While it lacks the style and polish of the films that come after it, Peter Bogdanovich’s debut film, Targets (1968), is a first feature of note — one that still packs a punch (maybe a punch that hits even harder in contemporary times). Its history is part of movie legend, but it’s worth remembering that it all came about because Boris Karloff owed Roger Corman a couple of days. Corman gave those days to Bogdanovich — along with 20 minutes of his 1963 film The Terror — and let the critic-turned-director make what he wanted. Karloff ended up working five days — three of them for free. So Bogdanovich — along with his then-wife Polly Platt and with some uncredited assistance from Sam Fuller — cooked up a story. From this, he wrote a screenplay and made a film that was so good, Corman let him sell it to Paramount for a more prestigious release than Corman and independent studio American International Pictures could offer.
It was essentially guerrilla filmmaking — working quickly and without permits — and it delivered a whole different kind of chilling. Bogdanovich had not wanted to make a period horror picture, so he used The Terror as the latest old-style horror picture, made by classic era horror star Byron Orlock (Karloff basically playing Karloff). In Bogdanovich’s film, The Terror is presented as a stepping stone for young director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich himself) who wants to make something more — with Orlock as the star. Problem is that Orlock wants to retire (something that isn’t authentic to Karloff) and has no intention of making another movie. He considers himself a museum piece and is convinced that his type of horror is out of date — that it has been eclipsed by real life.
As if to bear this out, we are given Targets’ other story (the cross-cutting between the two isn’t terribly inspired at first). It concerns Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), the cleanest-cut young man you could ever hope to meet — a product of a spectacularly faceless upscale suburban upbringing where the only measure of a man seems to be his prowess with a rifle and its attendant father-son bonding. But something has gone wrong beneath the surface — and Bobby is about to murder his wife, mother and a hapless grocery delivery boy, before setting out to pick off freeway motorists from the vantage point of a gas reservoir. (This latter part is grounded in a sniper incident in Texas around this time). When the police start to close in on him, he manages to duck into a drive-in theater — where he finds the perfect position (through a hole in the screen) to continue his shooting spree. Of course, this just happens to be the drive-in where The Terror is premiering with a personal appearance by Byron Orlock — an event that will bring the old horror star face to face with this modern horror. Without saying too much, that encounter is at once hallucinatory, weirdly satisfying and very disturbing.
The film’s ending can also be read as something of a riff on Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) with Orlock realizing (“Is that what I was afraid of?”) that maybe his kind of horror still has its place in this modern world. It goes without saying that real life events have caught up with Bogdanovich’s film, giving it a resonance no one could have imagined in 1968 — and certainly one no one could have wished for. However, it’s impossible to watch Bogdanovich’s film today without seeing alarming parallels in the images of an unsuspecting, even uncomprehending, audience being fired upon from the screen.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Targets Thursday, Dec. 26, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.