Targets (1968)

AUGUST 14, 2011


I queried my Twitter followers and the majority said that Targets counted as a horror movie, so blame them if you take issue with it being here. But also, it’s about an aging horror star (Boris Karloff, basically playing himself albeit with the name Orlok) who is preparing for his final public appearance (at a drive-in showing his new movie The Terror), so it fits under the HMAD rule that as long as it’s about horror it counts. And if I didn’t count this, my movie for the day would have been the sequel to The Fear, so come on. Cut me some slack.

And besides, the real plot of the movie is about a crazed sniper who creates chaos on the 405 freeway before hiding out (and resuming his killing spree) inside the drive-in. Replace the gun with a knife and it’s basically a slasher, especially since he manages to kill about a dozen people before there’s any sort of panic. I don’t know if it was a budgetary issue or just poor logic, but I was baffled how he was able to take out 3-4 people at the drive-in before anyone noticed. His gun didn’t have a silencer and he wasn’t even waiting for loud parts of the movie, so I guess the folks were just really into The Terror.

But still, it’s pretty terrifying. As I mentioned in my King of the Hill review, I have a very unmotivated but fairly strong fear of snipers. I went to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl once and I spent the entire night staring up at that cross on the hill across the way, convinced someone was up there planning to take shots at us. And with the villain doing his thing on a road I drive on all the time (right near where I got into a (non-sniper related) accident the other day, in fact), it just made it all the more scary to me. Basically it’s the strength/speed/distance combo that a sniper rifle can provide. A guy with a knife, you can run. A bomb dropping, you can hopefully see it coming and get to safety. Even a normal gun, the guy has to be close enough for you to sense danger. But a sniper? He can be a half mile away, and those bullets can still tear your head off. Freaky shit. I guess I can blame dying due to snipers in Halo and Call Of Duty (or even going back to Battlefield 1942) a lot.

Also the killer looked just like my buddy Dave, which didn’t help calm my nerves. Now next time we go bowling I'm just gonna see the face of a guy who might lie prone on top of a giant gas tank and shoot me in the neck while I drive down to Target.

“Luckily”, the movie takes a while to get going. If he snapped early on and started picking people off in the first reel I might not have been able to handle the entire movie. But we spend a lot of time with him as he makes the switch from gun enthusiast to cold-blooded murderer. His story seems to be influenced by Charles Whitman, in that he just sort of wakes up one day and decides to start killing folks (he even starts with his mother and wife, as Whitman did), rather than get too much into his psyche or provide a motive for his actions. And running parallel to these scenes, we get Karloff, who has tired of the film business and wants to quit, but is convinced/humbled into making one last (previously promised) appearance.

And this is where the movie sort of falls under the HMAD rule that it would only appeal to horror fans, because if you don’t know Karloff and the type of movies he made, the whole point of the movie wouldn’t work. Basically, Karloff/Orlok feels that his brand of scary doesn’t work anymore, because the real world is far more frightening than anything in his movies – but the movie doesn’t really depict those movies in a meaningful way. We just get a few clips of The Terror, hardly the best example to use since it’s actually kind of gory at times. It would have been better if they used his Universal Monster flicks or even a few of his corny 40s programmers to make the point, but those would be expensive.

See, Targets actually began life as a cheap way to make a few more bucks out of The Terror; the story goes that Karloff owed Roger Corman two days’ worth of work, and thus the plan was to film a few new scenes and recycle as much Terror footage as possible. But Peter Bogdanovich (making his debut here) deviated from that plan and came up with this script, which Karloff loved so much he worked the extra couple days it would require for free. So obviously this was not a big budgeted film (even by Corman standards it must have been pretty low), so licensing clips from Karloff’s body of work as a whole couldn’t have been an option. Thus, anyone who didn’t watch horror films probably wouldn’t understand how a sniper is any scarier than whatever “Orlok” did in his films, especially if they were the type of ignorant schmoes that assume all horror films are “blood and guts trash”.

