At 80 years old, legendary star Boris Karloff – the man who terrified millions as Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein (1932), amazingly his 82nd film – was in poor health. Fighting rheumatoid arthritis and emphysema with only half a lung, Karloff was just about able to work for five days – three more than contracted, which he worked unpaid – on the directorial debut of Peter Bogdanovich, 1968’s Targets. The performance he gave has gone on to be one of his most celebrated, and his final in a major American film, in a unique and haunting film that lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
Targets is a film of two seemingly unrelated narratives, that converge in the film’s thrilling and unforgettable climax. Firstly, we follow Byron Orlok (Karloff), a fictionalised version of the iconic actor, as he becomes disillusioned with real-life monsters like serial killers ringing the death knell for the traditional horror genre. In the second plotline, we follow Bobby (an incredible Tim O’Kelly), a mild-mannered and quiet insurance agent with a seemingly happy existence who murders his family and embarks on a random killing spree. As Old Hollywood combines with New Hollywood and the harsh, nihilistic terrors of the contemporary world converge with the more gentle old-school horror, our characters finally meet. The film offers a chilling contrast between the violence of screen horror, and the much more harrowing violence that exists in our reality.
This is a deeply uncomfortable film. Targets’ portrayal of a man’s journey into violence is a disturbing vision; Bobby’s life seems so perfect, and his performance is initially so likable – here is a sweet, gentle man that we’ve all known before in our lives. When his sudden descent into violence sees him slaughter his family, it is genuinely shocking and surprisingly violent for a film of the late 1960s in its chilling, quiet brutality. Loosely inspired by the Charles Whitman case – more widely known as the “Texas Tower Sniper” – the indiscriminate rampage that ensues is genuinely unsettling. It’s O’Kelly’s everyman performance that makes us shiver – if this violence is possible and can be so unexpected from someone who seems so balanced and kind, do we really know our acquaintances?
Contrasting this dark story is the parallel plotline of Orlok’s retirement, and subsequent agreement for one last public appearance at a drive-in screening celebrating his film The Terror (a genuine Karloff production, from which footage is used). Interestingly, as a side note, B-movie juggernaut and producer Roger Corman told director Bogdanovich he could make any film he wanted to, with two simple conditions: he had to use stock footage from The Terror, and he had to hire Karloff for two days (Karloff was under contract and owed Corman those two days). The rest was up to him. The film Bogdanovich both wrote and directed around this brief is genius. The Orlok storyline feels almost like a horror Singin’ in the Rain – the tale of a mighty star who has become irrelevant, struggling to come to terms with a changing cinema landscape. In a fascinating meta turn, Bodganovich stars in the film as a young director pitching Orlok on a unique screenplay that would take Orlok away from his traditional horror roots – the very film that Targets is.
Beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer László Kovács, Targets looks incredible, especially in this gorgeous new restoration. The iconic sights of late-1960s LA are beautiful to behold, and just go to show how stunningly they were recreated in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood recently. Tarantino would go on to heavily praise Targets, calling it “one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time”.
BFI’s Blu-ray is a delight, presenting the film in a new 2K digital restoration from a 4K scan in a Blu-ray debut supervised by the late Peter Bogdanovich. Loaded with extra features including a new audio commentary by author and film critic Peter Tonguette, newly recorded interviews and video essay, all rounded out by a selection of archive materials. This release is stacked, and also in its first pressing includes a fascinating booklet featuring new writing on the film.