Fifty years on, Peter Bogdonavich’s premiere film seems increasingly (and sadly) prescient, although at the time is was intended only to get the most out of a contract with Karloff, and conceptually mark a bellwether moment when the terrors of the Gothic imagination were being rapidly replaced by those of the modern world.
Aged and fading horror film star Byron Orlock (Boris Karloff) decides to retire from making films after completing his most recent effort, a Gothic potboiler called THE TERROR. Meanwhile, clean-cut boy-next-door Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), succumbing to a psychotic breakdown he’s incapable of communicating to his young wife and family, finds himself stockpiling weapons in a mad, random plan to spread death and destruction. As Thompson makes his way to a drive-in theater (where, coincidentally, Orlock will make his last promotional appearance), the young man intends to hide behind the enormous screen with a sniper rifle and kill as man moviegoers as he can.
“Thompson moves through his suburban world like a bland ghost…all while monstrous violence builds inside him”
With hindsight, TARGETS, much like the same year’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, can be seen as a marker buoy on the changing tides of fear, one of those rare films that succeeds at being both horrifying and about horror (without resorting to any smug, meta-textual glibness). This is a film that asks how an American public (that had recently seen a number of prominent assassinations and the campus slaughter by the Texas Tower gunman) could possibly find old dark castles and ghost-haunted Barons scary – and answers decisively that it can’t (although Karloff’s one-man recitation of Somerset Maugham’s grim reaper fable “An Appointment in Samarra” is a Gothic show-stopper). Bogdonavich’s training on the austere front-lines of various Roger Corman productions aids his inventive use a small budget to assemble a sleek, modern film that captures its crass, late-60s Hollywood milieu perfectly (“God, what an ugly town this has become” bemoans Orlock at one point). With almost no score (aside from the ambience of incessant, jabbering radio and TV commercials, violent films and empty pop music), Thompson moves through his suburban world like a bland ghost (despite his JFK looks), doing everything expected of a new husband and dependable son, all while monstrous violence builds inside him.
There are some nice comedic grace notes in the Orlock segments, offsetting the increased grimness of the parallel Thompson narrative that portrays the brutal, methodical randomness of Bobby’s inexplicable rampage. In a nicely subtle (perhaps unintentional) moment during the carnage-filled drive-in showdown, brake lights and Technicolor projection suddenly transform the film’s formerly cool and muted visual palette into the lurid, lush tones of the AIP potboiler playing out overhead, while Orlock unites with his screen persona and two “monsters” of different generations confront each other.
“Is this what I was afraid of?” Karloff asks in surprise, confusedly confronting the banality of evil. We may all ask the same question after (checks current news feed) Pittsburgh… and Las Vegas… and Stoneman Douglas… and Orlando… and Aurora… and Sandy Hook… and Columbine… 50 years ago Peter Bogdonavich warned us about something which is now becoming blatantly obvious…we are now *all* TARGETS, and the United States has an appointment… in Samarra.
Rue Morgue’s Michael Gingold hosts a rare 35mm screening of TARGETS at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Yonkers, NY on December 11, to mark the film’s 50th anniversary. Details and ticket info.