The horror of real life eclipses that of reel life.
What was originally a quickie Boris Karloff film intended to fulfill a legal settlement became something different when Peter Bogdanovich came into the picture. The end result was Targets, a film ahead of a time that was just around the corner.
Paramount, perhaps in an attempt to atone for the film's original poor treatment, has issued Targets in a stellar new DVD.
Facts of the Case
Famous actor Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, The Terror, Frankenstein) has decided to retire from acting and show business. Director Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich) desperately wants Orlok to headline his next film, a more serious effort than the cheapie horror flicks the actor churned out in the past. But no, Orlok's mind is set—with the horrors of the real world so overwhelming, retirement it is.
Meanwhile, Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) has just returned from the Vietnam War. Everything about Bobby seems normal on the outside, but inside there's serious damage in his soul. Bobby decides to unleash his anguish the only way he knows how—with a gun.
All these threads intertwine at a drive-in, where Orlok is set to make a live appearance at the premiere of his last film. Little do the cinema veteran and his audience know that the homicidal Bobby Thompson is also lurking about.
Targets came together quite by accident. According to Roger Corman's autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, it all started with Boris Karloff's agent. The agent learned that The Terror, a 1963 Corman cult classic, made more money than was originally reported. The agent demanded Corman pay Karloff his rightful share. Corman agreed—on the condition that Karloff make a new film for him. Corman approached Peter Bogdanovich, a young novice who had worked as an assistant on The Wild Angels. Bogdanovich would write, co-produce and direct the film for a paltry $6,000 salary.
The original plan was to edit 20 minutes of footage from The Terror together with an hour of newly shot material, of which Karloff would appear in 20 minutes. While screening The Terror, Bogdanovich got an idea for the story that would become Targets. To add a contrast, he would add in the sniper story. Director Samuel Fuller strengthened the script, declining screen credit so critics wouldn't claim he was wholly responsible for the end result. Armed with a $100,000 budget, Bogdanovich shot quickly and efficiently. The idea to release the film through a major studio came after American International Pictures (AIP) decided to release Targets under a different title: Blood and Candy (due to the killer's habit of munching candy bars between murders). Bogdanovich approached Corman with the idea of selling his picture to a major and Corman approved—so long as he got his money back. Paramount executive Robert Evans arranged a deal, but some corporate yes-men got in the ear of studio chairman Charles Bluhdorn and the plan was nixed. After Targets was screened for critics from the influential Variety, Bluhdorn relented, and Paramount bought and released the film. Tragically, the dual assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King resulted in the movie getting only a piecemeal release.
You might ask me why Targets is a classic—the plot synopsis doesn't make it seem so. It's a great film for several reasons. One is the subtle social commentary Bogdanovich wove into the script. By stating that Bobby Thompson is a Vietnam vet, Targets becomes one of the first films to subliminally suggest that the U.S. involvement in that war wasn't necessarily a good idea. In 1968, most of the country had yet to feel that way, judging from the fact that The Green Berets, a pro-Vietnam picture if I've ever seen one, was one of that year's biggest smashes. Bogdanovich also makes a comment about the budding gun culture, which would be responsible for some of the ugliest moments in American history. You can look at the film as a warning sign that things were going to only get worse unless steps were taken to prevent disaster. Unfortunately, the lesson was ignored, then as now. Third, Bogdanovich does not provide a motive for Bobby's shooting spree. By keeping the killer's reasons a mystery, the director makes the events that unfold even more frightening.
Targets works beautifully as a horror film. No, this isn't the type of horror that is popular with audiences. It is the horror of reality—the kind that develops from humanity. Bogdanovich limits the gore to some exit wounds and bloodstains. Aside from the fact that he didn't have the funds to create an abundance of gruesome effects, the director wisely realizes that showing disgusting gore would detract from, rather than heighten, the impact of the film's violence. I know some people out there will no doubt e-mail me and tell me I'm crazy for labeling this a horror movie. To each his own, I guess. They've undoubtedly missed the point.
The film starts out as a normal drama, contrasting Orlok's retirement with a seemingly happy familial life for Bobby Thompson. It is at the halfway point when Bobby cracks and begins his rampage—it comes so unexpectedly that you are not only horrified, but also thoroughly creeped out. Bogdanovich builds suspense through seemingly simple methods. He points the camera and just shoots, without distracting gimmicks. There is a sequence on the highway that makes the heart pound. But nothing tops the set piece of the film, the climactic drive-in sequence that occupies the film's final twenty-plus minutes. A great deal of the tension comes from the guerrilla-style filmmaking approach Bogdanovich employed—shooting without sound and without permits (movie companies were not allowed to shoot on the public highways, but Bogdanovich did, getting some remarkable shots he couldn't have otherwise).
Polly Platt's production design is deceptively simple. This was a $100,000 film with no room in the budget for lavish sets. The stark simplicity makes the story feel more realistic, and helps drive the point home that frightening events can happen anywhere and at any time.
Boris Karloff remains famous today for his horror roles, but he was an accomplished actor who was too often typecast. His work in Targets seems like nothing much at first glance, but it's only after the last shot that you realize what a measured, brilliant performance it was. At the time, Karloff was nearing the end of his life, with a crippling arthritis that affected his walk. He allows that weakness and resignation to flow into his character, making this film a great deal more autobiographical than you might expect. Tim O'Kelly made his film debut here and hasn't worked much since—only a few scant TV and film credits are listed on the Internet Movie Database. His performance is also excellent. He plays the normal boy-next-door, but inside there are deep personal hurts that O'Kelly brings out very subtly and gradually. By the end, you are surprised by the depth and detail of his work. Peter Bogdanovich is decent as Sammy Michaels; his acting would get much better as he got older and was in front of the camera more often.
Paramount has issued the film on disc for the first time in its correct aspect ratio. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks fabulous for a low-budget film from the late 1960s. There is some light grain during night scenes, and a scattering of blemishes, but this is the best I have ever seen this film look. Earlier VHS incarnations appeared washed out and very, well, old. A careful digital cleanup has breathed new life into Laszlo Kovacs' photography, with colors looking much brighter than ever before. Even the stock footage from The Terror looks fresh.
The sound, a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix, is also first-rate. The film employed excellent sound effects for a quickly made, inexpensive effort. These effects are beautifully recreated for disc, combined with a cleanup of the dialogue and the small amount of music found in the film. You'll encounter some standard defects—hiss and the like—but nothing overly bothersome.
Paramount has even thrown in a few extras, surprisingly enough. For starters, we get a commentary track from Peter Bogdanovich. This is one of the director's best efforts to date, loaded with trivia and assorted tidbits. Some critics complain Bogdanovich's delivery is very dry, but I find his tone to be unique and even soothing at times. There are few gaps, mostly at moments when Bogdanovich wants the audience to pay attention to some dialogue or sound effect he is about to discuss in more detail. This track is simply a must-listen.
Targets: An Introduction is a 15-minute featurette that showcases director/co-producer/co-writer/actor Bogdanovich talking about the background of the film. He repeats some information from the commentary, but also notes some details that are only found here. I say this short is definitely worth a look, but only after you have seen the film.
No theatrical trailer is included, even though tantalizing snippets of one appear in the featurette. This is the one weakness of the three recent Bogdanovich discs—no theatrical trailers. But then, who am I to second-guess corporate thinking?
The disc, suggested retail price of $9.95, is ideal for those DVD owners who live within a budget. How can you pass up a chance of owning one of the great films of the 1960s? The answer is, you cannot. Targets is a must-own for all.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Peter Bogdanovich
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