- Targets (1968) movie review: Does life imitate art? Or is it the other way around? In his directorial feature film debut – an unsettling thriller about your average all-American mass shooter – Peter Bogdanovich points out that life and art are irrevocably intertwined.
- Targets is also notable for featuring a career-capping performance by Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Black Cat actor Boris Karloff in the role of an old-time Hollywood horror movie star.
Targets movie review: Newcomer Peter Bogdanovich & veteran Boris Karloff show that life & art are forever intertwined
The 1968 Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets asks the question:
“Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?”
The film’s answer is “both.”
The setting is the Los Angeles area in the late 1960s.
Elderly British-born horror film star Boris Karloff plays elderly British-born horror film star Byron Orlok (named after Max Schreck’s Nosferatu character), who, in his final years, is tired and uninterested in a world that has changed beyond recognition.
Byron shakes his head in disgust over society’s preoccupation with real violence, so unlike the make-believe movie plots of the past.
He grumbles about retiring and returning to his native England, thinking of himself as a “museum piece” while watching on The Late Show Howard Hawks’ 1930 drama The Criminal Code (featuring Boris Karloff in a supporting role).
Meanwhile, there’s Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) across town.
He’s a young, married man living with his bland wife and his boring parents somewhere in the vast urban sprawl that is Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.
By all outward appearances, Bobby is a clean-cut, conservative American youth. In reality, however, he is a powder keg waiting to explode.
Bobby, in fact, would be the last person you’d think would fill his car trunk with rifles and shotguns, and then perch atop a water tower to snipe at innocent victims – or “shooting pigs,” as he calls them.
Although Bogdanovich never makes quite clear what motivates Bobby’s rage and his obsession with guns and ammunition, it could be that the young man’s inability to communicate with his family is a factor.
Great sense of time & place
Targets works on many levels.
For one, Peter Bogdanovich and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs perfectly capture the film’s setting.
The clothes, the cars, the AM radio blaring in the background, the long stretches of freeway in the greater Los Angeles area, and even the jingle of an ice-cream truck brought this viewer back in time.
Initially, Bogdanovich’s direction and screenplay – from a screen story he co-wrote with then-wife Polly Platt – have a leisurely, though hardly slow, pace. But once the shooting starts and the bodies begin to pile up, the tension mounts exponentially.
Superb Boris Karloff
As a plus, Boris Karloff is superb as Byron Orlok, especially while ruminating about the demise of his prolific career as a bogeyman.
The elderly actor refers to himself as a dead dinosaur and an antique relic, while reminiscing about the old days when “The Marx Brothers made you laugh, Garbo made you weep, and Orlok made you scream.”
In one brief scene, Orlok pretends to scare himself while looking in the mirror. It’s a brilliant little touch.
Boris Karloff, in fact, is the one who really makes Targets work.
As an inside joke, at one point in the film a Hollywood director (horrendously played by Peter Bogdanovich himself) threatens to replace Orlok with Vincent Price. Yet it’s clear that only (the real) Boris Karloff was right for this particular role – of Byron Orlok, that is.
The veteran actor – whose credits include Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and Isle of the Dead – gives some long speeches and soliloquies as only he could do with that impeccable English voice.
In his last scene, when Byron gets to confront Bobby, Karloff delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. That’s also when he reveals the baby-faced killer to be just that – a baby.
Targets was Karloff’s last quality movie. It would have been his crowning achievement had he stopped then instead of continuing with several foreign-made disasters during the last year of his life.
Disturbing, prescient classic
Now, beware. Targets is a profoundly disturbing film.
In one sequence, for instance, Bobby guns down dozens of people on a highway, then heads to a drive-in theater, casually carrying his arsenal to the top of the screen to continue the carnage.
Bogdanovich intelligently handles the subject matter, commenting on how the most harmless-looking individual can create mayhem. And then walk away unnoticed.
Yes, indeed. Life does imitate art.
Director: Peter Bogdanovich.
Screenplay: Peter Bogdanovich.
From a screen story by Bogdanovich & Polly Platt.
Cast: Boris Karloff. Tim O’Kelly. Arthur Peterson. Monte Landis. Nancy Hsueh. Peter Bogdanovich. Frank Marshall. James Brown.
“Targets Movie (1968): Sensational Karloff as Life & Art Intertwine” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Targets (1968) Movie Review” endnotes
Boris Karloff Targets movie image: Paramount Pictures.
“Targets Movie (1968): Sensational Karloff as Life & Art Intertwine” last updated in October 2021.