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‘Targets’ Made Modern Horror More Real and More Terrifying

Peter Bogdanovich’s first film (and Boris Karloff’s final film) should be looked at as more than a stepping stone to greatness. It was also genre-changing.
Targets 1968 movie Scope
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on March 2nd, 2022

Beyond the Classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she explores the legacy of Peter Bogdanovich and Boris Karloff through their 1968 movie Targets.

Sometimes, when a filmmaker grows into a legendary artist, their first film can go unrecognized in retrospect. A first film can be shaky compared to the movies a director makes once they’ve gained experience and wisdom.

An actor’s final film can similarly go unappreciated when we think about their legacy. As stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era aged, the roles they tended to be offered were less than Oscar-worthy, making their later work a poor representation of their talent. For that, a lot of later films in an actor’s career can go unseen.

Peter Bogdanovich‘s first film as a director, Targets (1968), was also Boris Karloff‘s final film before he died. Both of them were at crossroads in their careers, but so was Hollywood. Their collaboration shouldn’t be overlooked in either of their filmographies. It’s a powerful thriller that dared to create scarier modern horror by grounding the movie in a real-life nightmare.

By the 1960s, the Hollywood that flourished for 50 years was on a decline. The largest studios no longer controlled all of the market. Foreign cinema was accessible to Americans and showed incredibly different ways of making movies than what Hollywood did for years.  Stars of the Golden Era were older and out of touch with younger audiences. However, Karloff, a monster movie legend, had done a better job than most of keeping up with changing times. He continued to work tirelessly even into his seventies, but his celebrity still represented an older generation of Hollywood, one that would see the industry change drastically very quickly.

Bogdanovich grew up admiring stars like Karloff and filmmakers such as Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang. As he traveled to Los Angeles with his creative partner and then-girlfriend Polly Platt, Bogdanovich did not want to completely cast out the talented people who came before him. He spent time with Hawks, Lang, and other notable directors to learn from them and record their oral histories of Hollywood. He appreciated the experience, wisdom, and talent they had while knowing that in order to make a name for himself, he’d have to make something for his own generation.

When Bogdanovich and Platt began working with independent filmmaker Roger Corman, he promised to finance their first movie, but with a few stipulations. He needed them to make something out of a film he recently shot with Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson called The Terror. Additionally, Corman required they use Karloff for two more days of shooting. The actor owed him a few more hours of work from a previous project. These stipulations might have been enough to dissuade less determined artists, but Platt and Bogdanovich were eager to create something of their own. With such limitations, they created something new.

Targets begins with Karloff playing a character almost entirely based on himself, named Byron Orlock. The only difference between being that Byron wanted to retire from making movies and Karloff refused to stop, even as his body was beginning to give up. Byron watches his latest film “The Terror” (Corman’s actual unreleased movie) with the young director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich) and secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh). When Byron announces his retirement, Michaels tries to dissuade him and ends up convincing him to give one more appearance at a drive-in theater showing of his movie. He agrees but maintains that he will “make way for the young” and leave his monster days behind him after this PR stunt.

Meanwhile, young, dapper Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) buys a gun. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until he returns to his car where he has a full arsenal in his trunk. He has recently returned from Vietnam, and though he may seem normal in public, he admits to feeling odd and getting “funny ideas” lately. But his family does nothing with the signs of Bobby’s mental problems, and one afternoon, he shoots them all before going out to kill strangers. As he sits atop a tower by a highway, Bobby shoots at random cars, killing and causing chaos unimaginable to most Americans at this time. He narrowly escapes, but it’s clear he’s not done killing.

The two plots of Targets converge at the drive-in where Byron is set to make his big final appearance. The theater is packed with families and young people. From high behind the screen, Bobby begins shooting at random, hitting people in their cars as well as some of the drive-in employees. Yet, the shooting goes unnoticed because the movie drowns out the gunshots and the audience’s screams seem like their reactions to the movie.

