Friday, March 1, 2013

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Targets (1968)

Targets (1968)
Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich.
Written by: Peter Bogdanovich.
Starring: Tim O'Kelly (Bobby Thompson), Boris Karloff (Byron Orlok), Arthur Peterson (Ed Loughlin), Monte Landis (Marshall Smith), Nancy Hsueh (Jenny), Peter Bogdanovich (Sammy Michaels), James Brown (Robert Thompson Sr.), Mary Jackson (Charlotte Thompson), Tanya Morgan (Ilene Thompson), Sandy Baron (Kip Larkin).

In his debut film Targets Peter Bogdanovich contrasted real life horror with the violence we see on movie screens. No matter how violent movies were then, or have become now, they always pale in comparison to what people actually do to each other. He came up with the idea for Targets when Roger Corman came to him and told him that he wanted the young writer to direct a movie. Boris Karloff, the famed horror legend, owed Corman two days of shooting and he wanted Bogdanovich to shoot 20 minutes in those two days, add in another 20 minutes from the 1962 film The Terror, also with Karloff, and then shoot another 40 minutes with other actors, thus making a full length film. After watching The Terror, Bogdanovich had no idea how to make a film using any of that footage – so he came up with an idea. Karloff would essentially play a version of himself, the footage from The Terror (which he did not use 20 minutes of), would be one of the characters movies (and a bad one at that), and then he would add in a story inspired by Charles Whitman – who after killing members of his family climbed the Bell Tower at Texas University and opened fire on the people below. The result was Targets, a surprisingly suspenseful film, which often gets mentioned on lists of the best directorial debuts of all time.

The movie opens in a screening room with Byron Orlok (Karloff) watching the conclusion of The Terror. He hates the movie and announces on the spot that he is retiring. This angers the head of the studio who has already put money into the next film by director Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich himself) on the condition that Orlok was going to play the lead. But Orlok has had enough. He is tired of being viewed as a camp actor, his films no longer scaring audiences. He picks up the newspaper and points to a story about a massacre and says this is real horror, and he has had enough of the fake stuff. Grudgingly, he agrees to do a public appearance the next day at a drive-in, which will show the horror film. This will be his last public appearance, before he returns to England to enjoy his retirement.

It’s here where we meet Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly). He is clean cut and handsome – an All American boy. We see him buying a rifle, and then putting it in the trunk of his Mustang – that already contains at least a dozen guns. We see him enjoy a nice family dinner with his parents and his wife, go target shooting with the old man, and then sitting down to watch TV with the family. These scenes are oddly disquieting, as they are seemingly innocent. But there is emptiness to Bobby – and really his entire family. They are playing the happy family, but they don’t feel like it. The next day, Bobby will murder his wife (as she comes over to kiss him) and his mother, and an innocent delivery boy. He leaves a note saying “I’ve killed my wife and my mother. I know they will catch me, but before they do, many more will die”. Then he heads out to prove the note correct – first shooting at cars on the freeway from his perch atop an industrial complex, and then heading to the same drive-in where Orlok will be that night.

There is a little bit of a disconnect between the two stories, but for the most part, they do work well together. The scenes with Karloff have a sad tone to them, even though on the surface, they are quite funny. Karloff knew by this point, very late in his career and his life that he was never really going to be taken seriously as an actor. His Orlok knows this two, and while he is resigned to the fact, there is a sadness about him as he goes through the motions for a last time. The scenes with Bobby are tense and amazingly well staged by Bogdanovich – especially when you consider that he was a first time director at the time. Bogdanovich doesn’t even try to answer the question of why Bobby does what he does – something that always frustrates some audiences, but for the most part works. When someone decides to try and kill as many people as they can, there is no real reason why. The climax at the drive in is tense and well staged, but the ultimate conclusion, although well directed and acted by Karloff, rings false.

When Bogdanovich was done Targets, he thought he had made a great movie, and didn’t want it to come and go as another quickie exploitation film by Corman, and convinced him to try and let Bogdanovich sell it to a major studio. Robert Evans saw it and loved it, but couldn’t get Paramount to buy it until Bogdanovich convinced two film critic friends of his to review it, then Paramount caved. Promptly after buying it, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated, and all of a sudden a film about a sniper didn’t seem like such a good idea. They still released the film – barely – and although it got good reviews, audiences stayed away in droves (even though they added a Public Service Message to the beginning of the film about gun control). But Targets found its audience later on. It allowed Bogdanovich to make his next film, his masterpiece, The Last Picture Show (1971) and it gave Karloff his last great film role. While it is far from a perfect film, Targets is a film that gets it mostly right – and is still intense and intelligent all these years later.

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