Blu-ray Review: Targets

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Peter Bogdanovich | CAST: Tim O’Kelly, Boris Karloff, Peter Bogdanovich, Nancy Hsueh, James Brown, Arthur Peterson, Tanya Morgan, Sandy Baron 
RELEASE DATE: 5/16/23 | PRICE: DVD $20.99, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: Audio commentary from 2003 featuring Bogdanovich; new interview with filmmaker Richard Linklater; introduction to the film from 2003 by Bogdanovich; excerpts from a 1983 audio interview with production designer Polly Platt
SPECS: NR | 90 min. | Drama thriller | 1.85:1 | monaural |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video   | Overall

In this era when mass shootings are a weekly (if not daily) occurrence in America, a film like Targets may not seem that strikingly original. But at the time it was made in 1967 (and released in ’68), the film presented an important statement about the proliferation of guns in American — and, incidentally, the end of “classic horror,” in light of contemporary real-life nightmare news stories.

Despite its late Sixties look and feel, Targets remains extraordinarily timely, because it does capture the mass shooter narrative that is acted out so often today: a disturbed person loses their mind and carefully plans a massacre in a highly public area; leaves a suicide note (or, more common these days, an online manifesto); kills members of their family; and proceeds to slaughter innocents, usually with a variety of guns and ammunitions in tow.

When Peter Bogdanovich and his production designer/then-wife Polly Platt conceived of the film, though, this was an extremely uncommon phenomenon that was familiar to Americans solely through the story of Charles Whitman, a trained sniper who killed random people from a tower on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin in August of 1966.

The film counterpoints that chilling storyline with a much calmer one, in which a young filmmaker, played by Bogdanovich, is trying to convince aging horror star Byron Orlock (Boris Karloff) to make one more film, with him as director. Orlock proclaims that his type of horror movie is outmoded and that contemporary reality is scarier than anything he’s ever acted in — which leads to a suspenseful conclusion where Orlock encounters the sniper at the drive-in premiere of one of his movies.

The sniper plotline is indeed (very sadly) timeless, as we witness the killer methodically killing his family and then picking off people in cars on an L.A. freeway. These sequences are effective on a narrative level and also a visual one, as Bogdanovich mimics two of his heroes (and interview subjects) Lang and Hitchcock by showing the meticulous way in which the sniper lays out his guns and ammunition (as in various shots in Lang’s M) and by repeatedly giving us the sniper’s POV (as Hitchcock did with so many of his homicidal characters, making the viewer complicit in the killings).

The Karloff plotline is lightly humorous, until the Orlock character makes an appearance at the drive-in. These sequences provide a beautiful conclusion to Karloff’s career — although he did make one more complete film (The Crimson Cult) and then shot sequences to be inserted in four Mexican thrillers. While it is clear that Karloff was suffering from acute arthritis throughout, the scenes where Orlock reflects on his image as a “monster” and a standout bit where he narrates a creepy old tale are vivid reminders of how he was so singularly sympathetic as the Frankenstein monster and why he was was so beloved by generations of “monster kids.”

The only weak element of the film is Bogdanovich the actor. Much is made in the supplements here of his pre-filmmaking career as a stage actor, but you’d never know he’d studied the craft and practiced it so diligently from his turn in Targets. As a character who is essentially a modestly fictionalized version of himself, he is awkward (when dealing with Karloff) and unctuous (when flirting with a “girlfriend” character). Thankfully, Bogdanovich’s clunky performance can be overlooked — and in fact, his character matters not at all during the hard-hitting climax at the drive-in.

The supplements offer interesting information and personal reflections on Targets. In a 2003 video introduction to the film, Bogdanovich outlines the way the film came to be: Firstly, Boris Karloff owed Roger Corman two days of filming. Corman then offered to produce a film for Bogdanovich, provided he created a plot that utilized Karloff; the running time would be 80 minutes — 20 minutes of new material with Karloff, 20 minutes from a patchwork film starring Karloff that Corman produced entitled The Terror, and 40 minutes of new material that didn’t feature Karloff.

Peter Bogdanovich (l.) and Boris Karloff in Targets

Bogdanovich took Corman up on his offer  (although The Terror is only seen in Targets under the opening credits and on the screen during the drive-in sequence). Bogdanovich and Platt then devised the sniper plotline, inspired by Charles Whitman’s killing spree.

The third scripter (who asked not to be credited) was the great filmmaker Sam Fuller, who worked with Bogdanovich for several hours reworking the story one day. Bogdanovich notes that Sam’s most valuable advice was to save most of the film’s budget for the final scene of the film — thus, there was a 12-night shoot (only one night with Karloff present) at the drive-in.

The film didn’t fare well upon its release. In the video intro Bogdanovich outlines the machinations he set in motion to get the film picked up by Paramount. Despite a major studio distributing it, the film still failed at the box office, because it was released in August 1968, a few months after the assassinations of MLK and RFK. Its anti-gun message didn’t matter, as the public didn’t want to see a film about unmotivated killing in the summer of ’68.

Richard Linklater appears onscreen to talk about Targets and its historical context in the sole supplement made for this release. Linklater reviews Bogdanovich’s early careers as a stage actor and a film historian, and the way in which Bogdanovich’s interviews with famous directors helped shape his films. He also highlights Sam Fuller’s contributions, including the fact that the sniper shoots the viewers at the drive-in through the movie screen (thus, the film is “shooting” the audience).

Being an Austin native, Linklater supplies useful background about Whitman’s U of T killings, noting it was one of only a few mass killings to occur in the Sixties but was a seminal event, in that Whitman became a media celebrity after his spree was over and he had been shot dead by Austin police. (He became “the famous killer,” according to Linklater.)

He praises Targets as being “maybe the most anti-gun movie” ever. He also outlines how Bogdanovich later regretted having made the film in an article he wrote for The Hollywood Reporter in 2012 when there was a mass killing in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Linklater rightly notes that mass shooters are generally not directly influenced by the media but instead are “influenced by other killers.”

Audio of a 1983 Q&A with Polly Platt at the American Film Institute supplies more behind-the-scenes info. Platt had high praise for Fuller, Corman (whom she professes “taught me everything” about film production) and  Fritz Lang, whose stray remark about zoom lenses “only being good for shooting people” informed the POV scenes. She also had strong opinions about Targets, as she believed the shooter plot was successful but the Karloff plotline didn’t work as well.

She illustrates how low the film’s budget was by detailing how she (as production designer) utilized the same set as killer’s home, the hotel room where Karloff is staying, and the screening room where The Terror is seen at the beginning of the film.

She also focuses on a key piece of trivia that Bogdanovich usually airbrushed out of his work for Corman (although it does appear in a print interview included in the booklet in this release), saying he went from serving as assistant director to Corman on The Wild Angels to working on Targets. Platt clarifies matters by mentioning how, in between those two films, she and Bogdanovich were given a task by Corman: adding an American frame device to footage from a Russian sci-fi film he had bought the rights to.

Platt refers to the film under its original title, the lovely “Gill Women from Venus,” which she notes to the AFI students that no one will be seeing anytime soon. For those trivia experts out there, the film stars Mamie van Doren in the Bogdanovich-Platt scenes and does indeed qualify as Bogdanovich’s first feature credit as a director (in the same way that Coppola’s first films were a similar Corman reworking of a Russian sci-fi epic and two “nudie” features that were edited from various sources). Its finalized title? Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women. Most definitely an easy acquisition for those BRD labels that might want to assemble a complete Bogdanovich box set….

Buy or Rent Targets

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”