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.
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.