Targets (1968) is an artifact of its era in more ways than one. It ranks among legendary cult films, and is one of those flicks many people have heard about but, as time goes on, fewer and fewer have actually seen. I finally watched the film this year, and found that it closes a circle with many pop-culture tendencies that are predominant now, and many that have advanced way beyond its example.
Targets was an indie film produced with the resources of horror/sci-fi/trendsploitation powerhouse American International Pictures with some thematic riffs on (and repurposed footage from) the monster-movie industry. It’s a byproduct of geek subculture, though the movie itself is more of a social-issues thriller and think-piece. Watched now, one is impressed with the film's daring portrayals of the flaws of the American system, buried in a soup of stiff acting and a plodding kitsch-movie pace. The movie has gotten more respected the longer it exists, and is a prime example of a phenomenon that encircles many a classic genre movie and comic book: that it is revered by those who haven’t seen or read it recently.
Not unlike Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics—beautifully drawn and bravely controversial when they came out but overwrought and simplistic in their message today—Targets is a master class in the difference between art that is important for all time, and just for its own time. There was little like it when it was released in 1968, and though it can seem like simulated hipsterism now, it must have felt like a revolutionary seizing of the Hollywood apparatus at the time. Almost a pirate-media product, it was meta before even the filmmakers themselves may have known what that could mean.
This was the first film made by Peter Bogdanovich, individualistic director of the early 1970s and later Dr. Melfi’s shrink on The Sopranos. It was also the last film of note by horror-movie icon Boris Karloff. Karloff owed American International head and B-movie master Roger Corman two days’ work on his contract and Corman gave him to his protégé Bogdanovich, stipulating a tight timeframe and budget and the reuse of some Corman gothic-movie footage (Targets’ film-within-a-film, The Terror, also stars Karloff), but letting the newcomer otherwise make whatever movie he wanted.
What he wanted, largely, was to talk about the kinds of movies that could no longer be made. Karloff plays a thinly veiled version of himself, Byron Orlok, who decides to retire in a despair over his faded stardom and an existential fear of his own old age, right as a young grindhouse scriptwriter (Bogdanovich, also pretty much playing himself) has offered him a serious non-horror movie to revitalize his reputation. Orlok is convinced to do one last personal appearance at an LA-area drive-in movie theater, while simultaneously, a troubled young man in the anonymous suburbs plans and executes mass-shooting attacks, ending up at the drive-in itself.
Karloff and Bogdanovich spend much time lamenting the bygone innocence and grandeur of films, and Karloff’s character is especially distressed that his brand of horror has been surpassed by violence in the streets (the impending sniper attacks are not the only ones mentioned in the movie, and its release came soon after the Martin Luther King and RFK assassinations). Vietnam is scarcely noted, though it is a pervasive presence; watching one of his movies at the drive-in, Karloff, accustomed to old-school indoor theatres but isolated in the box of his limousine like all the rest of the viewers in their own cars, remarks, “strange not to hear any reactions, isn’t it” — a somber commentary on the isolation of Americans from the reality (rather than spectatorship) of the then-current war, and one of Targets’ least obvious expressions of its themes.
Bogdanovich must have been fretting that movies telling the truth about modern America also couldn’t be made, and the sarcasm of Targets regarding Hollywood entertainment machinery is surprising for a movie of its time — though, a bit heavy on backstage shoptalk, it also foretells several eras of self-referential pop culture, from MST3K to Kevin Smith, in which the supply of ideas can only last so long.
Targets tries to be natural about a number of subjects that were exploited and exaggerated elsewhere across the fringe-movie landscape; the hipster-doofus radio DJ who comes in to interview Orlok at the drive-in is shown as just another showbiz type rather than either a counterculture messiah or insurgent antichrist, and Nancy Hsueh is low-key and refreshing as Orlok’s Chinese-American aide, sparring with him and navigating his old-world learning curve about multiculturalism in one of the less artificial performances in a somewhat stagey film. Her scenes with Karloff are self-conscious like most of the movie, but show it feeling its way to concerns we recognize (and that filmmakers see clearer) now.
Karloff himself is very believable, and Bogdanovich gives him a moment to be remembered for midway through, when, bored with the standard Q&A talking-points the doofus-DJ has prepared for him, he goes into a spooky parable about personified death instead; it’s a few minutes of master storytelling, and of course foreshadows the character’s own confrontation with death at the drive-in while pointing a neon arrow at itself, but nothing can undermine Karloff’s feeling and command.
Afraid of his own mortality and doubting his remaining relevance, the character confronts the sniper at the drive in, eventually knocking the gun from his hand and slapping him silly; he’s acted as if he has nothing to lose and, in staring death down, realizes what he’s got left. The setup itself, of course, with an elderly hero in the decade of youth rebellion and the stern gesture responding to a violent conflict, is not only abrupt but slightly bizarre, yet speaks loudly to the conflicted feelings of the time. Bogdanovich (and ghost-collaborator Sam Fuller) surely wanted to flip the script on the dissident-hippie stereotype then being distributed and demonized by American mass media, and show a clean-cut suburbanite as the real danger; for all the Left’s talk of peace and love, also, they longed to see their own archetypes of “Middle America” get a good slapping, and Old Frankenstein, with his eternal outcast cool, is the perfect one to administer it. The moment is a strange mix of the period’s creative revolutions and the filmmaker’s premature nostalgia for bygone pop culture, and it serves as the sudden, denouement-less end of a B-arthouse movie whose ambitions well outpace its accomplishments.
In our own era of seemingly perpetual wars and epidemic mass shootings, not to mention the ascendance of filmmakers with a love for past pulp, Targets resonates for its perceptions even if others would bring the themes much better into focus. In one of the movie’s more skilled ironies, it seems to foresee the sickly triumphal media-circus capture of the serial killer at the end of Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, when the sniper of Targets remarks happily to the cops carrying him away, “Hardly ever missed, did I?” Targets was shooting in the darkness, but much of what it attempted has hit home.
Adam McGovern’s dad taught comics to college classes and served as a project manager in the U.S. government’s UFO-investigating operation in the 1950s; the rest is made up. There is material proof, however, that Adam has written comic books for Image (The Next Issue Project), Trip City.com, the acclaimed indie broadsheets POOD and Magic Bullet, and GG Studios, blogs regularly for HiLoBrow.com and ComicCritique and posts at his own risk on the personal site Fanchild. He lectures on pop culture in forums like The NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium and interviewed time-traveling author Glen Gold at the back of his novel Sunnyside (and at this link). Adam proofreads graphic novels for First Second and Holt, has official dabblings in produced plays, recorded songs and published poetry, and is available for commitment ceremonies and intergalactic resistance movements. His future self will be back to correct egregious typos and word substitutions in this bio any minute now. And then he’ll kill Hitler, he promises.