Targets, a film by Peter Bogdanovich (film review)

Talk about a difficult film to watch. In 1968, mass shootings were rare, although that was the year of two assassinations: Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Targets was conceptually influenced by the 1966 Texas University tower shooter Charles Wittman, who killed 15 people and injured 31, after first killing his wife and mother.

Mass shootings are tragically, now a daily occurrence of American life. Targets does not sensationalize murder, but it is a film most people will avoid. Each day brings a mass shooting, or two, and has polarized Americans on the topic of gun control. This film plays right into that controversy.

Polly Platt, a co-writer of Targets, came up with the idea behind the film, the notion of long distance, telescopic murder, as a way of making a gothic horror film scary. Peter Bogdanovich, the director and co-writer patterned the killer in this film on Wittman, which was fresh in the public’s consciousness in 1967 when the film was written, but the story idea is original, even though it borrows facts of the Texas Tower shooting. Bogdanovich says in the film’s commentary that his goal was to show how killing has become impersonal, and he based the film more on the war in Vietnam, specifically the evolving science of killing: a modern horror film.

My desire to review the film is not about mass shootings or the gun issue, it was Bogdanovich’s first major film, and one of Boris Karloff’s final films. Bogdanovich died last year, and he’s been a subject of several past blogs of mine. He was a gifted filmmaker and film historian, and himself a controversial figure for a number of reasons.

Targets was made for $124,000 budget on a three-week shooting schedule for Roger Corman’s B-film production company. Corman eventually sold the film to Paramount, earning a quick profit. Somehow, Bogdanovich and Platt were able to stretch the budget to make an extraordinary and horrifying film. Corman was the king of the B-movies, which he made for little money and fed to the youth, drive-in and television markets. His films frequently cashed in on the beach, motorcycle, drug and young love market. While Corman was not about art, he gave his start to many writers, directors and actors that would establish major Hollywood careers, including Bogdanovich and Platt.

Boris Karloff and Peter Bogdanovich

Targets has two intertwined stories. One is the story of an aging horror film actor, Boris Karloff, whose character is contemplating his retirement, after wrapping a film he considers to be out of touch with today’s audience. The old gothic horror film had seen it’s day and did not transcend to the more sophisticated audiences. Karloff, who appeared in numerous Corman films, owed Corman several days of filming, so Corman offered Bogdanovich the use of Karloff and use of an earlier Karloff film, The Terror, which could be incorporated into Bogdanovich’s new film. Bodganovich also plays the director of Karloff’s film in Targets. The premier of the film will be at the Reseda Drive-in, where Karloff’s character (Byron Orlok) will make an appearance.

The other story is of a young man, Bobby Thompson, ex-military, who appears to live the ideal middle class life. He and his young wife live with his parents in a typical Southern California suburb. He visits several gun stores to purchase large quantities of ammo. Later, Thompson and his father are seen having target practice. Thompson angers his father by pointing his gun at him while the father sets up cans to shoot at. That is major clue that this something is amiss with this young man.

I won’t dwell on the Thompson story, but he kills his wife and mother, and then takes his arsenal to the top of petroleum storage tank overlooking a busy freeway. He begins his rampage, using a rifle with a powerful scope to shoot people in moving vehicles. He flees the area and is pursued by the police car, but avoids capture by turning into the Reseda Drive-in. This is where the two stories converge.

Thompson realizes he can continue is killing by climbing up inside the large screen at shooting at people in cars, the project booth and those walking around. After shooting a number of people, he is discovered. Trying to escape, he is confronted by Orlok, who swats his gun away and slaps Thompson, before being led away by the police. Thompson is not remorseful and is proud that he “rarely missed.”

Karloff as Byron Orlok confronts the shooter at the drive-in theater.

The question we ponder with every mass shooting is, why?

In Targets, the motivation for the killings is never quite known. It would appear that the young man had a model life, but something was terribly wrong, and did not raise any suspicions. The film does not focus on his prior life and the only hint at his history is picture of him in a military uniform. The film’s budget and intention only focused on two days of Thompson’s life. One might infer that his relationship with his father was a major source of his problems. There is a hint of his father being domineering and tempered. Was there a history of the son being pushed by his father and not living up to his expectations? The young couple lives with his parents, which could mean they lacked financial independence and that could have produced friction with his parents and/or wife. There is something empty in the Thompson’s version of the American Dream, despite the veneer of family time, shared evening prayers before dinner, father-son activities and watching late evening television together. There is no real conversation, just the facade of a happy family.

Targets garnered mixed reviews upon release and not surprisingly, failed to earn much at the box office. Besides appearances on the late, late show and college film theaters, Targets was relegated to the film vault for many years. I would not can this film entertaining, only the Karloff scenes have any entertainment value. Bogdanovich was a gifted filmmaker, though his creative candle burned hot, but burned out quickly.

Did we learn anything from the assassinations and violence of the 1960s? That’s debatable. If Targets was intended to start that conversation, it was brief in duration.

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