Sunday, July 28, 2013

I Don't Like Mondays

Film: Targets
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

You can say whatever you like about Roger Corman, but you have to admit that the man has an eye for talent. Corman started the careers of a lot of directors. There are a lot of recognizable names who worked as directors on Corman films either early in their careers or at the beginnings of their lives as directors. These aren’t just recognizable names, either—we’re talking about people like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron. The list also includes Peter Bogdanovich and one of his first films: Targets.

This is a film that I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I watched the documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue about the American horror film industry. Targets features for a few moments in that film, and it looked intriguing enough that I both wanted to see it immediately and wanted to hold off on seeing it by way of anticipation. Well, it showed up in the mail today, so the wait was finally over.

Targets is a film that could easily be remade today and would be seen as just as relevant and timely now—perhaps even more so—than it was in 1968. There are two stories here that come together tragically and painfully at the end of the film. The first story concerns Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, in many ways playing himself, or at least a version of himself). Orlok has made his career as an actor in gothic horror films, often as the heavy. He has grown old and his films have fallen out of style. Having completed his latest film, he decides to retire rather than finish off the slow decline of worse and worse monster pictures and the inevitable fading from public consciousness. Screenwriter/director Sammy Michaels (director Peter Bogdanovich) is desperate for Orlok to play in his latest script.

The second story is that of Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), a Vietnam veteran with what appears on the surface to be a fairly normal and peaceful life. This is an illusion shattered immediately when we see him buying a rifle and then putting it into the trunk of his car where we see that he has purchased quite an arsenal.

Very quickly and very efficiently, we see that Bobby has walked off the end of his mental pier and has entered a very deep, very dark place. The arsenal in the car trunk is there for a reason, and a shooting spree is in the works. It starts suddenly. Bobby is typing a note, of which we see only the word “die.” Moments later, he shoots his wife, his mother, and an unfortunate grocery boy who happened to be delivering food to the house. From here, Bobby takes up temporary residence on top of an oil refinery tower and shooting into highway traffic.

The two stories come together at the end when Bobby Thompson runs from the oil refinery and winds up at a drive-in theater that happens to be where Byron Orlok has agreed to do a farewell appearance, having been convinced in part by his personal secretary, Jenny (Nancy Hsueh). This is a real climactic sequence, lasting a good 20 minutes or so, with Bobby picking off theater patrons while the realization slowly dawns on the patrons that something very wrong is going on.

Targets is tightly wound and does almost everything correctly. In other words, it was very much worth the wait and it lived up to pretty much all of my expectations. The two stories manage to splice perfectly and make sense together. The reason for this is the main them of the Orlok story. He has decided to retire because he has come to the realization that his style of horror movie, the gothic film with fancy costumes and a lot of leering rather than much in the way of genuine scares, has become a thing of the past. In one moment, he points at a newspaper headline about a shooting spree, commenting that his type of horror is no longer scary when compared with the horror of the real world.

The film also manages a nice, believable ramp up to the terrible happenings of the second act. This is a short film (about 90 minutes), so there isn’t a great deal of time for a good slow burn, and yet Targets does display all of the right elements to make the slow burn of Bobby Thompson work. We see the arsenal immediately. On a target shooting range with his father, we see him come dangerously close to killing his dad. We see him withdrawing from his life. So when he does finally snap, it’s entirely believable that we’ve watched his mental wiring get uncrossed and recrossed in homicidal ways.

There are even moments of humor here, mostly coming from Karloff and Bogdanovich himself. Watching Karloff act and act so well is one of the real joys here—I’m an admitted Karloff fan and will happily watch him in most things. He’s old in this film, but his voice hasn’t lost an ounce of its power or impact. And, since he is playing himself, there’s a complete sense of legitimacy to the role.

The best thing about Targets, though, is just how terrifyingly believable it is. This is real-world horror, the kind that happens when we don’t expect it. This is Charles Whitman in a clock tower or the massacre of Columbine or Virginia Tech. There’s no making sense of this kind of tragedy, only surviving through it, something that Targets makes plain. I’m glad I waited to see this until a moment when I needed a lift. I’m also very glad that I’ve had the opportunity to watch it.

Why to watch Targets: It manages to be terrifying without special effects or much of a budget.
Why not to watch: It might make you scared to leave your house.


  1. This film was a revelation about Karloff's acting. I never knew he had it in him, but, of course, it may have been easier to play a version of himself. It is funny how timely and ahead of its time Targets was. While our everyday crazy world had really not taken hold in 1968, it still touched on Vietnam.

    1. I love Karloff, mostly for his voice, but I won't pretend like I don't enjoy his work. But this one is pretty different.

      The story, though...I'm not sure this is a film that could have been released post-Columbine.

  2. I'm glad this lived up to the expectations for you. I liked it as well, although for me it was just another movie on the list I knew nothing about before seeing.

    When he climbed up on the refinery tank I knew this had to have been inspired by the shooter on the Texas college campus a few years before this was made. Back then this film would have been just as shocking as that story. Sadly, it has become almost commonplace nowadays.

    I don't know if you watched the extras on the DVD or not, but they talk about how Karloff had shot some film with Corman, but owed him a couple more days work. Corman loaned that debt to Bogdanovich, who struggled to figure out how to integrate the gothic horror footage into a movie when he only had Karloff for very limited time. He finally lit on the idea of a movie within a movie and a shooter showing up at the screening of it. Karloff liked it so much he worked past his owed time in order to finish the new story.

    1. Oh, and I love the Boomtown Rats reference.

    2. I did watch a couple of the extras--I liked the film enough to spend a little more time with it. It's a surprising film in a lot of ways--it's a much smarter script than I expected, and a smarter film in general. I really expected it to be a B-movie, and it is, but it's one of those B-movies that aspires to be something more.

      For the record, I'm a huge Boomtown Rats fan.

  3. I enjoyed this one as well. Surprisingly good, really, considering I had no expectations going in.

    It's interesting that this was made in 1968 and dealt with a Vietnam veteran.

    I'm looking forward to seeing this film again at some point.

    1. Honestly, I am, too. This is one I will happily watch again.

  4. It's interesting that Bogdanavich did so well with so little budget for this movie. That seems to be a running theme for several movies on the 1001 list, getting a lot for a little.

    1. When you consider that 20% of his budget went to Karloff, it's even more impressive.