Peter Bogdanovich’s debut feature, Targets (1968), is a left-of-centre horror film that initially seems to stand out as an anomaly within his filmography – predominantly comprised of comedies and dramas harkening back to the golden age of Hollywood – but actually shares many elements that repeat throughout his filmography. Bogdanovich solidified his authorial “signature” with films like What’s Up, Doc? (1972), which references the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, and At Long Last Love (1975), which was heavily inspired by the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s. His work at large is also centred on reworking cinema’s past and paying homage to Hollywood’s old masters like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock. Whereas many of his other films directly engage with and embrace the aesthetics and thematics of that earlier era of film history, Targets stands out in its stark confrontation between the golden age of cinema and the pull of the modern world, as materialised in the trajectory of and subsequent confrontation between its two lead characters: a washed-up Universal Pictures monster star who’s questioning his place in contemporary Hollywood and a clean-cut Vietnam veteran who goes on a shooting spree.

Aesthetically, the film is less stylised than the large majority of Bogdanovich’s work as well as most horror films of the time, featuring a minimal, almost postmodernist look and design that emphasises a sense of mundanity grounded in the real world. This stripped back style is evidently due to budgetary constraints, but production designer Polly Platt, who also co-wrote the story and was Bogdanovich’s key collaborator and wife at the time, uses this to her advantage, giving the film a realistic, lived in quality. This realistic tone is amplified by the 24-hour time frame across which the story events take place. This heightens the impression that these things could occur in everyday life and make the sudden bursts of violence even more unnerving and surreal.

These budget restraints also led to parts of the film, particularly the shooting-spree scene which takes place atop a silo, being filmed illegally, with Bogdanovich unable to get permits to shoot in a particular industrial area or on the highway. Attempting to go under the radar, he chose to film the scene on the silo with only himself, cinematographer László Kovács, and actor Tim O’Kelly present. As they filmed O’Kelly shooting “pedestrians” (played by extras) as they drove past on the highway, Bogdanovich would call out actions to them through a walkie talkie. They caused so much of a disturbance that the police showed up, prompting Bogdanovich to wrap filming for the day and hightail it out of there.

At the outset, Bogdanovich and Platt were approached by Roger Corman – who they were working for at the time – to make a film with Boris Karloff, who Corman said owed him two days work. The two were instructed to turn around a full script in a very short time span, with the caveat that Karloff would star in the film, and they would use segments from Corman and Karloff’s most recent collaboration, the B-grade gothic horror, The Terror (1963). Bogdanovich and Platt, who were struggling to find ideas for the script, were invited to a screening of Corman’s film but were both left deeply unimpressed by it. However, it was because of this screening that Bogdanovich had the idea for the opening scene of Targets, where Karloff, playing a fictionalised version of himself, attends a screening of The Terror and is so disappointed that he vows to retire once and for all. 

Targets reflects a moment of transition in the United States during the height of the Vietnam War, where classic, gothic horror films like Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) and Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), as well as the franchises they spawned, had been surpassed by the real man-made horrors of war, alongside the rise of spree shooters and serial killers that would become all the more prevalent in the decades that followed. The Vietnam War was dubbed the first televised war and scenes of horrific violence became a daily staple on the evening news across the country. An array of young men, mostly drafted without their consent to fight and traumatised, apathetic, and forever changed by what they had witnessed, were also returning in droves. Inundated by these broadcasts, Platt got the idea for the character of a young and disturbed Vietnam veteran, loosely basing him on real-life University of Texas tower shooter Charles Whitman. For Platt and Bogdanovich the reality of war and the violence that invaded their everyday life was far more terrifying than any horror film. Platt’s channelling of such real-life atrocities gave a weight and depth to Targets that was lacking in most other horror films of the time.

On the other hand, it’s clear that Bogdanovich’s love of old Hollywood remained a constant. This is illustrated by his thoughtful use of Karloff throughout the film. At the time of making Targets, Bogdanovich was already well known as a film critic and programmer, curating some of the first retrospectives in America devoted to Hollywood filmmakers like Orson Welles, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock. This work in film criticism and curation also allowed him and Platt to interview and befriend many of these directors, most of whom had fallen out of popularity or relevance. Karloff himself rose to fame playing Frankenstein’s monster in James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. But he was then largely typecast, appearing in B-movie horror and genre films for much of his career until his popularity waned and he became a campy relic. Capitalising on the chance to work with Karloff, Bogdanovich and Platt created a self-reflexive character who questions his own relevance and legacy, allowing audiences to see a more multifaceted and humanised figure than the one-dimensional villains he commonly played. By the end of the film, it’s Karloff’s legacy and his image as a horror icon that brings to a halt the senseless chaos brought on by O’Kelly’s character, allowing Karloff to transition from villainous monster into hero.

Though the film’s commercial fate was marred by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in the months before its release, Targets was still granted a limited theatrical run, with the film’s distributor Universal using this supposed setback as a marketing tool and repositioning it as an anti-gun film. Although the film didn’t fare particularly well at the box office, it has since become a staple of Bogdanovich’s filmography and kickstarted his directorial career. Much like in its initial run, Targets still endures today as a prescient anti-gun film that captures the US in a terrifying and unsettled period of its history. Nevertheless, for all of America’s real-world flaws, Bogdanovich maintains a rich affection and sympathy for the old Hollywood cinema. This affection remained a constant and Bogdanovich would go on to expand upon it across his 50-year career.

Targets (1968 USA 90 mins)

Prod Co: Saticoy Productions Prod, Dir, Ed: Peter Bogdanovich Scr: Peter Bogdanovich, based on a story by Bogdanovich and Polly Platt Phot: László Kovács Prod Des: Polly Platt

Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Nancy Hsueh, James Brown, Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Peterson

About The Author

Jacob Agius is a writer and audio producer based in Melbourne, Australia. They are a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque, the Czech & Slovak Film Festival of Australia and Senses of Cinema.

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