People begin to realize there is a sniper somewhere at the drive-in and try to leave, causing a traffic jam as Byron arrives. He and other men race to the screen where they realize the shooting is coming from just as Bobby accidentally drops his ammunition. As Byron approaches Bobby, he also appears on the screen, in the movie. Disoriented and panicked, Bobby begins shooting at the Byron on the screen rather than the one in front of him. This allows Byron to disarm him with his cane before the police arrive. Bobby, now powerless without his weapons, cowers at the feet of Byron, who asks, “Is that what I was afraid of?” The police take Bobby into custody, and the credits roll over the deserted drive-in lot.

Targets 1968 Movie Bobby

As Byron was largely based on the real-life Boris Karloff, Bobby was also inspired by a real person. Esquire editor and friend Harold Hayes told Platt and Bogdanovich about the University of Texas tower shooting and suggested the gunman Charles Whitman might make for an interesting villain for their film. He too was a veteran, but a Marine who hadn’t served in Vietnam. Whitman also killed his mother and wife before climbing to the tower on campus where he killed 14 people before being shot by Austin police. Platt and Bogdanovich liked what the Bobby character could say about the effects of violence breaking out in new ways all over the world.

After years of studying Hitchcock and other cinema masters, with Targets Bogdanovich expertly created the kind of suspense and anticipation needed to scare the hell out of audiences without a whole lot of gore. Bobby does his killing from far away, and he’s most terrifying when we know that victims cannot ever anticipate or see him. There are a lot of suspense techniques taken from horror films made during Karloff’s hay day in the 1930s, but the subject matter makes it feel new.

Bogdanovich and revolutionary cinematographer László Kovács do a great job of showing the audience mostly build-up while climatic scenes feel like a split second. We see several shots through the viewfinder of Bobby’s gun or his viewpoint from atop the tower, a perspective that no one would ever want to really see. Just as 1930s monster movies display serious restraint in what actual horrors they show, Bogdanovich does the same with a more realistic subject than a mythical creature.

To Polly Platt, “Modern horror was unmotivated horror.” That sentiment continued to permeate in horror after Targets, especially within the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s. She and Bogdanovich knew that the less we know about Bobby and his reasons for killing, the more terrifying he is. Before Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees would take over the genre, Bogdanovich showed senseless killing on screen just as effectively without all the blood and guts.

Targets represents the confusion and terror of wars overseas as well as the several assassinations in succession during the late 1960s. It was filmed but released after the shootings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., making the stark depiction of gun violence even harder to watch. Paramount Pictures required a disclosure at the beginning of the movie denouncing gun violence when they released it in 1968, but this did not help with box office success. Reviews commended the movie for the poignancy of its subject matter but criticized Bogdanovich’s style as “overkill.”

Nonetheless, the movie created Bogdanovich’s career. Soon after, he would make one of his very best films, The Last Picture Show, also with Platt. In retrospect, the value of Targets‘ connection between change in Hollywood horror to the real life violence of the 1960s feels less kitschy and more foreboding than perhaps was evident at the moment of its release. Now, we can see the horror that followed, which undoubtedly opened the doors to more movies inspired by real life monsters rather than the mythical creatures of the 1930s and 1940s and the extraterrestrials of the 1950s. We don’t credit this movie enough for its influence on horror and its everlasting relatability. If it were made today, it would still be a reflection of American society.

Bogdanovich went on to make more critically and commercially successful films after Targets, but this would end up being Karloff’s swan song. He died in 1969. While many remember Karloff for his monster days, this movie shows the result of those classic films, the legacy he made for himself, and the effect it had on his life as he got older. His performance here is one of the few fantastic ruminations of a star no longer relevant, up there with Gloria Swanson’s work in Sunset Boulevard.

Thankfully, we can appreciate the value of Targets the way it should have been when it was released. Although its influence has not been as widely credited as it should be, we have Bogdanovich’s first and Karloff’s last movie to thank for the realistic modern horror still being made today.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_