Retro Review: ‘Targets’

In the 1960’s many things in the world were changing as social unrest and violence became more commonplace. The changes society was experiencing were naturally reflected by the horror films of the era as a new generation of  filmmakers held up a dark mirror to the culture they lived in to prey on the fears of their audiences. As a whole the horror genre was beginning to evolve; slowly but surely the old masters of horror such as; Roger Corman and William Castle found their style being pushed aside in favor of a new generation of horror maestros. With films like; Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead terrifying audiences it was clear a shift was coming, as audiences sought more visceral and relatable horror films. Simply putting the name; Bela Lugosi or Vincent Price or Targets‘ own star Boris Karloffon a poster was no longer good enough to sell a horror film. This next step in the evolution of the horror was on display no greater than in Peter Bogdanovich’s picture, Targets. The now legendary filmmaker did not mix any messages in this film wherein the horrors of real life dwarf any monster on the silver screen.

Targets revolves around the aging horror legend, Byron Orlok, appropriately played by the real life horror legend Boris Karloff intargets1 one of the actor’s finest performances. In a character thread which in no doubt mirrored Karloff’s own feelings in some way, Orlok is beginning to feel his age and seeks retirement and solace. At the same time, a mysterious sniper is gunning down his victims in a manner far more terrifying than anything in Orlok’s movies. Inevitably the two cross paths in a tense climax, wherein the killer lets the bullets fly at a screening of Orlok’s film in a drive-in.

Appropriately, Bogdanovich opens this film, with a fictional Orlok picture which recreated the old gothic style horror film, that were being phased out in the next evolutionary step in the genre. This illusion is shattered by the reality that it is being screened at a Hollywood studio for a producer and his entourage, shattering the illusion for the audience and deconstructing the standard horror film. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the real monster of this film, Bobby Thompson. Needless to say he is diametrically opposed to Orlok in every way. In fact Bogdanovich wastes little time juxtaposing Orlok’s brand of old Hollywood with the horrors represented by true monster of the film, the sniper, in a brilliant scene which sees the two of them in their respective vehicles. The comparison the director draws between the fictional monster and the real one carries on throughout the film beautifully. In a bold move the murderous Bobby Thompson is portrayed as a veteran of the Vietnam War, playing on a deeply held fear that the horrors of war changed those who experienced it.

The timing of the picture’s release either did it a favor or crippled it’s chances of success depending on who you asked. Following the tragic assassinations of Robert Kennedy and targets2Martin Luther King Jr. Bogdanovich recalled how half the studio executives were clamoring to get the movie out immediately while the other half were trying to keep it locked away. In the end, the closing credits prove to be a perfect summation of the film; no dramatic score or fun music, just stark silence and the visual of the drive-in following the deadly aftermath of Thompson’s rampage. This somber conclusion serves to further drive home the realism of Targets, despite the defeat of the monster, the scars from his rampage remain. Targets served as the perfect bridge from the classic gothic horror to the more visceral and realistic horror which was to come. Many critics have pointed out they wish that this had been Boris Karloff’s film as this would have been the perfect final salute for the thespian in the twilight of his career.