Miller
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelley, Arthur Peterson, Peter Bogdanovich, Nancy Hsueh
Synopsis: An aging movie star who despairs at the twilight of his career because his brand of Victorian horror is no longer scary in a modern world, while seemingly ordinary, “everyman” Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelley) proves him right by going on an unprovoked killing spree after shooting his family in cold blood. Here, the fact and fiction of violent impact collide in a knockout finale of converging themes.
Critique: It would be a safe assessment to say that Targets is the quintessential, postmodern horror film. Its genesis is one of my favorite production stories – a young Peter Bogdanovich, with his wife and co-writer Polly Platt, were working with (like so many luminaries of the time) Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, and had the opportunity to direct a feature under two stipulations. First, they had two days to shoot with Boris Karloff. Second, they had to include footage from the recently finished The Terror. Corman was returning to the nearly dry well of gothic horror (after the success of his Poe adaptations) with The Terror, a bewildering but superficially enjoyable outing, but Bogdanovich and Platt were at a loss. They agreed that the Karloff monster pictures were no longer scary, especially compared to someone like Charles Whitman, a man who decides to perch himself atop a tower opening fire leading to the deaths of over a dozen people. And like that, a story was born. Bogdanovich and Platt made good on their agreement to shoot footage with Karloff and use scenes from The Terror.
However, he’s playing a character not unlike himself, an aging boogeyman from an era when mythical monsters scared a world that is now populated with more everyday horrors. In the AIP spirit, Bogdanovich and his dedicated cast and crew stretched a modest budget and limited means, investing their ambitions into an intelligent and wholly effective film that dually works as a piece of social commentary as well as a sturdy thriller. That DIY spirit lends much to the films credibility and technical craftsmanship. Bogdanovich and Platt construct a crackling script with the uncredited help of friend and mentor Samuel Fuller. It has a swift pace – sharply edited, intelligently written, and shot with the guerilla instincts attuned with the countercultural rumbling that vaulted these early features to come from the then-burgeoning film movement.
There’s a stark tonal relevance to Targets arising from its technical notes that subtly nudges us into the mounting tension of Bobby’s warped psychosis. There’s no score. Almost all of the film is live sound, using common banalities (radio, television commercials) as atmospheric accentuation. The best tool in reverberating tension is the use of sound and jump cuts punctuate the deliberate execution of the films more grim sequences. For a threadbare production, Targets instills an unnerving, at times surreal inflection of contemporary violence, it’s the variable horror of the “it’s scary because it’s true” against the “it’s scary because it happened” schools of thought, the film was largely inspired by the Charles Whitman killings, but predated the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, which cast controversy around the release.
The dual narrative thread of an aging horror movie star Byron Orlock (get it?) provides some wit to the film’s dark tone, and it’s entertaining to see Bogdanovich give an early performance, like Karloff playing more or less himself. But the much-needed balance in levity comes from Karloff, whose warmth, charisma, and ability to captivate us as a performer is a testament to his powers as an actor, not to mention a brilliantly poignant endcap (as this was his last major film performance) to a long and illustrious career. His commanding and vulnerable performance lends to the film’s thematic evolution and the idolation of screen horror juxtaposed with actuality horror all too well. Fresh-faced Tim O’Kelley, a very terse physical performer (looks like the offspring of Ryan O’Neal and Matt Damon) doesn’t steal the show from Karloff but is a formidable heavy, which is no easy feat considering he’s contending with one of cinema’s greatest horror icons.
This is a stellar debut from one of American cinema’s premier directors, but it also introduces another, perhaps equally important figure – cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, making his debut under his actual name and not his previously donned pseudonym “Larry Kovacs”.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: For all the talk there is about the “American New Wave” or “The New Hollywood”, Targets is usually a cameo reference in books and documentaries on the subject. For such a great film, it feels decidedly overlooked, and the bubbling contradictions of its tagline subjects are an indication as to how hard it must have been to sell a movie like Targets. After all, we don’t associate the Karloff with trenchant social commentary, and an AIP/Corman film loosely inspired by the Charles Whitman killings has the whiff of poor taste, and/or exploitation fare but, of course that couldn’t be anything farther from the truth. Hard to place, but crucial to see, Targets is in home video limbo. The Paramount keep-case DVD with bizarre cover art (a distorted image of crosshairs over Karloff’s face) wouldn’t get anyone’s attention had they no previous knowledge of the film. I don’t think distributors have big plans for Peter Bogdanovich’s debut, not even Bogdanovich, (who was understandably upset after the tragedy in Aurora in 2012) so Criterion could affordably give this film the push into a much deserved renaissance.