Movie: Targets (1968)

In the essays and extras accompanying the Criterion Collection blu-ray of Targets, Peter Bogdanovich goes to great pains to state his movie does not have an anti-gun perspective.  Methinks he protests too much, as it is hard to believe there wasn’t this intention behind it.  Then again, George Romero has always been insistent Night of the Living Dead was made without any deeper meaning, so what do I know.

This 1968 film interweaves two seemingly unrelated storylines.  In one, Tim O’Kelly is an All-American Male.  Pictures around the house show a life of military service and hunting.  I don’t recall seeing one of him in a football uniform, but that wouldn’t surprise me. 

These pictures are in his parents’ house, where he lives with his wife.  We’ll see the family at lunch, where an improbably large chunk of meat is served.  Grace is said by his father, whom he calls “Sir”.  One can see how this environment may help to determine why O’Kelly is planning what he intends to do.  I wonder if he keeps a list of nearby clocktowers in his wallet, as this is a guy who is determined to be a sniper who commits a mass murder.   

O’Kelly’s performance is fascinating because we can only guess what he is thinking or feeling at any given time.  He doesn’t even seem to enjoy the murders he commits from a distance—it’s like he going through the motions of the world’s most mundane job.  Maybe he keeps as much distance between himself and his feelings as he puts between himself and his victims.

Despite his homicidal urges, he seems to be weirdly child-like at the same time.  He’s packed a lunch of bottled Pepsi and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which he consumes atop an oil tank before opening fire on the nearby interstate.  That night, he will unleash terror on patrons of a drive-in from a sniper’s nest he sets up behind the screen.

These sniper scenes are extremely disturbing, even today.  We are first shown him finding prospective targets through his gunsight, rejecting some before selecting one.  There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to his choices, which makes these scenes even more unnerving.  The next person killed could be anybody.  In a strange way, all people are equal to O’Kelly.

So that’s one of the storylines.  The movie will cut back and forth between that and another which features Boris Karloff.

Karloff plays a washed-up horror icon, so he is basically playing a thinly-veiled version of himself.  At the start of the movie, we see the actor in a scene from one of Roger Corman’s most notorious bombs, The Terror.  That is being passed off here as a new movie directed by a character here played by Peter Bogdanovich—who is the director of the movie we are watching.  Is Bogdanovich a Russian name?  I ask because the layers of this film remind me of nothing less than those nested dolls.

These two and some other characters are revealed to have been watching the film in a screening room.  Karloff looks despondent, and I wonder if he was as depressed in real-life by The Terror.  He announces to the room his immediate retirement.  Alas, he is already committed to make an appearance the next night at that movie’s premiere at a local drive-in.  Care to hazard a guess as to which theatre that is?

That is where the two storylines will converge to a satisfying conclusion.  While watching the movie, I couldn’t have guessed how it would end, but its resolution is so perfect that I feel a bit dense for not being able to foresee it. 

The best scenes in the movie are those where Karloff muses upon being a “living antique”, as he puts it.  These are a bit difficult to watch, as one can easily imagine he felt in real life many of the sentiments he expresses.  For example, there’s this after he sees himself in an old movie on TV: “Do you know what they all this kind of thing now?  High camp.  My type of horror doesn’t scare anymore.”

Targets does a stellar job of showing how the violence of real life had supplanted what was regarded as horror in Karloff’s prime.  But for a movie that supposedly isn’t advocating for gun control, it’s going about it the wrong way.  How fortunate we’ve been that government has so aggressively tackled this problem in the more than 50 years since its release, so that we wouldn’t be plagued with mass shootings.  *cough*

Dir: Peter Bogdanovich

Starring Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly

Watched on Criterion Collection blu-ray