MG Marshall's Double Feature of Doom! Targeting the Terror 1b

While the previous movie I discussed, The Terror, has maintained something of a cult status in the many years since it’s release, another film that’s practically its companion piece remains tragically underrated and under-discussed: Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets.

In 1967, Boris Karloff once again owed Roger Corman two days’ work, and Corman decided to give Peter Bogdanovich his first directing job. Bogdanovich had previously done a re-write on Corman’s biker flick The Wild Angels and would go on to direct the Corman-produced Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, albeit under a pseudonym. Corman promised Bogdanovich that he could make any movie he liked, provided that it star Karloff and that he used stock footage from The Terror. And, well… Bogdanovich did deliver on those demands. Kind of.

Targets opens with the closing scenes of The Terror playing out. As the end title comes up on the screen, the camera pans out into a screening room, where Byron Orlock (Karloff, here blatantly playing himself, despite the phony name) and the film’s director, Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich himself as a stand-in for Corman, with a dash of Samuel Fuller, Bogdavich’s other mentor and an uncredited co-writer on Targets) are watching a rough cut of The Terror. As the film ends, Orlock abruptly announces his intention to retire, backing out of the next picture he’s contracted to make with Michaels. Over the next two days, Michaels and Orlock’s P.A. Jenny (Nancy Hseuh) desperately try to make Orlock reconsider, but he is unwavering. When pushed for a reason why, Orlock points out that his kind of horror doesn’t scare people anymore, that the crime and bloodshed they see every morning in the headlines is the true horror of the modern age. He deigns to make one final public appearance at a local drive-in screening of The Terror, after which he intends to return to England.

As if to prove Orlock’s point, we cut to a seemingly unrelated subplot involving Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), a normal-seeming young man who’s just a bit too clean-cut, calm, reserved, and distant from the other people he interacts with, including his wife and parents. We soon learn that Bobby has amassed a small arsenal of rifles and handguns that he’s keeping hidden in the trunk of his car. Bobby’s behavior grows more and more erratic- he walks through his house as if he’s never seen it before; he tries, to no avail, to tell his wife of the “funny ideas” he’s been having; he draws a bead on his father during their visit to the gun range, clearly contemplating pulling the trigger for nearly a full minute. He doesn’t shoot his father then and there, but the pattern of Bobby’s behavior is quite easy to detect and predict, particularly from a modern point of view. This only serves to make these early scenes with Bobby and his family all the more dreadful and nerve-wracking. Finally, early one morning, he shoots his wife, his mother and a grocery delivery boy. After calmly placing their bodies in bed, Bobby sets out to a local water tower and begins sniping at the traffic on the nearby highway. When he’s nearly apprehended by the police, he flees, eventually hiding out in the drive-in hosting the premiere of The Terror and Orlock’s public appearance. While sitting in the audience, Bobby has another “funny idea” of how he can continue his shooting spree.

The first thing I want to discuss about Targets is Boris Karloff’s performance. It was one of his final roles, only appearing in six more films. While I haven’t seen any of those yet, I can’t imagine them offering him a better role than the one he has here. In 1967, suffering from emphysema and near death, Karloff doesn’t try to hide his very visible frailty, and the role never really gives him the opportunity to. It’s as much a self-effacement as it is a swan song, a tacit admission of his own aging and decline, and a coming-to-grips with the fact that his brand of horror had become passé for many audiences by 1967. The film forces both a metaphorical, and eventually a literal, confrontation between Karloff, the screen boogeyman, and O’Kelly, a more real, more quotidian kind of monster. And in contrasting their performances, while Karloff probably gives the best performance of his career, O’Kelly matches him beat for beat in intensity. He is disturbingly understated and naturalistic, adding little touches like quietly eating a sandwich and drinking a Coca Cola as he prepares to fire on traffic. While the movie belongs to Boris, it would fall totally flat if Bobby’s character weren’t believable, and fortunately O’Kelly is more than able to deliver.

I suppose I should address the elephant in the room and talk about how the movie handles gun violence and mass shootings. It’s quite an interesting take, particularly given the time period. Except for Orlock’s mournful speechifying about the state the world is in, the movie never takes much time out to sermonize or bluntly state its message. Instead it very subtly, very dispassionately presents the story to the audience, like a true crime documentary. (And Bobby’s shooting spree was indeed very loosely based on the killing spree perpetrated by Charles Whitman in 1966) The methodical, almost mechanical way Bobby’s inevitable descent into violence is portrayed is deeply unsettling, and that tone extends to the rest of the movie. It’s an eerily quiet movie- there’s no musical score, and very little non-diegetic sound, save for background noise from TVs and radios and the soundtrack to The Terror playing in the background of the drive-in finale. This use of silence makes a great many little moments really stand out. My favorite of these is a scene where Orlock is preparing his remarks for the drive-in audience, and elects to tell them a story- an abbreviated telling of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Appointment in Sammara.” The camera slowly pans in toward Karloff as, in one long take, he delivers the monologue. And something amazing happens. As he gets deeper into the story, sucking the viewer in, the years seem to fade away, and Boris Karloff is back in top form again- the old master telling us all one final ghost story while he still has time. It’s a phenomenal sequence.

The film premiered shortly after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and Bogdanovich has speculated that its proximity to these killings prevented the movie from finding an audience when it came out. Tragically, I have to imagine it would hit just as close to home, if not more so, today. In the intervening decades, stories like Bobby’s have only become more and more common; his cold, deadened gaze is one we’ve seen in so many real faces. And the film offers no easy solutions, which feels much more honest to me. Rather, it only offers us the small comfort in the idea that men like Bobby aren’t really monsters, merely twisted, frightened little people who desire recognition, even at the cost of others’ lives. And, as the film’s haunting final shot illustrates, this is a recognition which will never come. Still, in a world where Targets remains incredibly relevant fifty years later, it’s hard not to wonder on some level whether Byron Orlock was right. He can’t compare to the horrors of the real world, but his brand of horror still has its place, and it always will. When confronted with the complexities of real-life monsters, the quaint kind of horror a film like The Terror offers can be quite a comfort, just like being told a good ghost story.

Well, that really did wind up being a double feature of doom. I promise, it won’t always get that serious…

Angela BullockComment