Movie Discussion: Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968)

  • Monthly Theme: Perverted Killerstargets-movie-poster-1968-1020209233
  • The Film: Targets
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: August 15, 1968
  • Studio: Saticoy Productions
  • Distributer: Paramount Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: $130,000
  • Director: Peter Bogdanovich
  • Producers: Roger Corman, Daniel Selznick & Peter Bogdanovich
  • Screenwriter: Peter Bogdanovich
  • Adaptation? No. Loosely inspired by two real life crimes: the 1965 Highway 101 sniper attack and the 1966 University of Texas-Austin shooting spree of former U.S. Marine Charles Whitman.
  • Cinematographer: László Kovács
  • Make-Up/FX: Gary Kent
  • Music: Charles Greene & Brian Stone
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Legendary horror icon Boris Karloff (Frankenstein (1931), The Body Snatcher, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Director Peter Bogdanovich has a supporting role.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “I just killed my wife and my mother. I know they’ll get me. But before that many more will die…”
  • The Lowdown: Boris Karloff stars as a thinly-fictionalized version of himself named Byron Orlok, an aging horror movie star who, in the midst of wrapping up post-production on his latest movie, suddenly decides to retire from show business. He will make one final public appearance at a California drive-in movie theatre that is showing some of his films and then return to England to retire. Meanwhile, a clean-cut and seemingly normal suburban newlywed named Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelley) suddenly goes on a shooting spree, killing his mother and young wife and dozens of civilians on the highway. Thompson decides to crash the Orlok film festival at the drive-in to pick off more victims, bringing Orlok face-to-face with the true ‘horror’ of Thompson’s motiveless mass murder spree.

If you haven’t seen Targets, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Kristine: Targets is pretty shocking.

Sean: I was really surprised by how upset it made me this time around. I didn’t even remember liking it very much. But on this viewing, I found it really searing and horrifying. And sort of a work of pop genius.

Kristine: I agree with that assessment. I was really creeped out, but captivated.

The Bourne Insanity

Sean: I was obsessed with/horrified by the decor of the Thompson abode.

Kristine: Sean. That was my No. 1 thing. The sickly shades of lavender and green in all the rooms was such a David Lynchian suburban nightmare. Living in that house might inspire me go on a shooting rampage.

Sean: The omnipresent ruffles really jumped out at me. The ruffled curtains.

Kristine: Yes. There were even random pus-green ruffles on the walls where there weren’t curtains.

Sean: I was impressed by how effective the movie is at characterizing the Thompsons with very little screen time. Like, I knew exactly who the parents and the wife were. They felt very particular, not just a generic suburban family to me. I especially loved the mom being like, “Good night dear, but then instead of going to bed, being like, “I talked to your brother. The baby had a cold,” etc., etc. She jumped right out of the movie at me.

Kristine: The Dad was a monster.

Sean:  I did not think that.

Kristine: I did.

Sean: Isn’t the whole point was how gentle and kind and supportive the Thompsons are as a family,which makes Bobby’s rampage even more inexplicable?

Kristine: Hmmm, let me think about that. I may need to revise my impression. So when Major Dad commanded Mom to come to bed, it was to get her to leave Bobby alone?

Sean: I thought so. I mean, the family is a patriarchy, no doubt.But not a particularly dystopic one. They’re ordinary, a little banal, but essentially human.

Kristine: You may be right. So, Bobby Thompson is meant to be a combination of several real-life shooters, mostly Michael Andrew Clark (the 16-year-old responsible for the 1965 Highway 101 shootings in Southern California) and Charles Whitman, the UT-Austin sniper. Whitman left a series of typewritten notes about his crimes, which is one of the most chilling details in the movie.

Sean: I read about that.

Queen and Consort

Kristine: Especially because Charles Whitman, in his notes, specifically asked for an autopsy be performed on him to find out what was wrong with him and why he couldn’t control the bad thoughts he was experiencing. Remember when Bobby has the conversation with his wife about his peculiar thoughts? Whitman also asked for his life insurance money to be donated to a mental health facility. That idea, that Bobby’s sudden acts of violence are possibly due to something neurological, not something with his upbringing or socialization, really haunted me. That male violence could be a glitch in the system of the brain, or the result of some kind of crossed circuitry. I feel like we’re still asking those questions about violent men, especially ones who suddenly shatter the normalcy of everyday life with terrible acts of violence directed at the collective, at the crowd. At us. This movie felt so current, especially in light of the Fort Hood shootings (in 2009 and 2014).

