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Non-Review Review: Targets

Targets still feels quite a bit ahead of its time, which is quite something for a film intended to transition between the classic horror monster movies and the more sinister and grounded modern horrors. Indeed, Boris Karloff’s last starring role seems to prefigure a shift in the type of horror movies flooding the cinemas, years ahead of the more iconic and mundane “slasher” icons who succeeded Dracula and Frankenstein as the monsters at the matinée. Targets is an intriguing and remarkable little film, charmingly understanded and perhaps appealing for the lack of pomp it attempts to generate.

The horror!

In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that Targets was ever going to be destined for success. It was written and directed when Roger Corman discovered that horror icon Boris Karloff still had two days to work on his contract. I’m quite surprised that an icon of Karloff’s stature was expected to work, and that it wasn’t written off as a gratuity to an actor who had shaped a genre, but I guess it’s still significantly better than Bela Lugosi’s ultimate fate. Karloff at least seems to have continued working in relatively decent B-movie standards, and he seemed to retire healthy and happy, which is something.

To fill the two-day gap in his contract, this story was drafted, and the film was shot on a low budget. You can tell that Karloff wasn’t reallyavailable, because he doesn’t really anchor the film – the movie’s perspective jumps between Karloff’s jaded movie star (Byron Orlok) and Bobby Thompson, an all-American kid who is on the verge of a spree killing. Drawing inspiration from Charles Whitman, and released in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the film has a certain timeliness to it. Hell, in an era where random acts of violence seem to occur more often than we’d care to admit, the film is still potent.

Top gun?

The movie serves as something like “passing the torch” between Karloff as the traditional monster movie, and Thompson as a real-life boogeyman. It’s a rather clever little premise, and one executed with considerable skill. Although the film is wry and self-aware, it never seems intrusive or gratuitous. I like the use of The Terror, a classic Karloff film (also starring Jack Nicholson), caught playing at a drive-in theatre as the killer goes on a rampage. The movie opens on “The End” of a the final cut of Orlok’s final film, a wonderful illustration of how the world has changed. It’s to the credit of director Peter Bogdanovich, that none of this overwhelms the film. Everything is downplayed, and nothing seems to obvious or trite.

Orlok, the fading British film star seeking to retire after producing one last schlock horror film, is very clearly modelled on Karlof himself. Indeed, he seems like an alternate universe version of Karloff. The movie is very clear that Orlok has starred in at least some of the films we recognise Karloff from – Orlok and a writer, for example, spend the night watching him in The Criminal Code, directed by Howard Hawk. “Thanks to him, it was my first really important part,” Orlok explains, reflecting on a career quite similar to that of his actor.

Sights for sore eyes?

The people around Karloff claim that the actor never became as cynical and disillusioned as Orlok did, but the movie is remarkably honest in its character study of an actor who has simply grown tired of being pigeon-holed. I often find myself wondering if those iconic legends of horror or sci-fi B-movies were ever concerned about their lasting legacy, and if they ever felt uncertain in what they did. Looking at the insecurity of modern comedy and actor stars, often craving dramatic roles to “legitimise” their choices, the portrayal of Orlok seems remarkably poignant and true. Indeed, the story could still be told today.

Rehearsing his address to follow his movie premiere, his last public experience, Orlok betrays a desire to make a lasting impression, “I’d like to leave you with a little story to think about,” he announces, as we’re treated to a wonderful little sequence that might make the film worth the price of admission alone, as Orlok tells a familiar old story in that wonderful deep voice. He doesn’t want to just answer the same old banal audience questions, fobbing off the Q&A session, “It’s going to be my last appearance and I’d like to…”

The life of Byron?

And yet, he recognises that the world belongs to a new generation, and that he’s simply out-dated, acknowledging that his corny films are little more than “high camp.” Justifying his decision to the writer who has one last juicy role, he states, “Look around you, the world belongs to the young! Let them have it!” Dismissing his own contribution as he points to a headline recounting a real-life atrocity, he remarks, “No one’s afraid of a painted monster.” Orlok is aware that the world is changing.

The other half of the film follows an illustration of that, contrasting an old monster with a newer and more dangerous breed. Bobby Thompson appears to be an ordinary guy, but he has the same violent urges inside him as any monster movie vampire or werewolf. In fact, trying to confess to his girlfriend, the kid even voices his own compulsions in those sorts of terms. “I don’t know what’s happening to me,” the killer remarks. “I get funny ideas.”You get the sense that Bobby is going through that sort of transformation, the same one that any movie monster must go through, but that it’s internalised rather than externalised. That’s what’s terrifying.

What triggered the rampage?

When the switch flips inside his head, he doesn’t spout fangs or fur. There’s no warning for anybody. He looks and acts calm and collected, even as he drives around in a car full of guns, and crafts himself a sniper’s nest, carefully selecting targets along a stretch of road. It’s just as random and brutal and terrifying as any monster Karloff ever played, but is even more horrifying… because he’s real. Not Thompson, of course, but creatures like him. The innocence of the Universal horror movies was washed away by stories of spree killings and snipers, cases like the Starkweather homicides. Targets seems to suggest that those traditional creature features aren’t half as terrifying as the idea that anybody could randomly snap and do this sort of thing.

Targets was ahead of its time, and it’s still as potent today as it ever was. It’s a very clever exploration of the link between fantasy and real life horror, daring to suggest that the real-life horror of the modern era has served to make fantastical horror redundant. It’s well-made, thoughtful and underplayed. It’s never loud or overstated, and it moves with a rare grace. It’s a great film.

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