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Targets: Boris Karloff in Early Peter Bogdanovich Thriller

Boris Karloff Targets
Targets with Boris Karloff.

Peter Bogdanovich’s thriller Targets asks the question, “Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?” The film’s answer is “both.”

Elderly horror star Boris Karloff plays elderly horror star Byron Orlak, 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 considers himself a “museum piece,” while watching an old 1931 Boris Karloff movie, The Criminal Code, on The Late Show.

Meanwhile, there is Bobby (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 of Southern California. By all outward appearances, Bobby is a normal, conservative, clean-cut 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 the young man’s inability to communicate with his family.

Targets works on many levels. For one, Bogdanovich and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs perfectly capture the film’s time and place. 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 me back in time.

Initially, Bogdanovich’s screenplay (from a story he co-wrote with then-wife Polly Platt) and direction have a leisurely – but hardly slow – pace. However, once the shooting starts and the bodies begin to pile up, the tension mounts exponentially.

As the elderly actor, Boris Karloff is superb – especially while ruminating about the demise of his prolific career as a bogeyman. He refers to himself as a dead dinosaur, an antique relic, and reminisces about the old days when “The Marx Brothers made you laugh, Garbo made you weep, and Orlak made you scream.” (I loved a little touch when Orlak pretends to scare himself while looking in the mirror. Brilliant.)

In fact, Karloff is the one who really makes Targets work. Although there is an inside joke when a film director (horrendously played by Bogdanovich himself) threatens to replace Orlak with Vincent Price, only (the real) Karloff was right for the part. The veteran actor gives some long speeches and soliloquies as only he could do with that impeccable English voice. In his last scene, when he confronts Bobby in the drive-in, Karloff delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. He reveals the baby-faced killer to be just that – a baby.

Targets was Karloff’s last movie of quality. It would have been his crowning achievement had he stopped then instead of continuing with those foreign-made disasters during the last year of his life.

Now, beware. Targets is a highly disturbing film. In one sequence, for instance, Bobby finishes gunning down dozens of people on the highway, then drives away to a drive-in theater, casually carrying his arsenal to the top of the screen to continue the carnage. Bogdanovich’s intelligently handles the subject matter, commenting about how the most harmless-looking individual can create mayhem – then walk away unnoticed.

Yes, indeed. Life does imitate art.

© Danny Fortune

Targets (1968). Director: Peter Bogdanovich. Screenplay: Peter Bogdanovich; from a story by Bogdanovich and Polly Platt. Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Arthur Peterson, Monte Landis, Peter Bogdanovich

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