Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Bobby (Tim O'Kelly) is a bland, All-American turned sniper-killing psycho

Bobby (Tim O'Kelly) is a bland, All-American turned sniper-killing psycho

Produced by Roger Corman; directed by Peter Bogdanovich; screenplay by Peter Bogdanovich; story by Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich; cinematography by László Kovács; edited by Peter Bogdanovich; music by Ronald Stein from The Terror; production design by Polly Platt; costume design by Polly Platt; starring Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, and Peter Bogdanovich. DVD, color, 90 min, 1968. A Warner Archive Collection release,

Targets was Peter Bogdanovich's first film, a low-budget genre work produced by Roger Corman, master of the B-film. A thriller that eerily foresaw a new kind of violence in America, the film juxtaposes two plots. The first concerns an aging horror-film star, Boris Karloff (playing a variation of himself named Bryan Orlok). Here, as elsewhere in the film, Bogdanovich the cinephile, with his encyclopedic knowledge of American film history, is the perfect director for a film obsessed with movie metaphors. Orlok's horror films are on the way out, and he speaks of retiring, seeing himself as a dinosaur, weary of being typecast and performing in outdated dross (it was Karloff's last notable film). The slight Orlok story—sustained only by Karloff's graceful performance—is intercut with a more dramatically powerful, socially suggestive narrative dealing with Bobby, a bland-looking, All-American boy (Tim O'Kelly), for whose violent actions we remember the film.

The depiction of the film’s mayhem is achieved adroitly and without music or melodrama. Bobby is plagued by murderous thoughts, but he is unable to talk to either his clueless wife or parents about what’s disturbing him. Indeed, beneath the ordinary middle-class look of Bobby’s family and house, there is an emptiness and alienation the film doesn’t fully explore, but that Bogdanovich is able to imply in a couple of scenes using little dialogue. In one, the family is watching TV (Bobby and his wife still live with his parents and he has no job), and, as they laugh and talk about the program, we perceive beneath the polite surface a profound disconnection. A chain-smoking Bobby sitting in the darkness all night intensifies the sense of alienation. Also, Bobby’s father is an emotionally remote man and a hunter who is big on guns. The intimidated, insecure Bobby (he feels he can’t do anything) continually addresses his father as “sir” when they go target shooting—two supposedly regular guys whose roiling feelings are barely hidden by their conventional personae.

So it’s not surprising when the Twinkie- and candy-consuming Bobby is someone who suddenly goes over the psychic edge. He sets out to cold-bloodedly kill his mother and wife and takes off with his rifle to kill more people from a gas tank tower near the freeway. Much of that scene is skillfully shot with high overheads of Bobby, and then point-of-view shots through the telescopic lens as he targets different cars.

The idea of the murderous sniper was clearly based on Charles Whitman, who shot thirty-five people in Austin, Texas, in 1966, when he climbed up to the observation tower on the University of Texas campus, and then began shooting, and finally killed himself. Targets was made just before the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, but after they occurred, the film’s distributor, Paramount, didn’t want to release the film at all. Paramount ultimately found a way out by releasing Targetsa bit later accompanied by a pro-gun- control campaign.

On one level, the film can be seen as a warning about a society dangerously rife with guns. Bobby is able to acquire guns and ammunition at local gun shops, just as if he were buying fruits and vegetables. According to Bogdanovich, the film was meant to be a cautionary fable: “It was a way of saying the Boris Karloff Victorian violence of the past wasn’t as scary as the kind of random violence that we associate with a sniper. That’s modern horror.” But most of all the film is essentially a violent thriller, created to arouse and exploit the fear of an audience. In fact, in the end, it’s much more about titillation than providing a social message.

The strongest sequence in Targets, a lengthy one, fittingly takes place in a drive-in theater where Bobby hides in the scaffolding behind the screen. It’s also where Orlok is attending the premiere of his new film, The Terror (Corman’s ersatz adaptation of Poe). Bobby begins firing at the audience—couples and families with children—through a hole in the screen.

The drive-in, once an American icon, is a place where people sit in the dark watching films isolated from each other, not so different from Bobby’s life at home. When Bobby begins to pick them off with his rifle, the rapt, popcorn-eating audience is unaware what is happening, until someone sounds a warning, and cars begin to frantically take off. Bogdanovich never allows the film to get close to Bobby or his anonymous victims—impersonally observing him targeting people through his telescopic lens, without providing explanatory dialogue or penetrating close-ups. But the sequence evokes a feeling of genuine horror—a feeling that there is no place that one is free from danger.

In the film’s striking if tricky final scene (suggested to Bogdanovich by Samuel Fuller, who did some ghostwriting on the film), we see Orlok marching towards Bobby from one side, while his huge and sinister movie image attacks from the other. Bobby can’t distinguish illusion from reality, and begins to shoot wildly at both Orlok and his screen image. It brings together the film’s two faces of horror in an arresting visual manner, with Bobby ultimately being overcome by an indefatigable Orlok.

The scene—BogdanovIch having an aging horror-film actor triumph over someone who embodies real horror—breaks from the film’s apparent thesis. But no matter, this is not a film demanding complex analysis. In fact, Bogdanovich never made another genre film like Targets. But he felt that “it created a career for me, even though it didn't make a lot of money, a lot of people saw it, and it made it possible for me to make The Last Picture Show.”

Targets is a mixed bag of a first film, demonstrating a genuine talent for shooting action sequences. Though it contains some unconvincing acting, and emotionally uninteresting secondary characters, it works well on its own terms, especially with regard to Bobby's story. It’s that story that most reverberates today, given what has happened in America in the four and a half decades since Targets came out, including the 2012 shootings in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. It’s what makes this simple genre film difficult to forget.

Leonard Quart is co-author of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger), now in its fourth edition.

To purchase Targets, click here.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1