Sean: Yeah, I was surprised by how little has changed about this particular aspect of American society since 1968.  Fort Hood, The Dark Knight Rises theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Connecticut… The thing I was most divided on was whether or not Targets is trying to make a point about gun culture and the 2nd Amendment or not. I couldn’t tell if the movie was suggesting that gun culture was part of what had corroded Bobby’s persona/conscience/moral center. I kept wondering what an NRA/2nd Amendment absolutist would think about the movie and if they’d think it was just liberal propaganda or not.

Kristine: That’s a good question about gun culture. Bogdanovich certainly makes a point of including the scenes in the gun shop, the target practice with Dad, all the guns on the wall of the Thompson house, etc. It seems significant how the camera lingers on how many guns Bobby has amassed – all those shots of the trunk interior with the different weapons painstakingly arranged by size, and when Bobby leaves all those guns and boxes of ammunition on the roof of the water plant (or whatever it was) and scattered in the grass. It hardly matters if he leaves all those guns behind, because he still has, like, fifteen more. His rampage wouldn’t have been so deadly if he didn’t have such a stockpile (something that’s often commented upon in real-life shooting sprees – the shooter’s access to certain kinds of weapons, a certain number of weapons, etc.). Bobby Thompson’s also not just a gun nut, he’s a Vietnam vet. So maybe the movie’s a critique of the corrupting influence of institutionalized violence, as opposed to guns in general?

Sean: Does the movie itself clearly state that Bobby is a Vietnam Vet? I can’t remember.

Kristine: I don’t recall anyone saying it, but when Bobby first goes into Thompson house there is a photo of him in uniform on the wall. In fact, until we saw that picture I wasn’t sure if Bobby even lived there. I thought he might have gone into a stranger’s house, the way he was just looking at everything like an alien.

Sean: Right, so it’s implied that he’s a Vietnam Vet.

Nightgown Surprise

Kristine: Yeah.

Sean: What was the most upsetting moment in the movie?

Kristine: Bobby saying that he is “gonna go shoot some pigs” to the gun store owner was pretty bad. When he shoots the delivery boy/male model (Did you get the impression he felt more remorse for that guy’s death then that of his wife and his mother? Something in his body language made me feel that way). When he kills the woman fleeing a car after the driver has been shot (during the highway scene). The family at the drive-in, with the woman who is screaming, “The light! the light!” because she realizes that Bobby can’t see them – and thus, can’t shoot them – if the car’s interior light is off. That scene was really horrible, but very well done.

Sean: I agree with all that. Bobby killing his mom was particularly upsetting to me. And the shot of the boy hyperventilating with his father’s body in the seat next to him at the drive-in.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: And just the whole highway sequence.

Kristine: That was really hard to watch. The fact that it resonates so strongly with current events makes me so mad at… I don’t know who. The system, I guess. Why haven’t they done anything? Why is mental health still ignored/stigmatized? Why is the fact that institutionalized violence can lead to random violence ignored? This shit has been going on for decades and decades in this country. Goddamn.

Sean: I know, it’s so grotesque. On a lighter note, I feel like I could watch a TV show centering around Sammy, Byron and Jenny, just navigating Hollywood and their careers.

Kristine: I really loved the role of Orlok (Nosferatu shout-out) as a character, how his presence allows the movie to contrast the old monster against the new monster. How the old monster (represented by Orlok’s film career) abided by rules and codes, but the new monster is pure mayhem, with no rationale or motive. I thought it was a really great conceit. And I completely co-sign on your TV idea. I really liked all of Jenny’s scenes, her interactions with Orlok and how all of that was handled. I thought all the casting was good. Bobby was perfectly cast, because that actor is so white bread and all-American, but so creepy. He was Matt Damon-esque, with all those teeth.


Sean: Yes. The conceit of Karloff playing a lightly fictionalized version of himself was genius. I really love the moment where Orlok is stalking up to Bobby and Bobby is looking between him and the image of him projected on the screen of the drive-in and firing at both.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: I thought that was one of the best moments in the movie, especially because it shows (rather than tells) how confused Bobby is and the depths of his psychosis. The idea that he’s unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality humanizes him a bit, which I appreciated.

Kristine: I also loved Orlok’s monologue in the hotel room, with “Kip the Hip.” Remember when Kip says, “You blew my mind” and Orlok responds, “Obviously”? He’s kind of a bitchy queen.

Sean: Oh, he’s such a bitchy queen. In fact, I read him straight-up as a gay old queen.

Kristine: I read him that way, too. I don’t know anything about Karloff, but I j’adored him in this. I love his voice.

Sean: He is so elegant and lovely and mannered.

Kristine: Yes. All he wants is to go a-sailing home to England on the Queen Mary.

Sean: Also, knowing that, in real life, Karloff is of Indian descent made some of his bizarre “Oriental!” comments less painful.

Goddamned hipsters

Kristine: I was just going to mention that “Oriental conscience” line. I didn’t find it very troublesome because I thought it was obvious to Jenny that Orlok is saying it on purpose to alienate her. Did you love Jenny?

Sean: I did love Jenny, a lot.

Kristine: Me, too. She is awesome and has moxie and is super pretty. I also thought Sammy is appropriately a drama king/wreck/weasel-face.

Sean: Jenny is lovely and great. I really loved the movie’s subplot about the vapidity of Hollywood, and how both Jenny and Eddie, the agent who panics at dinner (I loved Eddie – “I don’t want to get upset. I’m going to get upset!”), were really smart and educated and had Oxford degrees and Princeton English Literature degrees, and yet here they are in these sycophantic roles in Hollywood, sucking up to everybody to churn out popular entertainment. It may feel like shooting fish in a barrel these days, but I loved those bits of Hollywood satire. Especially because both Eddie and Jenny are charming, sympathetic people who feel three-dimensional.

Kristine: Yes. Thank you for bringing up Eddie. “I get paid to be a masochist.” I didn’t make a note about him but I loved that scene, especially at the end when he says, “Well, I think that I’ll go and get drunk now.”

Sean: Eddie is perfection. I loved Orlok hanging up the phone on the studio boss and just being totally over it.

Kristine: And Eddie is just staring at the phone, all “No you ditn’t!” Why did no one tell me that Boris Karloff was so awesome and spicy and the ideal Drag Mama?

With the power of my mind, I will read you to filth

Sean: I don’t know, but it’s true. He’s really a fascinating character who had a really epic, long career. He was a total workaholic who never stopped, while the other horror icon of the 1930s – Bela Lugosi – quickly flamed out and died in abjection and drug addiction.

Kristine: Aww. Poor Bela.

Sean: Just to piggyback on your earlier comment about “the old monster vs. the new,” I want to point out that Targets really is the ideal transition movie between the classic horror era, which is finally winding down throughout the 1960s, and the newfangled brutality of the 1970s, when horror evolved into something else all together.

Kristine: Did you read Bobby’s constant candy eating (Baby Ruth bars, I believe) as a shout-out to Norman Bates/Psycho? I made a note to ask you about that.

Sean: I didn’t even notice that, but you’re totally right. It has to be. Plus, the candy-eating underscores that both Norman and Bobby are kind of manchildren and that, perhaps, it is their inability to grow up successfully and become “real” men (embodied by Bobby’s father in Targets) that makes them both susceptible to sadism and perversion. I thought the movie poked subtly at Bobby’s masculinity in several places. Plus, I know it was a different era, but a young newlywed couple living with the groom’s parents is just too bizarre.

Kristine: I definitely thought that as well. To underscore your point, my boyfriend started watching this with me and then had to go to bed, but we were talking about it the next day and he thought Bobby’s wife was his sister. A totally understandable assumption because they’re living with the parents and there is zero indication of an erotic connection between them other than the possible fetishizing of lavender sweaters…

Sean: Yep.

Family values in the crosshairs

Kristine: I read somewhere that Quentin Tarantino is a big Bogdanovich fan. The scene where Bobby is at the drive-in and he sticks his gun through a hole in the screen, then we see that the cinematic image being projected to the audience is of flames – that reminded me a lot of the theatre massacre at the end of Inglourious Basterds. Could that scene have been an homage to Targets? Do you know what I am talking about or have you heard any such thing?

Sean: I didn’t know Tarantino liked Bogdanovich, but I was reminded of the end of Basterds as well during the drive-in shooting. But even more than that I was fixated on the Aurora theatre shooting and the terror/nightmare of going to see a genre movie and then the movie literally breaking through the fourth wall and into the real world. Just the idea of the cinematic space/theater as a slaughterhouse (which is something the end of Basterds is also playing with).

Kristine: There are so many moments when Targets is referencing Hollywood and the nature of cinema in general (and, I would say, an eerie foreknowledge of video games, especially when Bobby is picking people off on the highway and when he tells the police he hardly every misses, with pride). Do you think horror is more self-reflexive than other genres (I do) and if so, why is that?

Sean: Yes absolutely, I agree. Horror movies are always tackling horror movies, horror literature and just the idea of “horror” as a subject. The genre is so predicated on inquiry, oftentimes self-inquiry. So horror movies ask again and again: What is horror? How does it work? What up with horror, yo? Also, because of the cult audience for horror, its a cinephile’s paradise that rewards encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. The movies are often making references to other movies. That’s a sure-fire way to create a fandom.

Kristine: Yes, which is something that always kept me away from the genre. Both the idea that horror was the province of boys and men, but that those men were strutting around with all this insider knowledge and a clubhouse mentality.

The Pictures of Dorian Gay

Sean: One of the things that really impressed me about Targets was how Bogdanovich uses clips of other films for maximum effect. Like those surreal images from Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code (remember that Sammy says he saw the movie at MOMA, to which Orlok snickers and says, “See, I am a museum piece!”) of incarceration and male mental deterioration, which connect back to what’s happening with Bobby. I was especially struck by the moment when Orlok and Sammy watch that long sequence from the end of The Criminal Code, where Karloff is wearing a white jacket and menacing a (much smaller) man with a knife, and Orlok keeps trying to talk to Sammy about his relationship with Jenny, but Sammy keeps shushing him because he’s riveted by the violence on-screen. That was, to me, a really economical and elegant way to show how cinematic violence might appeal to young men in this specific way. Plus, Karloff  in those old movie clips is such a literally towering presence, so cinematic, so larger-than-life.  I really thought that sequence did a ton of work for the movie without being too explicit. Just in terms of putting the “kill scene” out there and asking us to think about its nature. I was struck how the murder in The Criminal Code is implied – Karloff menaces his victim into another room and closes the door, hiding the violence, which takes place in an off-screen Other space. Sammy, after the scene concludes, says, “[Hawks] really knows how to tell a story” and Orlok agrees. But like you said earlier, there is little to no “story” associated with Bobby’s killing spree. It just happens. And in Targets, Bobby’s acts of violence are shocking and in-your-face. Nothing is hidden. No one is ushered off-screen into a room where we are asked to imagine the terrible thing happening. It is happening to us, out in the open, horribly immediate.

Kristine: I agree with all that, but there is a flipside. Like you said, the menace in Orlok’s films is his actual physical presence – and remember when Sammy wakes up the next morning after getting plastered, and he sees Orlok lying there and screams? And then Orlok startles himself when he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror? It seems like a lot of the information in Karloff’s classic horror films – and older horror in general – is transmitted thought the victim’s expression, reacting to seeing the monster (like the reveal of the monster’s true face in The Phantom of the Opera). But in Targets, the victims never see the face of the monster. He is hidden. So, yes, the violence is up front and stark, but the monster is hidden. It could be anyone. And vice-versa for old school horror. On a side note, I love how Karloff evokes menace in those old Howard Hawks clips just through his ultra-erect posture. He such a physical presence. I am a Karloff fangirl now…

Sean: You’re absolutely right, and I laughed pretty hard when Orlok screams at himself in the mirror.

Kristine: Me, too.

Sean: This goes back to Bobby’s reaction upon seeing Orlok coming towards him – he gets that moment of “recognizing” the monster. You’re right that the horror in Targets is the facelessness and unknowability of the monster. Bobby’s all-American good looks come off like a creepy mask hiding something much darker. He’s wearing a man suit. This sort of links Bobby to the future slasher killers of the 1980s who are always hidden behind masks (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, et al). But, like The Phantom of the Opera, those slasher movies always reward the audience with a cathartic “unmasking,” a moment where we get to pull the mask away and look at the monster and know that is not us, that it is perverse and barely human, and we can walk away satisfied that monsters are easy to recognize. Targets undercuts all of that.

The Mirror Has Two Faces, hunty

Kristine: Oh, I agree. Okay, this may be an overreach, but I feel as though there is something in the movie about the relationship between a film director and his/her actors and the relationship between the front of the house (where the audience watches) and behind the screen. Bobby is literally behind the screen at the theatre, where he is directing the story. His victims become his “actors.” Peter Bogdanovich is both the director of Targets and also a plays a character in it, a character who is not in control of his own destiny (in so far as he can’t force Orlok to make his movie). As you pointed out, Jenny and Eddie are players in a production much larger than they are. The game doesn’t value them or their skills. I don’t know what the larger point of all this is, but I feel as thought Bogdanovich is saying something about sadism, control, and “directing” vs. “being directed.”

Sean: Yeah, talk about The Phantom of the Opera. Remember the dilineations between onstage and backstage space in that movie? Or that moment in Demons when the possessed prostitute breaks through the screen and into the audience, and a demon births itself out of her back?

Kristine: So, again, horror being self-reflexive. Horror movies asking questions about the relationship between the audience and the cinematic spectacle. About what it means to look, to be seen, to cross between different kinds of spaces.

Sean: I think Bogdaonvich is, through that drive-in setpiece, suggesting how the sadism of looking can be reversed and inflicted upon the audience. And it really struck me, to return to Bogdanovich’s ideas about what it means to be a director vs. an actor, how there was this father/son dynamic between Sammy and Orlok. I feel like it’s significant that there’s this tension between them that almost mirrors Bobby and his father (who, notably, is not killed by Bobby). When Bobby points his gun at his father, the patriarch’s anger at how he’s ‘breaking the rules’ seems to stop him in his tracks and averts the violence (another moment where Bobby’s masculinity seems negligible). Remember, it is the patriarchal slap – delivered by Orlok – that brings an end to Bobby’s killing spree.

Penis power

Kristine: Right. Sammy and Bobby really are parallel in the movie. Sammy is so indignant that Orlok won’t make his movie. He basically has a tantrum and is all, ‘But it’s not fair! You’re mean!’

Sean: Well, especially because Sammy insists that his new script will allow Orlok to express who he really is as a person. His script is human, not a Gothic put-on like the “classic” horror movies he’s been making. Orlok is aware of becoming “a figure in a wax museum” – Sammy is offering him a script that is about breathing life into him (the director as Dr. Frankenstein – “It’s alive!”).

Kristine: Right, and both Orlok and the elder Mr. Thompson play by the rules. Orlok feels no obligation to do the movie since he didn’t sign a contract. Mr. Thompson schools Bobby on the rule of never pointing a gun at someone. I hated the movie exec who screams at Orlok at the beginning, but it’s true that Orlok is unwilling to break away from the conventions of his persona. Remember how he won’t answer “Kip the Hip”‘s fan questions? Instead, he goes into classic Orlok mode with his story/monologue. He doesn’t think revealing “the man behind the mask” is appropriate. He thinks people will find the real Orlok “uninteresting,” that the public only wants the image.

Sean: Right. Which syncs up to Bobby-as-the monster who cannot be known, who is just…. Death coming from who-knows-where.

Kristine: Which is the point of the Gothic tale that Orlok tells rather than answer Kip the Hip’s fan questions. That you don’t know when Death is coming for you, and whatever you do to try and avoid your fate will only bring you closer to it. Holy Final Destination.

Sean: Absolutely. And that story is actually an Arabian folk tale from One Thousand and One Nights, to bring this all back to the issue of Orientalism and the clash when West meets East. In fact, the story is set in Baghdad, for which there’s an uncanny resonance if we think about the contemporary Iraq conflicts and Bobby as a representative of the Vietnam generation. But regardless, that story about the servant’s appointment with Death in Samarra is presented, I think, as a cliché. Remember how fussily Orlok opens his story with every generic trope imaginable – “Through the darkness, once upon a time, many, many years ago…” – while giving very specific lighting specifications for the performance. What Targets does is reinvent that cliché in bleak modern terms. That might be its greatest trick.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Daddy dramz AND Masterpiece! AND This film IS America AND This movie left me hollow and uncertain

The Freak’s Rating: Pop perfection AND Masterpiece! AND Postmodern as hell

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