Friday, August 12, 2011

Catching Up On The Classics: Targets (1968)

In the book I reviewed recently, Shock Value by Jason Zinoman, the author wrote a good chunk about this movie called Targets, comparing and contrasting it to Psycho as one of the movies that brought in the wave of New Horror films in the 70s. I had never heard of Targets before, but the emphasis that Zinoman put on this movie made me extremely curious about it.

Targets is the story of aging horror movie actor Byron Orlock (splendidly and amazingly played by Boris Karloff). Orlock feels like a dinosaur that no one is scared of anymore in a world that is becoming increasingly more violent. At the same time, a young man named Robert Thompson is slowly going mad until his violent tendencies send him on a homicidal rampage with his sniper rifle. The two mens' worlds collide when Robert attacks people at a drive-in theater where Orlock is making his final public appearance.

This movie was absolutely fan-freaking-tastic. I am so freaking in love with it right now and I cannot believe that I had never even heard of it before! Why is this never on anybody's lists of the greatest movies ever??? Okay, that is perhaps a bit over-exaggeration but not really because I was obviously very impressed with Peter Bogdanovich's directorial debut. This is, in fact, probably one of the most successful and effective debuts I've ever seen. Very well shot and a really amazing story.

The scenes with Orlock and his associates were to some people rather boring and not really in conjunction with the other half of the film but I really enjoyed these parts. I think I understood the intention better after having read Zinoman's book and comprehended the finality of the Old Horror era that Orlock apparently ruled in. His despair over the end of his career and appeal is understandable, and it's sweet how all the people around him care about him so much, even if he seems resistant to their affections.

The humor in the film is some fucking funny stuff. Peter Bogdanovich himself as Sammy was no doubt my favorite part of the whole piece, as the scene where he shows up to Orlock's hotel room drunk is kind of masterfully acted. But Karloff has a great moment in this part too. Waking up hung over, Orlock is walking to the door and gets scared by his own reflection in the mirror. So, so, so, so funny.

Our killer Robert starts out the movie as anything but. He has a very Leave it to Beaver home life that should make him happy (even though he and his wife have to live with his parents - awkward, much?) but something inside him, in a way that is never explained, is making him have violent thoughts about killing people.

When he finally takes action on these thoughts, which he tries talking to his wife about one night and gets the brush off (although she did have to go to work - understandable excuse), he carries out his plans methodically and emotionally. He kills his wife, mother, and an innocent grocery boy in a chillingly calm manner and leisurely eats a sandwich before killing about ten people on the freeway. Robert only shows emotion when he is finally caught after his drive-in massacre, when Orlock comes upon him and slaps him silly. Orlock's line "Is this what I was afraid of?" proves that these kinds of killers are nothing but cowards, as Robert whimpers like a baby in a corner before being taken away by police. He is in fact quite a bumbling killer, continually dropping stuff at the scenes of his crimes.

Robert's murder spree on the freeway was undoubtedly one of the most chilling and horrible things I've seen. It is simply - in fact, almost boringly - shot and there is no blood; you only see the people die as they appear in the rifle's crosshairs. What makes this scene so powerful is the very fact of just what Robert is doing - he is nonchalantly sniping random people as they are driving down the freeway. He hits one, and he goes right on to the next. This is sadly nothing new in our reality and it was really nothing new back then either. This movie came shortly after Charles Whitman climbed a clock tower in Texas and gunned down over a dozen people. The randomness of victims in more recent school shootings is also a parallel. And with these real-life incidents in mind, Robert's actions become all the more disturbing because not only can this happen in real life, it actually has happened in real life, too many times.

Direction and camera work are all fairly top notch. When Robert is shooting people, there are a lot of POV shots - the crosshairs in the gun, through the hole in the movie screen - putting the audience in the killer's shoes, but never really inside his mind or motivations. My favorite bit was when Robert was sitting on the bed in the dark smoking, and the light source is seemingly coming from the burnt tip of the cigarette. The effect was perhaps rudimentarily executed but the intent was there and it was very cool to watch.

I can clearly see why Jason Zinoman chose this film to introduce his analysis of horror films from the 70s. It pretty much lays out his hypothesis of how old horror monsters were replaced with new human monsters, with the great Boris Karloff himself symbolically passing the torch. Targets is everything the poster says it is - remarkable, terrifying, and thrilling. But I'd also add hilarious, iconic, and innovative.


  1. I gave you an award!! :D

  2. I'm a fan of Karloff myself, and have been since childhood. I really dig this movie. It was early Bogdonovich, and late Karloff--an odd combination that worked beautifully.

    At a time when horror was beginning to ramp it up, this flicked combined old school ideas, with new school technique.

    I'm glad you decided to cover it.

  3. Awesome pick, yo! So prophetic, and so incredibly unique. Karloff's warm performance contrasts beautifully with O'Kelly's detached coldness.

  4. Never seen "Targets," but Bogdanovich is permanently in my good graces for having directed "The Last Picture Show."

    "Targets" sounds awfully promising, though. It's now on my need-to-see list.

    Great review!

  5. Michele, i think Targets was included in Danny Peary's first book of cult movies originally published in 1981, thats another book you`d really enjoy.

  6. Michele, have you read the 4 DVD delirium books by Nathaniel Thompson ?, they are quite superb and completely un-putdownable. Of course it should be noted that all the reveiws in those books are freely available to read on that equally superb web site called Mondo Digital but the books themselves are so beautifully presented and put together that i`d still buy one every week if they published them that often.

  7. So glad you pointed this out, because few movies make me happier than Targets. It really did help bridge the gap between horror of the past and horror of today, and Karloff is so freakin' brilliant in it. That hilarious double take, which started as an unscripted gag, is a great example of just how awesome the dude was.

    Wicked glad you saw it and loved it!