TARGETS Blu-ray Review: Criterion Hits the Mark with Peter Bogdanovich's First Great Film
Boris Karloff headlines Bogdanovich’s frightfully apt sniper horror film.
The active shooter is perched high above the unsuspecting passersby, picking them off one by one.
Beside him lie extra rifles, ammo, and pistols, more than one homicidal maniac could ever use in a single session. But then, it’s only the 1960s; this sort of surprise mass shooting was brand new to the world. The chaos he inflicts, quietly horrifying and completely arbitrary, continues unabated for far too long.
As we’re unfortunately all too aware, this sort of thing would only become increasingly commonplace over the subsequent decades. The incidents may have shortened but the number of rounds fired have multiplied exponentially. As for this particular sniper, no one saw this coming. He was such a nice, quiet boy with a “trustworthy face”. But true to his word, he kills again.
And after that, he’ll be confronted by Frankenstein’s monster.
Indeed, in a collision that may seem bizarrely incongruous, our young fresh-faced murderer comes face to face with an altogether different killer, Boris Karloff. Technically, Karloff is portraying in-world horror icon and obvious 1:1 surrogate Byron Orlok. Orlok is a tired classical actor on his last bowlegged leg whose final hackneyed gothic castle picture happens to be playing on the drive-in screen the sniper’s gravitated to for his second round of anonymous death-dealing.
Orlok, whose personal appearance at said drive-in is understandably short, manages to stare down the sniper on his way out from inside the screen. (Yes, the screen itself was firing lethal rounds at the viewers in their parked cars). Just a Steve Rogers-esque young man in appearance, the sniper becomes overwhelmed, firing at both Orlok and Orlok’s likeness on screen. It turns out that The Terror is real. Somewhere, Marshall McLuhan just might be smirking.
Targets, with its confrontational spin on all-too-current events, fired indiscriminately onto the unsuspecting culture of 1968 America. The film was and is an unexpected shot of youthful energy and cutting contemporary vigor that fully empathizes with the fading previous generations.
It’s the kind of movie that only fresh-faced mega-film nerd Peter Bogdanovich could’ve made. (Although not without his then-wife, the equally cinema-obsessed Polly Platt, here co-credited for coming up with the story and acting as production designer).
The story goes that producer Roger Corman was owed a few days of work by Boris Karloff. He had Bogdanovich and Platt kicking around looking for a project, so he told them to take however many minutes of completed footage from one of his previous movies, The Terror, shoot some new stuff with Karloff, and make it work as a completed film. Roger that….
Would that it were so simple. After failing to concoct a scenario in which Karloff could be a villain, Bogdanovich and Platt decided to have him play even closer to home. Karloff’s Orlok is a rapidly aging man out of time, and he knows it.
Decades ago, he was a household horror name. He reminisces about what they used to say: “The Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream!” But in the contemporary world of 1968, very different things than the monsters he used to embody scare people the most. After sitting through the rushes of whatever movie The Terror is supposed to be in Targets, Orlok decides then and there that he won’t be making any more films.
This is baaaaad news for Bogdanovich’s character, a young director tasked with making a Byron Orlok picture. But the old man’s mind is made up. As evidenced by his perpetual suit-and-tie attire, Orlok is much too much the gentleman to kiss and tell, though now he can devote more time to, say, avoiding any advances of Norma Desmond.
The two characters may be cut from the same conceptual cloth, but unlike the woman of Sunset Boulevard, Orlok knows when it’s time to stop chasing the spotlight. With full confidence, Orlok even refuses to do the arranged personal appearance at a nearby drive-in theater to promote his current film. Everyone else spends the rest of Targets trying to change his mind about that.
Restricted by a typically minuscule Corman budget and the assignment of creating a patchwork picture, it’s a wonder that Targets turned out to be anything at all. That it turned out brilliantly, as uncannily profound and engaging as it is, is something of a Movieland miracle. With László Kovács minding the camera, Targets maintains a deliberately extreme lighting design in the sniper’s sparse, unassuming suburban house, which he (Tim O’Kelly) and his wife (Tanya Morgan) share with his parents (James Brown and Mary Jackson).
True to the real-life actions of sniper Charles Whitman at the University of Texas Tower in 1966 upon which he’s based, this shooter begins his spree at home. Sudden, brutal, and yet inevitable, these scenes are especially effective on Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of the film. Presented in 1080p from a new 4K digital master that was supervised by Bogdanovich prior to his death last year, and with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, this release is the absolute go-to for experiencing Targets outside of a movie theater. (And preferably not at a drive-in).
According to Bogdanovich’s 2003 DVD introduction, iconoclast director Samuel Fuller (Forty Guns) came up with the film’s harrowing climax but refused to take credit. Bogdanovich got so far as naming his own character “Sam Michaels” in tribute, utilizing Fuller’s own first and middle names.
This fact and many, many others also turn up in the filmmaker’s 2003 audio commentary, prepared for the same previous Paramount disc. While yes, there is a little bit of repeated information between the intro and the commentary, it is nonetheless impressive just how many vivid details about the making of this movie Bogdanovich handily recalls some three-and-a-half decades later. Unlike many other directors’ commentaries, he is fully engaged, seemingly forthright, and never stops talking.
According to a 1983 interview excerpt with Polly Platt at the AFI, Targets wasn’t their first film. That honor goes to something called Gill Women of Venus, another Corman-produced cobbling of existing footage and some new stuff with Mamie Van Doren. That one, according to her, didn’t turn out to be anything worth watching, and it subsequently was not released. As of this 1983 interview, that certainly remained true. Now that both Platt and Bogdanovich are gone, Gill Women of Venus would’ve a great bonus feature for Criterion’s Targets. But alas…
Dazed and Confused filmmaker Richard Linklater turns up in the Criterion supplements menu to pay tribute to Bogdanovich and Targets. Being from Austin, Linklater maintains an unshakable association with Charles Whitman and the Tower shootings.
While Linklater is always a welcome presence, he seems almost uncomfortable in this talk as he discusses how Whitman is recognized as the first mass shooter in the U.S., and also speaks about the subsequent gun control problem. When he’s discussing Bogdanovich as a new director and impressively good actor, he loosens up considerably.
Several years ago, my brother had me over for a night of movie watching. He specifically requested some more intense titles that his wife, who wasn’t home, wouldn’t want to see. I brought The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Targets, neither of which he’d ever seen. In fact, he’d only ever heard of the former.
We watched Chain Saw first, since it was the bigger title to cross off his must-see list. Somehow, Tobe Hooper’s classic didn’t do it for him. So, we put on Targets. Afterwards, with no offense intended to the great Texas Chain Saw Massacre, we both agreed that Targets was definitely the scarier and more soul-rattling movie.
Though Sandy Hook and so many other such incidents hadn’t happened at that point, it was obvious that the epidemic of mass shootings was only getting exponentially worse in the U.S., and that there was very little any of us could do to stop it. And that is far scarier than any cannibal lunatic with a loud power tool.
Not just for Orlok but also for Karloff, Targets would be their last picture show. It’s a more than suitable farewell, as Karloff truly shines in this, one of the great career epilogue performances. Peter Bogdanovich, however, was just getting started, ascending his own far more positive perch as he prepared for a long career doing an altogether different kind of shooting.
The film is now available from Criterion on Blu-ray and DVD.
- Peter Bogdanovich
- Peter Bogdanovich
- Polly Platt
- Samuel Fuller
- Tim O'Kelly
- Boris Karloff
- Nancy Hsueh