Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets: A Meditation on the Evolution of Onscreen Horror and One of Cinema’s Most Terrifying Depictions of…

Stories from The Dissolve.
Aug. 21 2013 5:45 AM

A New Kind of Monster

Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets is a brilliant meditation on the evolution of onscreen horror—and one of cinema’s most terrifying depictions of gun violence.

A still from Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 thriller, "Targets."
A still from Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 thriller, Targets

Courtesy of Saticoy Productions.

This essay originally appeared in the Dissolve.

Click here to read a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich about Targets and gun violence.

Boris Karloff became a star playing Frankenstein’s Monster. Thirty-seven years later, he ended his career in a movie that was assembled like one. The film was originally conceived under the ominous title Before I Die, and later released as Targets. It was Karloff’s last American film; it was the director, Peter Bogdanovich’s, first.

Advertisement

Targets’ origins were an unusual arrangement between Bogdanovich and producer Roger Corman. Karloff owed Corman two days of work, and the notoriously frugal Corman was not about to let those two days go to waste. At the time, Bogdanovich, a respected film critic, historian, and programmer, was just getting into the movie business as Corman’s assistant. His work on the biker movie The Wild Angels impressed his boss enough for Corman to offer Bogdanovich the chance to make his own movie—with some important conditions:

Condition No. 1: He had to use Karloff for those two owed days.

Condition No. 2: He also had to incorporate 20 minutes of footage from another Corman-Karloff picture, 1963’s The Terror.

Condition No. 3: He also had to shoot another 40 minutes of movie without Karloff.

Condition No. 4: He had to do it for less than $125,000.

If Bogdanovich consented to the conditions, he could make whatever movie he wanted. Within some extremely strict guidelines, the director had absolute creative freedom.

By necessity, Targets tells two parallel stories that each comprise about half of the film’s runtime. In his portion, Karloff plays Byron Orlok, an aging horror-movie icon (his name is an homage to the vampire in Murnau’s Nosferatu) who decides to retire. After a screening of his latest picture (called, you guessed it, The Terror), he announces his plans to the picture’s crestfallen producers and director, Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich).

While Orlok’s handlers beg him to reconsider, an exceedingly ordinary-looking young man named Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) goes about his exceedingly ordinary life: dinner with his wife and parents, trips to the gun range with his dad. But when no one’s looking, Bobby starts stockpiling guns and ammunition. He stays up all night, smoking cigarettes and glancing over at a pistol on his bedside table. And then one morning when his wife comes in to kiss him, he shoots her in the stomach then kills his mother and a delivery boy. Bobby calmly cleans up his bloody mess, tucks the corpses into bed, packs up his arsenal, and ventures out on a killing spree that ends at the very drive-in movie theater where Orlok is giving his farewell public appearance after yet another screening of The Terror.

Despite its disjointed origins, Targets is an impressively coherent movie about the end of an era: The fade to black for old-fashioned monster movies and the coming of a new and truly terrifying kind of monster, one that isn’t easily recognized by its gruesome visage or simplistic motivations. While most of his peers were making movies that reveled in youth culture and sensationalized violence, Bogdanovich created a cinematic elegy for Hollywood’s golden age. Largely overlooked in its day and mostly forgotten now, it remains one of the unsung masterpieces of the New Hollywood period: a brilliant meditation on the evolution of onscreen horror and one of the most terrifying depictions of gun violence in movie history. In the end, the conditions proved crucial to the film’s success; Targets wouldn’t be half as effective without Karloff and The Terror playing themselves.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.