Targets (1968)

D: Peter Bogdanovich
S: Boris Karloff, Tim O'Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich

True story: young director Peter Bogdanovich working for hack producer Roger Corman makes a low budget non-horror feature with aging actor Boris Karloff, tired of playing horror roles. Screen story: young director Peter Bogdanovich working for hack producer (not Roger Corman, but producer of The Terror) wants to make a low budget non-horror feature with aging actor Boris Karloff, tired of playing horror roles. True story: young man goes insane in Texas, shooting his wife, father and mother, then others. Screen story: young man goes insane in Los Angeles, shooting his wife and mother, then others.

Two disparate storylines are neatly tied together in this quiet little debut feature by film critic Bogdanovich by a common concern with the nature of the images people have of themselves and their world. Karloff's despair at the violence which surrounds him and his status as a 'camp' figure who no longer speaks to that world is deftly contrasted with the fresh-faced all-American family of the young O'Kelly, so steeped in wholesome Americana that it misses the momentary flashes of deep disturbance he manifests before finally, casually, embarking on a random killing spree. Both stories climax together, with O'Kelly trapped between a huge drive-in screen featuring the elderly Karloff walking towards him and the real Karloff doing the same. In confusion, he shoots at both. Reality is so fragmented that no one is truly connected to the world anymore, and the distance between what we see and what is real has become so great that even death is robbed of its meaning.

Targets is a splendid film given the constraints under which it was made. It has the amateurish feeling of a film made in a hurry, but the confidence with physical action that a cinematically aware director has brought to the project. In his enormously self-reflexive role, Karloff is reasonably effective, but only a moment where he tells a horror yarn about a brush with death does he command the screen. Bogdanovich moves and speaks like an amateur, but the intertextuality and enthusiasm are irresistible. As the killer, O'Kelly exudes friendly normalcy, and never resorts to facial twitches or flashing eyebrows to denote his insanity. Actions speak louder than words, and Bogdanovich's camera calmly watches as he picks off motorists one by one with the distant disinterest of a true sociopath.

It is a very cinematic film; low on dialogue, strong on visual narrative. This bespeaks a confidence not expected of a director in Bogdanovich's position, but which is welcome nonetheless. There is not quite enough depth and complexity to sustain it for a full hour and a half, but it does rise to a terrifically suspenseful climax and presents plenty of moments of frightening violence in a restrained manner which only adds to their punch.

As an allegory for contemporary America, the film fits perfectly with the emergent concerns of New Hollywood. It raises issues of the nature and construction of American identity through its cinema and focuses on real-life questions of gun control and social attitudes to violence in the Vietnam era without having to lay on the classical trowel of heady speeches or lingering shots of dead bodies. Its release in the United States around the time of the assassination of Robert Kennedy sparked a certain level of concern. But the film is all the more effective given that its focus is on random death as opposed to high-profile assassination, and it continues to be timely in a way that Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View is not. Yet it remains something of a time capsule film because of its non-sensational tone and its portrayal of O'Kelly's family as a functional unit, a concept alien to more recent samples of the genre such as Natural Born Killers, yet one which provides ample opportunity for quiet observation and ironic criticism of the norms which define the world which produces the killer in the first place.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.