Targets (1968): Proof There Are Still Good Movies to Be Made

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To view Targets click here.

A few years ago, a friend convinced me to buy, sight unseen, Peter Bogdanovich’s directorial debut, 1968′s Targets starring Boris Karloff. Because of the newly released DVD, there had been renewed interest in this rarely seen film. My friend promised that it would be money well spent, and that it would completely blow my mind. “[Roger] Corman produced it, it’s got Boris Karloff and the ending is…trust me, you just need to watch it,” he said. Rarely wrong in his film recommendations, I snagged the DVD during a sale and put it in my ever-expanding “to-watch” stack. Late one Friday night, after coming up empty during some mindless channel surfing, and after months of harassment by my good-natured cinephile friend, I decided to give Targets a try. I’ll be honest: I was skeptical of my friend’s endorsement of the film, despite his good taste and solid track record of recommendations. Now, don’t get me wrong–I love Boris Karloff. But many of his late-career films are a bit cheesy and seriously underuse and undermine his talents as an actor. And so, knowing absolutely nothing about the film, except my friend’s vague comments and my own preconceived assumptions, I thought, “What do I have to lose? Two hours?” I could easily spend all night watching Bert Convy-hosted game show reruns or infomercials for Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, so this seemed like a reasonable investment of my time.

Boris Karloff is Byron Orlok, an aging star who makes the decision to retire from acting after making a terrible film. Orlok is frustrated with the quality of scripts and low budget productions offered to him, and senses that moviegoing audiences’ tastes have drastically changed since his first years in Hollywood. Orlok is a character that is, in some ways, parallel to Karloff. Both are legendary icons of the original monster and horror films, and both have similar sounding screen names. But while Orlok detests Hollywood and has a rather bleak outlook on his waning career, preferring to live his remaining days in his native England, Karloff possessed a more positive outlook on the film industry and the roles he played. And while Karloff grew tired of the intensive and cumbersome makeup required for many of his most famous roles, such as the Monster in Universal’s Frankenstein franchise, he never harbored any resentment. And unlike Orlok, Karloff never retired from acting, even continuing on while struggling with rapidly deteriorating health in his final years. And yet, Karloff plays Orlok with such believability and genuine sincerity, one might think of his performance as a completely factual autobiographical account.

Just a few short minutes into Targets and my interest was certainly piqued. This wasn’t just another bad horror film, as I had unfairly judged—far from it. This film was something so brilliant and completely bizarre, and I immediately knew why my friend insisted that I watch it. Bogdanovich and screenwriter Polly Platt (his wife at the time), wrote a script that tells two very different stories simultaneously, and it’s initially unclear how they relate to one another. Somehow, though, these two plot lines converge seamlessly into a terrifying climax that plays in part as loving homage to Karloff and his iconic screen image, movies in general and the communal experience of watching alongside others; and the other part, a brutal thriller as it follows the actions of an unhinged, homicidal Vietnam War veteran on a shooting rampage. Suddenly, the unrealistic, campy horror film I was expecting, like so many of that decade, proved itself to be a very real, frightening story.

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The killer in Targets, Bobby Thompson (an unsettling performance by Tim O’Kelly), was inspired by real events at the time. In 1966, a former Marine sniper, Charles Whitman, climbed a tower at the University of Texas at Austin, and randomly shot and killed more than a dozen innocent pedestrians. Earlier that day, Whitman had brutally murdered both his wife and mother. This senseless, tragic event shocked a nation. By the time Targets was released, in August 1968, audiences were already reeling from the recent assassinations of MLK and RFK, along with the civil unrest at the time. This low-budget thriller, directed by a novice filmmaker was not only a great movie, but it was prescient.

So how did a newcomer like Peter Bogdanovich manage to convince Roger Corman to let him make this film? After a chance meeting, Corman expressed his interest in Bogdanovich after reading one of his published essays. Corman told the young director that he could make any film he wanted, with two stipulations: he had to use Boris Karloff for a couple days, as the actor had that much time left in his contract with Corman; the second was that Bogdanovich had to somehow incorporate footage from Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, also starring Karloff. While some filmmakers might consider these guidelines restrictive, Bogdanovich used them as a sort of creative kindling which inspired a truly original production. With Corman’s blessing, Karloff’s approval and fervent support and uncredited and free advice from director Samuel Fuller on both the screenplay and how to responsibly budget, Bogdanovich couldn’t have asked for a better directorial debut.

Peter Bogdanovich stumbled into a production so low-budget that it could’ve easily been lost amongst the many B-films of the era. Instead, he had the support of Hollywood veterans, such as Corman, Karloff and Fuller, and later on, mentorship from directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles. Bogdanovich is the ultimate movie fan. That love of cinema and appreciation for the art of filmmaking elevates Targets.

There’s a scene where Karloff’s Orlok and Bogdanovich’s character, screenwriter Sammy Michaels, are drinking and watching a movie on the television—Howard Hawks’s The Criminal Code (1931), starring a young Karloff. The mood is a bit somber, as Orlok is ruminating about the end of his career. When their movie ends, Sammy comments about Hawks’s talent as a director by saying, “He really knows how to tell a story.” Drunkenly stumbling across the room, he adds, “All the good movies have been made.” While Sammy is certainly on to something in his assessment of modern-day movies, Bogdanovich himself was an excellent student as he watched all those great classic movies throughout his early life. Fortunately, he not only carried that talent for storytelling into a new generation of filmmakers, he kept many of those movies, their stars and directors alive for younger audiences to discover.

Jill Blake

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7 Responses Targets (1968): Proof There Are Still Good Movies to Be Made
Posted By Kathy Shaidle : July 29, 2017 8:12 am

Great movie, really good summary. But MLK was killed in ’68.

Posted By Tim Tracy : July 29, 2017 8:23 am

I’ve always loved Karloff, and agree that he was an incredibly gifted actor. There’s no better proof of this than TARGETS. I was mesmerized when I first saw it. Your friend did you an immense favor in recommending it. I heartily do the same.

Posted By Jill Blake : July 29, 2017 10:56 am

Kathy–

Sorry for the confusion. Yes, I am well aware that MLK was assassinated in 1968. While filmed in November of 1967, Targets was released in August 1968, thus making this film a shock for many of its audiences. I missed that in my final edit. Apologies.

Posted By Jill Blake : July 29, 2017 11:04 am

Tim–So many of my diehard film fans haven’t seen it! I’m so happy it’s available on Filmstruck. Hopefully more will finally take the time to watch.

Posted By Doug : July 29, 2017 5:21 pm

Thank you, Jill, for posting this-I’m not really on Team Bogdanovich, but I have great respect for Karloff-I mentioned before at Morlocks that the character Karloff played in Corman’s
“A Comedy of Terrors” was the ‘spirit and image’ of my Dad in his final years as he suffered from Dementia. It was startling, to say the least.
I wish that Karloff had played the part in “Arsenic and Old Lace” he had owned on Broadway-Raymond Massey did fine, but Karloff would have been the better Brewster.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : July 31, 2017 10:36 pm

What took you so long, Jill, discovering TARGETS? Well, I am glad you watched it as it is a wonderful movie and Karloff’s last great role. I think he’s excellent in it. I think TARGETS and LAST PICTURE SHOW are Bogdanovich’s best work. Thanks for the fine article.

Posted By MikeD : August 1, 2017 4:45 pm

I always wondered how Hollywood veteran James Brown (not the King of Soul) got involved in this movie. He plays Bobby Thompson’s dad. From what I remember, his character is not a bad guy, but he pushes his son a little too strongly.

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