Peter Bogdanovich and The Movie That Shot Up a Theater

Targets, 1968

Paramount Pictures

A few weeks ago, in response to the horrific events at a Louisiana movie theater, Jason Bailey of Flavorwire put together a timeline of movie theater shootings. Bailey began with a 1979 shooting at a screening of The Warriors and slowly (sadly) moved forward to the present day. The piece was not meant to capitalize on headlines for pageviews; instead, the author’s intention was to show the escalation of when these events occur and share a sobering truth with anyone who tried to dismiss the Lousiana incident as isolated or the result of a single damaged individual. Too often, the movie theater – our supposed refuge from the horrors of the real world – has been a site of violence and pain for American people. And nobody knows the better than Peter Bogdanovich, whose first film featured a violent shootout at a drive-in theater over ten years before the gang violence at The Warriors.

It’s been a while since we last saw Peter Bogdanovich at the theater. Despite this week’s upcoming release of She’s Funny That Way, Bogdanovich has spent the past eleven years absent from the Hollywood box office. Most of his output since 2000 has come in the form of made-for-TV movies. His last feature film was 2004’s The Cat’s Meow, a drama based on the 1924 murder of producer Thomas H. Mince aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. This anachronistic approach to storytelling is nothing new; Bogdanovich, long sympathetic to the great directors of Hollywood’s golden era, spent a great deal of his career looking back at film history. He has told stories drawing on historical events directly or made movies more indirectly inspired by classic Hollywood comedies and dramas. And yet, despite all the acclaim that his career has garnered, it was his Targets, a Boris Karloff vehicle by producer Roger Corman, that remains his most immediate.

We often think of film critics who move behind the camera as a uniquely European tradition. By the time French film theory made its way into the American mainstream, it had been absorbed fully into academia, encouraging a new generation of film students to become prestige directors. The writer began his career as a programmer for the Museum of Modern Art and as a regular contributor to Esquire magazine. Deciding that he wanted to try his hand at filmmaking, he and his wife moved to Los Angeles, where he befriended noted genre producer Roger Corman. Corman had read and enjoyed a piece of Bogdanovich’s work and offered him work rewriting part of the Peter Fonda vehicle The Wild Angels. Bogdanovich accepted.

The Wild Angels was a surprise hit, grossing over $15 million dollars in 1966, good for fifteenth overall at the box office that year. Shortly thereafter, Corman approached Bogdanovich with a proposition. The producer had recently discovered that actor Boris Karloff was under contract for two more days from a 1963 shoot of The Terror, a gothic horror film that featured Jack Nicholson as its leading man. Corman offered Bogdanovich the opportunity to write and direct his own film with the condition that he shoot two new days with Karloff and combine it with footage from The Terror. Bogdanovich again accepted and, with the help of his wife Polly Platt and close friend and fellow director Samuel Fuller, set about writing a script that combined footage from The Terror with the story of a Charles Whitman-type killer who shot up a movie theater.

In its final form, Targets is an unabashedly modern film by a director known for anything but. To meet Corman’s criteria, Bogdanovich crafted the character of Byron Orlock, a fading star of the horror genre who decides that his brand of “high camp” cannot survive in a world where war and violence dominate the headlines. As a second storyline, Bogdanovich also wrote in the character of Bobby Thompson, a young veteran from a suburban household who wakes up one morning, kills his wife and his mother, and goes on a shooting spree across Los Angeles. Bogdanovich even cast himself in the film as Sammy Michaels, an aspiring young filmmaker who is trying to convince Orlock to make a new type of film, one that will give the actor an opportunity to play himself. To make sure the point isn’t lost on his audience, Bogdanovich even throws in a scene where both Michaels and Orlock sit and quietly admire Howard Hawks’s The Criminal Code, one of Karloff’s more prestigious roles (and one that was released the same year as Frankestein, the film that cemented Karloff as a genre stalwart).

One of Bogdanovich’s main goals in Targets was to present a killer who cannot easily be explained away. There are no scenes of childhood trauma or post-traumatic flashbacks; the closest we get to understanding Thompson’s illness is in the uncertain way he interacts with his family. In one early scene, we watch Thompson walk into his home unannounced and examine the living room as his family prepares dinner in the other room. We see photos of the young man in uniform and on his wedding; gun racks hang from every wall and copies of Gun Digest are strewn across the coffee table. The smiling photos and bubbly chatter from the other room suggest a family not unlike any other, but Tim O’Kelly keeps a vaguely puzzled expression on Thompson’s face, as if he’s considering all of this for the first time. Later, Thompson tries to talk to his wife about the “funny thoughts” he keeps having, but there is no grand design. Everything is normal and everything is wrong.

In interviews prior to the film’s release, Bogdanovich would describe this as the symbol of modern horror, “murder without motivation.” Years later, in an interview with Jason Zinoman, Bogdanovich would define his film as a direct response to the ending to Psycho, which the director felt undermined everything accomplished earlier in the film. For Bogdanovich, Targets was a film about both an unexplainable killer and one who was undeserving of the headlines he created. In the final scene, where Thompson is wildly shooting at patrons from behind the drive-in screen, Orlock marches up and disarms the young man with his cane. It’s a clever bit of parallel editing by Bogdanovich; the actor closes in on his enemy on both our screen and theirs, and Thompson, confused, shoots at both Orlock and the Orlock on the theater screen. The sequence ends with Thompson cowering on the ground and Orlock, wounded and in a state of shock, asking himself, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

Orlock and Michaels had previously used newspaper headlines to discuss the irrelevance of horror films in modern society. In these headlines, abstracted and sensationalized, the killer becomes some great thing, incapable of understanding. “Youth Kills Six in Supermarket,” screams one such headline, and both Orlock and Michaels agree that painted monsters have no place in this kind of society. But in this final conflict between actor and killer, Orlock is shocked to find that this man who would shoot up a theater isn’t some evil force at all. He’s a man below contempt. When Orlock disarms Thompson, he doesn’t wrestle him to the ground or bludgeon him unconscious. He disarms him – quickly – and then slaps him twice across the face. Through Orlock’s eyes, we see Thompson to be no one. Not some tragic tale of misspent youth or psychopath that can only be brought down by a Clint Eastwood cop. He’s just a sad man with access to too many guns.

And, of course, he is taken into custody by the police alive.

In another, better universe, Targets would have been the film that established Bogdanovich as an important director. The few critics who were able to see the film praised the director for his unflinching look at modern violence; one critic would go so far as to open a 1971 interview with Bogdanovich by explicitly telling audiences, “I told you so.” Even Jack Valenti, the newly appointed president of the MPAA tasked with addressing violence in film, wrote an editorial singling out Targets as a film that used necessary violence to discuss an important social issue. Unfortunately, Paramount Pictures could not figure out how best to market the film. The American public was still reeling from the public assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. Initially, Paramount tried releasing the film with an additional title card and trailers that foregrounded the film’s gun control subtext, but the studio eventually decided to pull the film from wide production. Bogdanovich estimates that only eight prints of the film were made and distributed as part of its theatrical release.

And now, almost fifty years since those eight prints limped into theaters, we find ourselves no closer to understanding the violence that people commit in movie theaters than Bogdanovich himself. There were ideas in the director’s film that seem larger than his own sense of style and history; suggestions of how we let newspaper headlines aggrandize those who do evil, perhaps, or the latitude naturally provided to those who look and act the right kind of way. It may be that we need Targets to reemerge in Hollywood, for some hungry director to build upon Bogdanovich’s foundation and challenge how we think about murder without motivation. Targets may offer a sentimental ending, but it is one that understands the power that cinema possesses. Without another Targets, we may find ourselves reading an updated version of Jason Bailey’s list in forty years, and once again realizing that everything is normal and something is wrong.