After shooting The Terror, one of Roger Corman’s more infamous patchwork movies, Boris Karloff owed Corman two more days of work. There was a young feller named Peter Bogdanovich, a writer who had come to California and started working with Corman by accident more than anything. After almost half a year toiling in that fruitful movie factory/film school, Corman felt that Bogdanovich had earned his shot, and offered him his own film. It could be any movie Bogdanovich wanted, with two conditions:
1) He had to use Boris Karloff for the remaining two days on his contract, and
2) He had to use 20 minutes of footage from The Terror.
Employing Corman math, this meant 20 minutes of new Karloff (“You can shoot 20 minutes in two days, right? I shot whole movies in two days!”) plus 20 minutes of old footage added up to enough Karloff to ballyhoo it as a new Karloff movie. All Bogdanovich had to do was figure out how.
What began as a joke in his head while desperately trying to put those puzzle pieces together – Karloff watching the end of The Terror in a screening room, turning to Roger Corman and saying, “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” – eventually became the movie we know as Targets.
The movie does begin with the end of The Terror and the screening room. Karloff is playing Byron Orlock, star of The Terror (and so much more), who has decided this is the perfect time to retire. Entreaties from producers and the young director of The Terror (Bogdanovich himself, playing a character based on uncredited script doctor Samuel Fuller) prove useless. Orlock feels he is an anachronism, his stock in trade fallen to mere camp against headlines of shooting rampages in supermarkets.
The rifle is being bought at a gun store by Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelley), who gladly purchases the rifle, then puts it into the trunk of his Mustang, where it joins a small arsenal of rifles and pistols.
And so begins the two stories that will alternate throughout the movie, as Bobby exists in his gray suburban tract house with his parents and wife. Bobby’s dad has a lot of guns and a few hunting trophies; we see a picture of Bobby in Army fatigues on the wall. Bobby tries to talk to his wife before she leaves for work, saying he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, he’s having some funny ideas. She’s late, though, and laughs it off.
Byron, after a sullen night interrupted by a drunken Bogdanovich that ends with both of them waking up with enormous hangovers, decides to do one last personal appearance at a drive-in theater premiering The Terror. In our other story, Bobby waits for his wife to wake up, then shoots her, his mother, and a hapless delivery boy. They will just be the start.
Based on the case of Charles Whitman, Bobby climbs to the top of an oil storage tank and snipes at the cars passing on the highway below. He seems a bit surprised that the police come so quickly, and eventually dodges into a drive-in movie to escape them – as luck would have it, the drive-in where Orlock will be appearing. He manages to climb into the screen and views the killing fields below, rows of unsuspecting cars, He waits only for night, and unwary persons to turn on their interior lights to give him his targets.
It must have been kind of intense seeing this movie at a drive-in, is what I’m saying.
In a nicely meta bit, Bogdanovich keeps begging Orlock to do his next movie, written especially for him, and that script is obviously Targets (finally the drunken Bogdanovich snatches the script and staggers toward the door, saying. “Fine! I’ll offer it to Vincent Price!”).
Karloff is 80 years old here, still intensely vital and utterly professional. At this point in his life, both legs were in braces, and he was usually in a wheelchair; when we see him walk, it is always with a cane. Emphysema had him down to half a lung, and on constant oxygen support. Tales of his last years had him taking off the oxygen mask, rising from his wheelchair, hitting the damned mark and saying his damned lines, and returning to the chair and his life-giving tank only after “Cut” was called, and never complaining. That is what the word “professional” has always meant to me. Karloff had none of the bitterness or disdain for his work that Orlock has; but other than that, he was pretty much playing himself in this role. Legend has it that Karloff liked the script so much, he gave the tyro director three extra days of shooting for free.
Not all actors are lucky enough to have that one movie that acts as a perfect coda to their career. John Wayne managed it with The Shootist, and Karloff did it with Targets. But Karloff being Karloff, this was not his last movie; that would fall to Curse of the Crimson Altar and a group of low-budget Mexican movies. But I can alter my perception of the world as I see fit, and so Targets, possibly the first and best of the modern horror movies to successfully deal with a uniquely modern monster, remains for me the capper of Karloff’s long and storied career.
This trailer is obviously from after the movie’s troubled first release, and the success of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, in 1971, and minimizing Karloff’s involvement is awfully telling. 1968 was a particularly violent year for America, and Paramount was, perhaps understandably, timorous about the movie’s subject matter. But I wonder what those quaking studio heads would have thought of the present day, when mass shootings have become so common they don’t even register on the nightly news anymore.