Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I saw Targets on a double bill with The Manchurian Candidate in 1973, at what was
touted as a once-only screening: both films were at the time officially withdrawn from distribution. The
Frankenheimer film was of course more impressive, but Peter Bogdanovich's premiere effort just
happens to be one of the better director debuts of the 60s. Its concept is a clever critique of
the place of Horror in the modern world, built around a terrific sunset role for screen legend Boris
Karloff. Paramount's new DVD looks far better than the reamed print I saw, and is being sold at
an amazing low price (to match Roman Polanski's
Seemingly happy gun enthusiast Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) tells his wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan)
that he's feeling disturbed, but she hasn't time to hear him out. Aging horror film star Byron
Orlock (Boris Karloff) reluctantly agrees to a public appearance at a drive-in, even though he's
bitter and has announced his retirement. Their paths will eventually cross, as Tommy embarks on
a wave of modern horror that outpaces anything in Orlock's old movies.
The classiest no-budget AIP film that AIP never released, Targets is literally one of those
Roger Corman concoctions made from available found items: five days of Boris Karloff's time, and
stock footage from The Terror, an earlier Corman feature that itself had been shot with
'extra' days owed by the great Karloff.
Although not billed, Roger Corman was the original producer, and for a director gave the nod to
his ambitious acolyte Peter Bogdanovich, who at
the time operated as a creative team with his wife Polly Platt. They concocted a brilliant movie
idea from Corman's impossible recipie - make The Terror a film-within-a film, with Karloff
more or less playing himself as an aging actor who comes face-to-face with a new kind of
real-life horror. It's a screenwriting dodge worthy of Singin' in the Rain's Cosmo Brown.
Some of the details and story points were provided by Bogdanovich's friend Sam Fuller (Peter's idea
of heaven was to hang out with famous directors 24-7), but the central material in Targets
are modest but substantial scenes that might have come from a 30s script - the argument in the
projection room, the drunk scene in Orlock's hotel. Bogdanovich himself plays a young director
and doesn't embarass himself. You can tell that this ex-critic moviemaker wanted it all,
the sooner the better.
The other half of the movie, the story of the mad sniper modeled on the Whitman Texas killings,
is done in an impressive montage style that mixes silent masters with odd details. The introduction
of the wholesome-looking Bobby Thompson (supposedly suggested by Fuller) is clean and precise, and
there are excellent creative touches that must have thrilled Corman, such as the clever reveal of Thompson's
suicide note in his final scene at home.
Bogdanovich and Platt make sure their sniper never has a motivation, never is explained in the
slightest. He just flips and goes about his business, after a brief moment where he barely mentions
a problem to his young wife. For all we know, the 'modern' streets of The San Fernando
Valley and the drone of surf music on the radio are what have driven Bobby Thompson mad.
The production shows Bogdanovich out-doing Corman at his own guerrilla-filmmaking game. The
scenes 'stolen' on the 405 freeway and Reseda Boulevard in the then much less dense Valley involve
shenanigans like cars skidding off the shoulder and people pretending to be shot in clear view of
other drivers. Bogdanovich's actors had to run for cover as soon as a shot was made, with the crew
atop the water tower hiding at the approach of the curious California Highway Patrol. One motorcycle
officer can be seen rushing to see what the disturbance is!
Polly Platt later did terrific work in Bogdanovich's 70s pictures, but here she has to cope with
several sets that are barely adequate. The nightclub and Bobby's house look terribly phony, which
in the case of the house adds to the weirdness of those scenes. Laslo Kovacs' budget camerawork is
exceptionally good, even when a closeup cruise across the Thompson's floor reveals the carpet to be
poorly-patched 'undercarpet' padding.
Bogdanovich gives himself an extended action scene for a conclusion, finishing out Boris Karloff's
contractual obligation and disguising the fact that the barely-mobile star is barely shown. But he's
there to tie up the two threads of the story in a very satisfying way.
All in all, Targets is that lucky kind of cheapie picture where even the padding seems part of
the 'good stuff'. Bogdanovich uses details of the drive-in filling up and the projectionist
at work, mundane material that tells us that violent action is on the way.
The Terror is part of this padding, but is also an essential part of the theme. We see a lot
of the Karloff/Nicholson/Miller feature projected at the drive-in, which really isn't padding at all.
We can tell it all works, when killer Thompson is confused by alternating visions of Karloff closing
in on him - the figure on the screen, and the 'real' actor hobbling along on his cane. Surely
Bogdanovich thought himself the cleverest guy in Hollywood, but in this brilliant moment, he
justified the claim.
Bogdanovich doubles his own editor. He begins his show with a screech of a bird that comes out of nowhere, which might be an
open nod to his hero's Citizen Kane.
Paramount's DVD of Targets probably looks better than it has since 1968, when the King and
Kennedy assassinations kept the studio from giving it a wide release. The enhanced image shows
every detail in the sometimes cheap sets, but restores Bogdanovich's careful framing of shots as
I don't believe there's a music score except for Ronald Stein's The Terror track. But the
picture has a complex sound mix with radios and TVs frequently intruding. Verna Fields created
many of the soundscapes out of whole cloth, as much of the film was shot without audio.
Peter Bogdanovich provides an interesting commentary that spreads the responsiblity for his critical
success with Targets far and wide. He also sits for a Laurent Bouzereau interview
that covers all the bases on the unique little film, including most of the facts related above. The
movie works great by itself, but the director's hindsight impressions of his first major
feature (Women of the Prehistoric Planet, anyone?) make the film even more satisfying.
Paramount is showing us it has guts this year. Of the three studios putting out vintage Boris Karloff
features (Columbia will soon have The Devil Commands, and MGM the rare The Ghoul),
only Paramount dares front an image of Karloff on the package cover. One doesn't know if the
reticence is because marketers think that Karloff = old, dull movie, or if the Karloff estate is
intimidating studios from using the likeness of the Master of the Macabre.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Bogdanovich commentary and interview docu.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 12, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson