Saturday, December 28, 2013

#172: Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)

In late 1967, a former magazine writer and aspiring filmmaker named Peter Bogdanovich got the chance to direct his first feature film from his current employer, Roger Corman. This opportunity came with a few unusual stipulations. Bogdanovich could make whatever film he wanted as long as he used Boris Karloff for two days of the shoot (Karloff owed Corman two days of filming from a previous contract), incorporated 10-15 minutes of footage from a recent Corman horror film called The Terror (starring Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson), and brought the whole thing in under budget. Bogdanovich jumped at the chance and quickly created an ingenious little script with his then-wife, costume designer Polly Platt, and his mentor, film director Sam Fuller, who refused a screenplay credit so as not to overshadow the younger filmmaker.
Bogdanovich managed to turn the bizarre stipulations into integral parts of his excellent film, and Karloff liked the project so much he stayed on for an additional three days of shooting after his contractual time was up. Targets is an exciting opening chapter in a filmography that would include The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Saint Jack, Noises Off, and other underrated films, but it's also unlike anything else Bogdanovich ever directed. Both a film buff's love letter to classic Hollywood and a frightening look at the random violent outbursts that are an unfortunately common part of American life, Targets focuses on two separate storylines that come together in an exciting concluding scene at a drive-in movie theater.
In the first storyline, Bogdanovich plays an aspiring young director named Sammy Michaels working the schlock horror exploitation circuit but looking to break into art films. Boris Karloff plays a very thinly disguised version of himself, an older actor named Byron Orlok stuck in a rut of low-budget monster movies and looking to retire. Sammy wants Byron to act in his next film, but Byron is adamant that he's finished with the film business. Sammy's girlfriend is Byron's secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), and the interracial romance is portrayed in a refreshingly casual and non-condescending light for the period. Sammy hounds Byron to read his script, while Byron's handlers hound him to keep making films and honor his commitment to appear personally at a drive-in screening of The Terror in Reseda.
The second storyline is about a clean-cut, blonde young man who looks like he walked right out of the 1950s. His name is Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly), and he lives with his wife and parents in a nice Reseda suburb. He shares a love of hunting and gun collecting with his father, but unlike his father, he has an arsenal of weapons in the trunk of his car and an unexplainable urge to kill other people. He's been suppressing the urge while he entertains it in his thoughts, but the time has come to act on his impulses. He starts on his family and moves on to strangers. After running a red light and attracting the attention of a police officer, Bobby ends up hiding out at the same drive-in where Byron and Sammy are about to make a personal appearance.
Inspired by Charles Whitman's murder spree at the University of Texas campus in Austin in 1966, this storyline is eerily effective because Bogdanovich doesn't psychologize or explain his killer's motivations. We don't gain an understanding or insight into why Bobby feels the need to kill because Bobby doesn't understand it himself. I don't know whether this absence of explanation was a conscious aesthetic choice or a necessary omission due to a lack of time and money, but either way, the film benefits from its ambiguity. O'Kelly plays Bobby just right, making him sympathetic and ordinary as well as frightening and distanced, a dark, dangerous evil covered in a banal exterior, a guy who brings a ham sandwich and a bottle of Coke to a killing spree.
Karloff is wonderful in the lighter half of the film as an aging movie star realizing that he has no place in a culture dominated by youth. He has a twinkle in his eye throughout, and he and Bogdanovich have an easy, funny chemistry. Karloff, like his fictional counterpart Orlok, may have been pigeonholed as a campy horror guy, but this is one of those special roles that showed he was capable of a whole lot more than he was usually given.
Like Scorsese and Tarantino, Bogdanovich belongs to the group of film directors who are also huge film buffs, and Targets is one of his most specific love letters to the movies. Besides the nods to Karloff and Roger Corman, Bogdanovich stops the plot to show his and Karloff's characters enjoying an old Howard Hawks movie on television (The Criminal Code, starring Karloff), and the opening scene takes place in a screening room where a print of The Terror is being projected. Before all hell breaks loose in the final scene, Bogdanovich lovingly films the preparations at the drive-in, from the ticket booth employee collecting money from the arriving families to the projectionist preparing the reels and setting up the lights. This is a film lover's movie.
Roger Corman was so pleased with Targets that he thought the film's distribution could be handled by a major studio. He was right. Distribution rights were sold to Paramount, but their promotion of the film was lackluster, and the movie flopped. Despite its lack of financial success, studio executives watched the film and thought Bogdanovich handled himself well, and a few years later, Bogdanovich was given the go-ahead to make The Last Picture Show. Targets has since become a cult film, and it deserves an even bigger audience. A scary, funny, lovable, and formally interesting film, it's one of the great debuts from the group of directors who made their reputations in the American golden age of the 1970s.

No comments: