In October 2014, I celebrated the 31 Days of Halloween with a month-long tribute to the legendary Boris Karloff. I covered the biggest of his films with a few exceptions, most of which had been reviewed here previously. However, one film that I intentionally left off the list was Targets (1968).
This movie has always been an oddity to me for several reasons. Unarguably, it is one of the best films Karloff made and for this to come in the last years of his life, it is an amazing testament to the quality of actor he truly was. And while I do enjoy the movie, I must admit that I’ve always preferred to see Karloff in more traditional horror film settings. Whether he’s a monster, a killer or a mad scientist, that is generally how I prefer to see him.
The biggest reason this movie has always troubled me a little is that it is set in the “modern” world. Unfortunately, the concept of a young man mentally snapping and being ignored by those around him is still far too common in our society today. A sniper killing people is sadly just as relevant today as it was in 1968. In previous viewings, I’ve struggled with the enjoyment factor of Targets. However, this time my eyes were opened a little due to some research into the making of this film.
Boris Karloff is essentially playing himself in the guise of aging horror film legend Byron Orlok. He’s reached a point where he views himself as a dinosaur in a young man’s world. He’s made one last film, The Terror, and now he’s ready to retire. However, there is a planned appearance at a local drive-in and, although he initially declines the offer, he agrees to appear, more so out of loyalty to his staff.
Meanwhile, we are following the story of Vietnam War veteran Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly). He is gathering guns and weapons while on the verge of a mental collapse. The reasons are never clearly defined but are implied that it could be from the war or maybe from having his pleas for help being ignored. When he does snap, he goes on a killing spree, first on a highway then at the same drive-in Byron Orlok is appearing.
Karloff was supposedly so overjoyed with the quality of the script that he offered to work for free. He owed two days of work to Roger Corman and eventually worked another three days. His role was initially small, only about 20 minutes of screen time in a 90-minute movie. However, it was expanded to about 30 minutes due to Karloff’s commitment to the story. Despite this, Karloff’s role in the film would be greatly diminished in the trailers.
Young filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was studying under Roger Corman when he was offered the opportunity to direct Targets. In fact, he would later state that he learned more with Corman than in any other time of his career. He had previously directed Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) under the name of Derek Thomas, so this would essentially be his debut. It was a labor of love as he also produced and edited the film in addition to writing the story with his wife Polly Platt and the script with Samuel Fuller.
It was the start of the most prolific period of his career. He followed this with Directed by John Ford (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973). According to Hollywood legend, his wife Polly was greatly responsible for his early success, which upon their divorce, was never duplicated. Some of the subtle visuals, such as the cartoonish and claustrophobic feel of Bobby’s home, and little in-jokes, such as Bobby writing out a check to Boris Karloff at the gun shop, are symbolic of Bogdanovich’s passion for the film and his cinematic skill at the time. While including scenes from The Terror (1963) was Corman’s idea, the inclusion of the early Karloff flick The Criminal Code (1931) was Bogdanovich’s.
There are two key highlights of the film for Karloff fans. The first occurs when Orlok recites the horror story Appointment in Samarra. It was done in one take without cue cards. It was placed in the film due in large part to Karloff’s recital of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It also harkens back to his work on a 1950s radio program called The Frightened. Many of these are now available on archive.org. Another comes in the final moments of the film when Orlok challenges Bobby, ultimately disarming and defeating him with a backhanded smack.
Targets was filmed in late 1967 under the working title of Before I Die but not released until August of 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. While American International Pictures expressed interest, Bogdanovich held out for a major studio, which paid off when Paramount purchased the distribution rights. Due to the very low budget, the film turned a profit despite a disappointing box office.
Targets was a product of a turbulent time and Orlok’s retirement was very symbolic of the changing tones in horror films. While Orlok did resemble Karloff in many ways, Karloff never desired retirement. He continued to work until months before his death on Feb. 2, 1969. While Karloff was alive to see the film released, he sadly did not get to see the film become widely recognized as a glowing achievement at the end of his illustrious career.
Be sure to check out the trailer on YouTube and then head on over to Amazon as this movie should be in your collection. I’ve learned to appreciate the film much more upon this viewing. While I still can’t rank it in my personal top ten, I can recognize it now as one of Karloff’s best.
Next time, I continue my revisit with Boris Karloff with a very special treat. No spoilers, just plan on coming back for more on this true Hollywood legend.