Peter Bogdanovich is the closest the American cinema has gotten to having a Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut figure: a hybrid of film critic and filmmaker. After writing books on directors such as John Ford, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock, Bogdanovich moved to Los Angeles and began working for Roger Corman. The bargain basement producer promised Bogdanovich the ability to make a feature film with one major caveat: the director had to integrate twenty minutes of footage from another Corman production (the Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson horror film The Terror). Bogdanovich agreed and, with the assistant of director Sam Fuller, crafted a meta-horror film about film and violence.
The film alternates between two plot threads. In the first, aging horror actor Byron Orlok (Karloff, basically playing himself) has decided to retire from his work in the cinema. After watching footage of his latest film (which is how Bogdanovich worked in The Terror), the actor laments to his director (Bogdanovich, basically playing himself) that he no longer has the ability to scare people. Orlok proclaims, “You know what they call my films today? Camp! High camp!” While looking at a newspaper filled with the violent headlines of the late-60s, Orlok realizes that the monsters he portrayed in the 1930s have been displaced by a new type of horror.
That’s where the second thread comes in. Bobby (Tim O’Kelly) is a young Vietnam veteran with a clean cut look, family, and obsession with firearms. He spends his afternoons shooting cans with his father, driving around LA in his Mustang convertible, eating candy, and listening to the radio. Then, one day, he cracks. He brings a handgun into the house – and, in a series of scenes that feels terribly relevant to the events of the past two years – kills his family and begins a psychotic rampage. First, he perches atop a chemical refinery and picks off drivers as they travel along the California freeway (remember the Beltway Sniper?). Then, after being chased off by pursuing police officers, Bobby scopes out his next target: a drive-in theater. The two threads intersect when Orlok announces his retirement at the drive-in, inspiring a horror showdown between the Old Monster and the New Monster.
While it may sound like there is a lot going on in Targets from a thematic standpoint, there really isn’t that much. While Orlok may feel displaced by the horrors of mid-1960s America, both the story and Bogdanovich’s own monologues as the director put a pretty fine point on it: the good old days were the best around, both for cinema and for America. Bobby is merely a symptom of America’s love of guns mixed with post-Vietnam angst. Due to the content and the style, Targets is a nauseating experience. It is impossible not to think of the Aurora theatre shootings when Bobby takes his sniper perch in front of the movie screen and begins plugging patrons (which Bogdanovich the filmmaker emphasizes with a fast zoom). In the end, I admire the b-movie for trying to say something and saying it in an engaging fashion (meta-commentary!). The problem is that (perhaps due to Bogdanovich’s inexperience and Corman’s stipulations, both with regard to narrative and budget) the film doesn’t have that much depth. From a thematic standpoint, it’s a slight disappointment.
On the other hand, Warner Archive’s re-issue is a tremendous treat. If you’re drawn to the film more for its status as a well-made pulp thriller with Boris Karloff playing himself, then you’ve come to the right place. In contrast with most Warner Archive titles, Targets is loaded with special features. The disc features a commentary and introduction by Bogdanovich, which includes many of the tidbits I’ve shared and more anecdotes from his experiences in production and post-production on the film. He talks about his influences and his debt to Sam Fuller. Moreover, the video and audio transfers are solid for a relatively low-budget film made in the period. To put it simply – next to Miracle of Morgan’s Creek – this is one of the best Warner Archive titles I’ve seen yet.