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Review: Targets (1968)

Targets (1968)

Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich

Premise: An apparently nice young man (Tim O’Kelly) goes on a shooting spree while a veteran actor (Boris Karloff) of horror films plans to make a public appearance at a drive-in theater to promote his last movie.

What Works: In the 1960s the horror genre was in the midst of a metamorphosis. Up to this point, the genre had consisted of Frankenstein-like stories of mad scientists and retellings of gothic Victorian literature like Dracula. Horror began to change in 1960 with the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Those movies dispensed with the old Europe settings and Victorian-era characters of earlier horror films. Instead they told contemporary stories of apparently nice young men whose handsome features belied murderous psychosexual disorders. In 1968, director Peter Bogdanovich and screenwriter Polly Platt (along with uncredited screenwriter Samuel Fuller) advanced the new paradigm even further with Targets. Along with Hitchcock and Powell’s films as well as other notable titles like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets reinterpreted horror for the Vietnam era audience and it remains a relevant and frightening motion picture. The film stars Boris Karloff, who was best known for his portrayal of the Monster in Universal’s classic Frankenstein movies, essentially playing a fictionalized version of himself. Karloff’s character has come to realize that his era is over and he’s baffled and disgusted by the everyday violence in the newspapers. While promoting his latest movie, the aging actor decides to end his career and reflects on his own mortality. Karloff’s performance in Targets is one of his best and he brings a lot of dignity and subtle solemnity to the part. Karloff’s aging thespian is in contrast to Tim O’Kelly’s role as the gunman. O’Kelly didn’t have much of an acting career but his performance in Targets is terrific and he plays a psychopathic killer with a detachment that is very unnerving. The contrast between these two men and the kinds of horror that they represent was fitting for an audience in the late 1960s; the movie had been inspired by the 1966 shooting spree of Charles Whitman and the year it was released both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. That intentional and coincidental synergy with the zeitgeist of the day made Targets a film that defined its moment. The movie juxtaposed the gothic horrors of the past with the violence of the present and, without belaboring the point, it redefined horror for its time. Aside from its value as a media artifact, Targets is a tight thriller that holds up to contemporary viewing. The film is excellently paced and economically shot. The final sequence is especially well done with bold filmmaking choices in the staging of the violence. Unlike Psycho or Peeping Tom, Targets does not offer the viewer a rational explanation for the violence and that makes it all the more unsettling.

What Doesn’t: Targets was one of the early examples of an embarrassing trend that would become common in post-Vietnam movies: the crazy military veteran. Throughout the 1970s and 80s this was a fad that was seen in everything from family pictures like The Karate Kid to action pictures like First Blood to street films like Taxi Driver. Given that widespread use of the cliché, Targets shouldn’t be singled out for it. Also, the link between the violence of Targets and killer’s military service is never explicit—it’s barely even implicit—but it’s there.

DVD extras: Commentary track, introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Targets is a movie that is extremely important and very well made. The filmmakers deliver a thrilling story while comparing and contrasting the violence of entertainment with the violence of the everyday and do so in a way that is thoughtful and disturbing. Unfortunately Targets has become a forgotten classic but it deserves to be more widely seen. 

Episode: #512 (October 12, 2014)