Each month I am going to write a review of an older movie that I like that either is obscure, failed at the box office or simply isn’t well remembered today and deserves re-discovery.
My first column’s film falls under categories two and three. It failed at the box office quite possibly due to an ill timed release and isn’t as well remembered today as it should be despite having a director who would go on to much greater success but whose debut was an early indicator of the talents of the man behind the camera.
Today’s movie is Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, a thriller that tells two stories that are polar opposites and brings them together in a thrilling conclusion. The first story tells of once famous horror film star Byron Orlok (played by veteran horror legend Boris Karloff in more or less a role based on himself) and as it opens he is watching the ending of yet another horror film of his and he is not happy. He has been making the same kinds of films for years and he has had enough. He wants to retire much to the chagrin of his director (played by Bogdanovich himself), who has written a seemingly artsy film just for Orlok with a role that is perfect for him. But Orlok won’t hear anything of it. He later goes on to explain to Sam (the director) that the world is so full of such real horror that it is impossible to scare even the most impressionable of young audiences who attend. So upset is he that he is even refusing to attend the premiere of his latest movie (really 1963’s The Terror) at the local drive-in despite the publicity already out there and the threat of lawsuits.
Bogdanovich segues nicely into our other story as we meet the young and meek Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) who happens to be looking through a rifle scope at Byron Orlok from a gun shop across the street the first time we see him. That he doesn’t recognize Orlok until the clerk points him out should raise an alarm in the mind of the audience but Bogdanovich handles it so subtly you may miss it. What isn’t so subtle is the next scene after Bobby has purchased the rifle (back then you could buy a gun and walk out with it the same day) and goes to his car. Bobby opens the trunk and it is filled with more guns then any one human being could possibly need. But now we know we are dealing with someone troubled.
As we get to know Bobby better Bogdanovich drops little hints here and there that things are a touch askew. He is married to a lovely blonde but they still live with his parents. He and his father go target shooting and when dad sets up the cans Bobby takes the opportunity to aim the rifle at his father’s head from afar. Would he have shot had his father not turned in time?
Bobby works days and she works nights so they have few hours together and when they do it is spent watching television. He stays awake waiting for her return and then refuses to let her turn the light on. The one time he is willing to talk to her is as she dresses for work and is listening with one ear. Unfortunately she doesn’t put two and two together when he tells her, “Sometimes I think bad things.”
Bobby tends to drink too much Pepsi out of the bottle and eat Baby Ruth bars. Perhaps the sugar reinforces his adrenaline when he finally snaps. Soon he is on top of an oil refinery shooting at motorists and then flees to the local drive-in where he takes refuge in the screen tower and awaits darkness.
Bogdanovich obviously patterns his script on Charles Whitman, the man who climbed the school tower in Texas in 1966 and killed 14 people while wounding 32 others. He even borrows the fact that Whitman was a candy bar addict. What Bogdanovich doesn’t do is try to explain Bobby’s descent into madness. Is it his job? His wife? Sex life? It’s left open to interpretation and when he starts killing it is as chilling as anything you will see as you helplessly watch this emotionless man shoot at anyone he can. Bogdanovich heightens the tension with the momentary sound of Bobby inhaling before he fires each shot. It’s a creepy, effective device.
Bogdanovich also has some fun with the Orlok character. In an attempt to woo him out of retirement, Sam (whose girlfriend is Orlok’s personal assistant) visits Orlok and the two pass out on the bed from excessive drinking. Sam awakens the next morning seriously hung over, looks over at Orlok and screams. A startled Orlok awakens and Sam explains, “I just had a nightmare and I wake up and the first thing I see is Byron Orlok.” A nice moment.
Targets is a solid thriller for a man making his directorial debut (he would later find fame directing The Last Picture Show; What’s Up Doc?; Paper Moon and Mask). Famed producer Roger Corman gave Bogdanovich the go ahead to make the film on the condition that he use Boris Karloff in the film as Karloff owed Corman two days of work. Karloff was so impressed with the script he agreed to work longer than the two days for no additional fee (Karloff ended up working two more days). Bogdanovich uses Karloff wisely and makes you believe he could be playing himself (I have read this is untrue. Karloff was not a well man but always wanted to continue working). Karloff has one of his best moments when the line between reality and movie fantasy is momentarily crossed.
I should also mention that quiet but strong performance by Tim O’Kelly as Bobby. O’Kelly possesses an apple pie, all-American face that makes his actions all the more shocking. His subtle behavior has you guessing every minute what he will do next. It’s not a flashy role but it is a memorable one from an actor who would go on to do little else. Even Bogdanovich, in his DVD director’s commentary, admits he has no idea what happened to O’Kelly. Doing some internet research it appears O’Kelly became disillusioned with the business after being replaced as the original Danno on Hawaii Five-O because he came across more likeable than Jack Lord’s MacGarrett. O’Kelly apparently took to the stage after giving up on Hollywood and it seems he died several years ago but that is not confirmed. Too bad. He had a future in the business. Unfortunately disillusionment in Hollywood is very common. Even for a seasoned veteran like Byron Orlok.
Targets was a critical success when it opened in 1968 but failed at the box office because it happened to open during the period when wounds of Americans had not healed following the shooting deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The public wasn’t ready to see a movie with a theme like this. Unfortunately the film has still failed to find the audience it deserves. I hope this column will help. It deserves to be seen.