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Gonna shoot some pigs
A region 1 DVD review of TARGETS by Slarek
 
"The world belongs to the young. Make way for them, they can have it."
Byron Orlock

 

It's been frequently stated that guns don't kill people, people do. But when they use guns to do it, this particular tool can't help be seen as being at least partially culpable. The issue of easy availability of firearms in the US has been a contentious one for as long as I can remember, and any politician who makes gun control a campaign promise is usually deemed to be committing electoral suicide. The debate has been irregularly highlighted by a tragic series of shootings at American schools, and was pushed into the mainstream by Michael Moore and the international success of Bowling for Columbine. But guns remain freely available and people continue to die at the hands of those exercising their constitutional right to bear arms.

Since its early days, cinema has glamorised and even trivialised the gun. It's a prop, a tool used to both complicate and resolve a narrative. If you get shot in the movies, you fall down, maybe bleed, and drop out of the story. Wielded by the good guys, guns are tools for justice, and when they are used to kill the innocent it's because they fall into the hands of the wicked, the naïve, or the mentally unhinged – guns rarely make it into the news unless they are put to destructive use by one of these three. This allows those who believe in the right to bear arms to remain comfortable with the free availability of deadly weaponry – killing sprees are executed by insecure loners with a grudge, people not at all like them or their friends or their family. Guns don't kill people, the socially excluded do.

Oh really? Time for a brief trip back through not-so-ancient history.

On 27 November 1978, former policeman and San Francisco city supervisor Dan White, a well-liked man from what the well-to-do call a good background, entered City Hall and shot Mayor George Moscone, then walked into the office of supervisor Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay official, and emptied five bullets into him. Both men died of their wounds. White was sentenced to a mere seven years and eight months and served less than five. The gun he used was not an issue, White's lawyer contesting that a diet of junk food – the notorious 'Twinkie defence' – was responsible for his 'out-of-character' behaviour.

On 20 August 1989, wealthy businessman Jose Menendez and his wife Kitty were murdered with a shotgun in the supposed safety of their $4 million mansion. The crime was reported by their distraught sons Joseph and Eric. Over the next four months the two sons spent over a million dollars of their father's money, and in March of the following year were arrested and charged with the killings. At the trial they admitted their crimes, but claimed they was prompted by years of sexual abuse. The jury was deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. The second jury doesn't believe the brothers' claims and they are found guilt on two counts of first degree murder.

On 31 July 1966, former Eagle Scout and ex-U.S. Marine Charles Whitman stabbed his wife and mother to death. The following day, armed with a sniper rifle, he climbed the Bell Tower at the University of Texas, and in the space of ninety-six minutes killed sixteen people and wounded a further thirty before being killed himself when armed officers stormed the tower.

I could go on.

And yet still the movies tell us that it's only those on the fringes of society that guns turn into killers. Even the recent Dear Wendy, an intelligent and well made film, chose to illustrate the danger of firearm obsession by placing guns in the hands of misfits and losers. You could be forgiven for wondering when a film-maker would be brave enough to show that even the most upright, clean living American boy could, with free access to guns, turn into a mass murderer. As it happens, you don't have to wait at all, but take a trip back to 1968 and Peter Bogdanovich's astonishing first feature, Targets.

The story of how the film came about has become part of film lore. Having directed sequences for Roger Corman's Wild Angels, Bogdanovich was offered the chance to make his first feature with the following proviso: he had horror legend Boris Karloff for two days, twenty minutes of footage from Corman's own The Terror (starring Karloff) to incorporate, a budget of just $125,000 ($25,000 of which was earmarked for Karloff) and the rest was up to him. Which brings us neatly back to Mr. Charles Whitman, whose story was to prove a major influence on Bogdanovich's film.

Karloff plays Byron Orlock, an ageing horror star who unexpectedly announces his retirement because he no longer believes that the period genre tales in which he appears can compete with the true life horrors of modern society. As if to prove his point, outgoing young family man Bobby Thompson unexpectedly kills his wife and mother and takes off with an arsenal of guns, which he uses to randomly shoot at drivers from the top of a gas storage tower, continuing his spree later at the very drive-in movie theatre at which Orlock is scheduled to make a personal appearance.

Bogdanovich connects the two stories from the early stages with a brilliantly executed chance encounter: as Orlock stands on the sidewalk cursing the changing times, there is a startling cut to the image of his head framed in the crosshairs of a rifle scope. An assassination attempt? No, the rifle is being held by Bobby in the gun shop opposite and he's just getting a feel for the weapon before buying it. He doesn't even recognise the man he has taken aim at – it's the gun shop owner who identifies Orlock. Despite this ominous introduction, Bobby is presented from the start as a friendly all-American boy – cheery, good-looking and polite, you could be be forgiven for thinking that he seems the very essence of responsible gun ownership. But just a few seconds after purchasing the rifle, he walks to his car and opens the trunk to reveal a terrifying array of weaponry, all laid out in a compulsively neat display of potentially lethal firepower. We don't know exactly what, but something is clearly wrong here. The strength of the film's portrayal of Bobby is that he is never presented as obviously unhinged – he cheerfully interacts with his family, shares a meal and stories of his day ("I saw Byron Orlock!") and treats all of them with obvious love and respect. But increasingly the chinks begin to show: He arrives home one day and looks around him like he has never been there before; an attempt to explain to his wife how feels falls on deaf ears because she is busy changing for work; and when target shooting he momentarily takes aim at his own father, who loudly admonishes him about the danger of his actions. Then, one night, he collects an automatic pistol from the trunk of his car and takes it into the house and you know he is only a few steps away from something terrible.

The killing of his family is a genuinely shocking act, carried out without fuss or emotion, after which Bobby almost dutifully places the bodies of his wife and mother in their beds* and disposes of a delivery boy who picked the worst time to call at the house. When he takes up position on the gas tower there is no sign that he has been emotionally affected in any way by his actions, and after neatly laying out his guns he pulls out a sandwich and a coke as if on a leisurely duck hunting trip, before randomly taking aim at passing motorists on the nearby freeway. That these sequences remain so powerful is down to a deft mix of performance and technical handling. The presentation is disarmingly matter-of-fact, with no music score or dramatic camera placement to artificially heighten the menace or tension, and actor Tim O'Kelly, with his good looks and yearbook smile, hits absolutely the right note as Bobby, never allowing the character's calm resourcefulness to descend into obvious psychosis, the only exterior sign that anything is wrong being his almost obsessive chocolate bar snacking (a reference to White's 'Twinkie defence' perhaps?).

Orlock's story runs consistently parallel as he hangs out with young director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich) and his girlfriend Jenny, who is also Orlock's PA. As Bobby's story builds to a life-changing climax, Orlock is heading in the opposite direction. His career is over, the films he appears in are weak, and he no longer believes in himself as an actor. His timing dismays Michaels, whose latest script is designed specifically to re-invent the careers of both men, but Orlock won't even read it, despite the high regard in which he holds its writer. There is an intriguing degree of layering to these scenes created in part by the casting – as ageing horror star and ambitious young director respectively, Karloff and Bogdanovich are playing direct reflections of their true-life personas, and the script Michaels wants Orlock to read sounds very much like the one for this very film – "I wrote a hell of a picture for you," Michaels tells Orlock, "For you as you really are."** But to assume that by playing a character close to his true self Karloff is somehow slumming it would be way off the mark. His performance here is a joy, a beautifully pitched melding of English politeness and convincing world-weariness that is carried off with a charm and subtlety that not only makes Orlock sympathetic and engaging, but gives rise to some delicious character moments: the slight pause and eye-roll he gives at the drive-in when he suggests that they wait for Michaels' arrival by actually watching the film; his post-drinking start at catching himself in the mirror; the camp-fire horror tale with which he entrances his younger companions.

The two stories dovetail to mesmerising effect in the climactic scene (both parties arrive at the drive-in through logical and believable plot development), which retains to this day an astonishing sense of terror in the dark, the traditional figure of the murderous bogeyman brought starkly into the modern age as victims are selected almost at random and killed at a distance, their deaths preceded by a sharp intake of breath and a gunshot drowned by the soundtrack of the movie. This collision of stories peaks in an extraordinary moment of confrontation between the two men, where a confusion of reality and film prompt the only real panic Bobby ever displays. The last words of both men are memorable, as Orlock reflects on his own fears, while Bobby is more concerned with the accuracy of his shooting.

It's a hell of a finale to a film that transcends its low budget and B-movie origins, and which stands today as one of the most intelligent, gripping thrillers of its era, and one that is both still relevant and, by today's standards at least, a model of impact through restraint. Others will disagree, but for my money Targets showcases both Karloff and Bogdanovich at their very best, which of course has its down side, both for an actor who could have shone brightly in his later years if he had been offered more such roles, and for a director just starting out who, despite some strong work in the following few years, would never make a film of such breathtaking immediacy again.

sound and vision

Framed 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a solid transfer, recreating the film's specifically designed colour scheme (warm colours for Orlock's scenes, colder colours for Bobby) well, with contrast and black levels pretty much bang on. There are a few dusts spots and dirt marks here and there, but otherwise the print is in good shape, and certainly looks a lot better than the tiny budget would lead you to expect.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is not the most dynamic on the block and does show its age in that respect, though dialogue and sound effects (there is no music score) are still very clear.

extra features

The main extra here is a Commentary by director Peter Bogdanovich. An early member of what came to be known as the Film Generation, directors who learned their craft by watching and studying the films of their cinematic heroes, Bogdanovich was also a writer for film magazines and had interviewed and even made friends with many of the film-makers he admired. There are thus a fair few tales of how he put their advice into practice, something many working in film nowadays will probably identify with (fellow reviewer Camus, a working editor and occasional director, freely admits that one of his own rules of editing was learned from Hitchcock), but there is plenty of other information offered up, from the illegal freeway filming and the lies told to gun shop owners about the film's story, to the links to (and quotes from) the Charles Whitman case. He clearly loved working with Karloff, and pays tribute to sound editor Verna Fields, who went on to cut Medium Cool, Paper Moon, Sugarland Express and Jaws, and assistant director Frank Marshall, who later became a producer and director of considerable note, plus later M*A*S*H regular Mike Farrell, unrecognisable in his first film role as the a drive-in shooting victim. But the most surprising revelation is that his script was essentially re-shaped into its present form by the late, great Samuel Fuller, who refused to take credit for his work but was clearly the brains behind some of the film's most memorable moments.

There is also an Introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, or at least that's what it's called here – it's actually more an overview of the project, a compressed version of the commentary that, though interesting in itself, essentially repeats information supplied there. It's definitely not one to watch before seeing the film for the first time.

summary

How can I be even remotely objective about Targets? When I first caught it, many years ago, I was stunned. I had come at Bogdanovich's work from the wrong direction, from Nickelodeon and the tiresome At Long Last Love, only later catching up with Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show. I could not believe that Targets was made by the same director, and at the very start of his career. Years later, presented so well on DVD, it stands the test of time magnificently, shaming later films in its subtle handling of a potentially sensationalist subject, in the process bringing a real sense of horror to a story dragged almost literally from the headlines. The presentation on Paramount's region 1 DVD is very good, and though I have not been able to check, the region 2 release is apparently identical. Either way, genuinely essential outsider cinema.



* This was based on reports of Charles Whitman's actions after killing his wife and mother.

** This set-up also plays as a (probably accidental) reading of the horror genre as it stood circa the film's release, Orlock's career reflecting the decline of the once-dominant Hammer studios, whose seemingly endless reworking of their classic monster series was seen as increasingly out of touch with an audience that was becoming tuned to the contemporary urban horrors of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead.

Targets

USA 1968
90 mins
director
Peter Bogdanovich
starring
Tim O'Kelly
Boris Karloff
Arthur Peterson
Monte Landis
Peter Bogdanovich

DVD details
region 1
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Peter Bogdanovich commentary
Director's introduction
distributor
Paramount
release date
Out now
review posted
11 January 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews