Targets (1968)


Targets (1968)
Targets (1968)

Genre: Horror Thriller

Starring: Boris Karloff (The Mummy  Frankenstein), Tim O'Kelly

Directed By: Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture ShowMask)

Overview: While an aging and bitter actor suddenly decides to retire, a Vietnam vet prepares to go on a killing spree.

met·a  /ˈmetə/


(of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.

So much of the story of Targets is rooted in truth and history. Though fictional, the real events that inspired Targets is a dark and fascinating read, and are paralleled in this, Bogdanovich’s first feature film.

Targets opens with an old movie starring Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff). The old and disenchanted actor has become embittered by Hollywood. His director, Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich) has been planning a comeback: a dramatic role to kickstart Byron’s career and take him out of the clichéd ‘High Camp’ roles he’s long ago been typecast into. Orlok isn’t hopeful or impressed and wants nothing to do with it. He decides, on the spot, to retire immediately. This includes any appearances he’s set to make. Those near to him do what they can to try to make him reconsider. In the meantime, ex-marine Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) is showing signs of murderous intent, from pointing a loaded weapon at a friend during target practice to buying a large collection of weapons. While Byron Orlok deals with his plan to wind down his career, Bobby’s descent to a sinister plot winds up to murderous proportions.


Targets impresses on so many levels. Right away, seeing Boris Karloff in a role where he’s essentially playing himself after a long–and-potentially-exploited career was instantly touching. I recalled the plot to JCVD and basked in the honour that Bogdanovich granted to Karloff in the twilight of his career. More than this, Karloff is allowed to flex his talent and proves scene after scene how easily it comes to him – and yes he’s acting. Orlok’s bitterness and resentment was certainly not Karloff’s own sentiment on Hollywood. Then there’s Bogdanovich himself, the real-life director who plays Orlok’s director, who plays an impressive role himself. Also, Bogdanovich named his character Sammy Michaels as a thank you to Samuel Fuller for all his help during the filming.  

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I'd like to leave you with a little story to think about as you drive home... through the darkness... Once upon a time, many, many years ago, a rich merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the marketplace to buy provisions... and after a while the servant came back, white-faced and trembling, and said, 'Master, when I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and I turned to look, and I saw that it was Death that jostled me. And she looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Oh, master, please, lend me your horse, that I may ride away from this city and escape my fate. I will ride to Samarra and Death will not find me there.' So the merchant loaned him the horse and the servant mounted it, and dug his spurs into its flank, and as fast as the horse could gallop he rode towards Samarra. Then the merchant went to the market-place and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he said to her, 'Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?' And Death said, 'I made no threatening gesture - that was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight... in Samarra.' - Byron Orlok

Really, the entire cast is excellent. Even the editing gets itself noticed. Targets does something interesting in its storytelling style. I was reminded of Once Upon a Time in the West and The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo and the way those stories also have very separate and distinct storylines that take a nice long time to entwine themselves. What’s more, the pacing and style of the Orlok story is very different than that of sniper Bobby Thompson. One is often comedic and filled with light-hearted dialogue, whereas the other is quiet, filled with long shots, macabre action and is overall rather somber. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition to watch. It makes me wish Bogdanovich had directed more works like this one.

And shopping for more guns!
And shopping for more guns!

Targets is one giant reference. Firstly is Orlok’s first name, clearly an homage to Fritz Lang’s 1922 Nosferatu title character Count Orlok. The character of the ex-marine sniper, Bobby Thompson, is inspired by two true events. First is Charles Whitman, made famous for the devastating shooting spree from a tower at the University of Texas in 1966. The other is a sniper attack that happened on a California highway in 1965. Bogdanovich’s script goes deep to paint a fictional yet accurate picture. In a scene where Bobby Thompson buys rifles from a gun salesman, he says “I’m gonna shoot some pigs”. Charles Whitman also said he was going hunt wild hogs with the guns he bought to commit his mass murder.

Regardless of how film-industry-meta the Orlok story is, regardless of how completely based in fact Bobby’s tale is, Targets is entertaining fiction, and as such, one doesn’t need the context of reference to enjoy it. All in all Targets is an extra special film, and one I’d never have known about - much less seen - had it not been for the glorious tome that is 1001 Movies.

Bogdanovich and Karloff, just kickin' it meta!
Bogdanovich and Karloff, just kickin' it meta!

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 7 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 82% (Keep It In Your Sights)

What I find even more interesting is that Targets is Bogdanovich’s first feature. I would think that this would be the kind of story that a director would want to tell after spending a career in the industry. Perhaps he was wise beyond his years.

I’m not sure if it was the film, the company or a perfect combination of a day distilled into a good time, but I think Targets is going to stay happy in my mind for quite a while.


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