Horror fans can also really appreciate Karloff’s performance here. Having played so many monsters and villains, you can easily forget that he’s actually quite a charismatic and even somewhat elegant kind of guy, so it’s great to see him wearing a nice suit and chatting with normal people, even making a few jokes. And he has a great chemistry with Bogdanovich, who plays the director of The Terror and spends the whole movie in a panic because Orlok wants to retire (Bog’s character needed him to star in his next film in order for it to get greenlit). The rather light touch of these scenes (a drunken hotel conversation borderlines on screwball comedy) makes the switches back and forth to the sniper a bit jarring, though it certainly helps clarify the point of the two different worlds.

I just wish they either had the dough or the idea to make the sniper spree more logical. The police chase him for a few minutes, but seem to disappear when he ducks into the drive-in. Even if they “lost” him, he just took out half a dozen people on the freeway – shouldn’t there be some sort of manhunt? Bogdanovich also repeatedly shows the sniper’s “evidence” (guns and ammo dropped or left behind), but there’s nothing to it; it’s not like the cops find it and trace the guns back to him or anything. So why bother showing it? The chaos at the drive-in once people finally realize that they’re in danger is also rather silly – they all try to drive out at once and cause massive gridlock, but no one thinks to get out of their car and run. It’s not like their cars made them safer (just about everyone that was shot was sitting in their car when the bullet hit); if anything running might be safer since you wouldn’t be sitting in a stationary position.

Especially when you consider that right after Targets, the New Bev showed Two Minute Warning, which features one of the most chaotic and violent mob/panic scenes ever. As it is a 70s movie that is very much in the mold of Irwin Allen disaster films (all star cast forming a big ensemble from all walks of life), we spend 90 minutes getting to know a bunch of folks – a family led by Beau Bridges, a gambler in debt to the mob who befriends a priest, a middle-aged couple who still haven’t gotten married, etc – and then the sniper starts doing his thing and kills or maims someone from pretty much every group. It was actually kind of shocking to see how much of the cast was decimated in such brutal fashion, especially when these moments were sandwiched in between scenes of random people being trampled, falling over railings, etc. But it was a pretty realistic mob scene, with a real sense of panic, which Targets never quite pulled off. Still, nothing in Two Minute Warning (which I quite enjoyed) was as awesome as the sight of Karloff slapping the kid around at the end of that film, so it evens out.

I should also note that TMW seemed to be directly influenced by Targets, as it not only also had a motiveless sniper taking out people at a big outdoor event (in this case a big football game), but both killers also had a fondness for Baby Ruth candy bars. And TMW’s killer is seen staying at a hotel right off the 405, about 5 minutes further down the road from where Targets’ sniper was perched. Thus, it made for a pretty great double feature. Check em both out!

What say you?


  1. Two Minute Warning was actually based on a book; I recently found a paperback for the novel when I was thrift store shopping in Palm Springs.

    I love "Targets". To me, it is part of a handful of small films that really got the cinema of the 70s rolling in the mid-to-late 60s, including Arthur Penn's "The Chase", Don Siegel's "The Killers" and Boorman's "Point Blank" and "Hell in the Pacific".

  2. I actually bought "The Terror" on Blu-Ray recently. While not an official release, the picture was cleaned up from a high-quality 35mm print and the package's artwork was based on the original movie poster. And for $15, it was a good price. So I had to get it because of that.

    "Targets" is a nice swan song to horror legend Boris Karloff. While not technically a horror film (it is a suspense-thriller), it does have scenes of "The Terror" thrown in, and there is much introspection and discussion about the role of horror films. It's almost a parallel to John Wayne's final film, "The Shootist" where an Old West gunslinger finds that the world has passed him by.

    I was rather dismissive of Karloff at first, being only familiar with public domain films from cheap DVD collections and the first Frankenstein. Then I got into the Frankenstein sequels (Bride and Son), The Mummy, The Body Snatcher, and Black Sabbath.

    So seeing his more acclaimed films made me appreciate why he is considered to be the premier horror icon. And I also got a better appreciation for 'The Terror' as well and made me re-visit that.

  3. Hey,

    A friend gave this to my son as a baby present! He was two days old. He didn't give it to me, you know, as a "baby present"--but directly to the kid on DVD. It's a cool film in my book, I've always been a Karloff fan. Appreciate the review.


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