The Last Drive In Picture Show: Targets

A few weeks back, the fine folks on TCM ran a curious little film entitled, Targets. Intrigued by the quick synopsis of the plot given by TCM host, Ben Mankowitz, I hunkered down to watch. Unfortunately, about twenty minutes into the film, TCM went black!

Yup, just like that, no picture, no nothing. I was frantic and called The Evil Empire, Comcast to find out what was going on. After being on hold for about fifteen minutes, I hung up and figured on a case of sour grapes.

But, I was still intrigued by what I had seen so I went to Netflix, and ordered up a copy of the film.

Boy howdy, was I glad I did that!

Targets is a fascinating film.

Is it a horror movie? Yes and no.

The plot is a dual affair; one part deals with an aging horror film icon, Byron Orlok (played sublimely by an elderly, and apparently very ill, Boris Karloff) who wants to retire from the movie business because he believes that the modern world (circa 1968) no longer finds Gothic castles and monsters terrifying . Orlok is a sympathetic and likable character, and according to director , Peter Bogdanovich, was an honest reflection of the actual Karloff.

The other story concerns a handsome, boy-next-door-type, Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) . Thompson a Vietnam vet lives with his wife and his parents in a suburban section of L.A. and seems to have it all. However, when we first meet him we understand immediately that he is a troubled young man with a thing for guns.


Partially inspired by the story of University of Texas sniper, Charles Whitman, Targets is a deeply disturbing work in that the horror that eventually does reveal itself seems senseless, and the sort of event that no one could have prevented.

When Bobby Thompson murders his wife, mother and a delivery boy, and then sets about to methodically place the dead bodies into bed, and blot the blood stains off the carpet with bath towels, we realize that we are indeed dealing with a monster much more terrifying than anything Dr. Frankenstein every dreamt of.

Similarly, when Byron Orlok picks up a newspaper with a headline in it about a teenager who goes on a shooting rampage at a supermarket and shows it to the young director (Sammy Michaels played by Bogdanovich) who wants him to appear in one more movie, he asks him, "How can I compete with these kinds of horrors?" Clearly, Orlock understands that the world no longer needs his type of monsters, as it is rife with a new breed of blood crazed freaks who look like your friends or neighbors, or your husband, or your son...

When Orlock begrudgingly agrees to appear at a showing of his new film at a drive-in theatre (clips from The Terror which starred Boris Karloff as well as Jack Nicholson are used), the paths of the psychopath and the move star are going to cross. A side note here: as he is being chauffeured to the theater, Orlock looks out at the City of Angels from the car windows and says, "This has become such an ugly city", and there is actually some sadness in his voice, as if he may be reminiscing about the Los Angeles of his heyday.

At this point, Thompson has already murdered several motorists on the freeway from his perch on the top of an oil refinery and is now headed to the same drive-in that Orlock is scheduled to appear at, and when Thompson finds his spot behind the screen and begins shooting, no one is spared, children and adults are killed until finally the entire drive-in finds itself in a state of bedlam.

How intriguing then, that Orlock ends up besting the real monster, who is terrified because he sees the actor approaching him in real life, as well as reflected on the screen ... he even shoots at the screen. And when Orlock finally comes face to face with the psychopath, knocking the gun out of hand with his walking cane, and then slapping him to the ground, he watches the man / boy who is now curled up and weeping and says, "Is that what I was afraid of ?"

What is even more chilling is Bobby Thompson's final words whilst being led away in handcuffs, "Hardly ever missed, did I?" he asks one of the cops, sounding like a varsity football player seeking praise from his coach.

After watching Targets, I was dumbfounded as to why this movie never found a larger audience. And then I discovered that shortly after it's release the killings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy occurred, no doubt, souring the public's taste for a movie about nut-cases shooting people ... would American have preferred a more Gothic horror tale?

Targets was Peter Bogdanovich's first film where he served as director, and, sadly, Karloff's final**. It can be found here .

* A tip of the hat to The Man of A Million Movies, Cerpts, for informing me that this is NOT Karloff's last film, but in actuality, he made several more movies south of the border before he died.

** Wait, another tip of the hat to The Man of A Million and One Movies, Arbogast, for pointing out that Karloff filmed his scenes for the Mexican films in Los Angeles , and then said scenes were inserted in to the pictures.


Cerpts said...

TARGETS has always been one of my favourite Karloff films; it should have been his final film but in fact wasn't. He did about 5 more (most in Mexico) because he refused to stop working. What a fine old trooper he was! But even his daughter Sara Karloff likes to think of it as her father's last hurrah since this film has him going out on top!

The film was really a labour of love on Bogdanovich's part; giving Karloff such a fine part was like a Valentine to the grand old man of horror. It's similar to what Tim Burton would do with Vincent Price in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS; only Boris got to star in the entire film whereas Vincent was already too infirm to appear in more than the opening scenes.

The juxtaposition between the wonderful terror films we all love (represented by Karloff) and the modern day horrors of real life (represented by Tim O'Kelly) are married beautifully by Bogdanovich. And I like to think that having Karloff beat down O'Kelly at the end of the film represents the triumph of the old enjoyable horror film over the ugliness of the evening news. Only a true fan like Bogdanovich with a love for Karloff's films could make such a movie.

For anyone who loves Karloff, TARGETS is jampacked with loving tributes to the man -- as well as offering Karloff his last great performance. I particularly love the scene where Karloff wakes up hungover after a night of boozing, walks in front of the mirror and scares himself (an ad lib by Karloff says Bogdanovich) or the scene where Bogdanovich is watching Howard Hawks' THE CRIMINAL CODE with Karloff on TV -- Karloff keeps speaking to him but Bogdanovich, absorbing in the film keeps shushing him! Then of course there's the expert telling by Karloff of the spooky tale about Death chasing the man in the Arab market; a tale repeated verbatim from Boris Karloff's TALES OF THE FRIGHTENED record; a copy of which I have in my vault.

As you can tell by the length of this comment, I'm a huge fan of the film and I'm so glad you got the chance to see TARGETS. If I had only known, I could have leant you my DVD of it years ago!!!

Anonymous said...

I could have sworn that Peter B said this was Karloff's final film in the commentary...I will change what I wrote with a tip of my hat, to you my friend.

Yes! The mirror scene made me laugh out loud; and the story of death coming for the merchant is chilling, and sort of shocked me in it's power.

Speaking of Mr. Price: how about the part when Sammy teases Orlok and tells him that if he does not do his film, he's going to get Vincent Price.

All in all a perfect film.

Arbogast said...

Actually, Karloff didn't travel to Mexico to make his final movies. His scenes were shot in Los Angeles by Jack Hill (of Spider Baby fame) and inserted into the Mexican productions. They're usually regarded with disdain by Karloff's fans but I've always been partial to The Snake People.

Pax Romano said...


Duly noted.

Cerpts said...

Oh certainly, Karloff could've never travelled to Mexico confined to a wheelchair and taking oxygen between every take; you're absolutely right. I didn't mean to suggest that; only that the 4 films were Mexican -- and in fact weren't released until a year or two after Karloff's death. I've only seen one of the 4 "Mexican" horrors (The Fear Chamber) and it certainly was abyssmal; although I have heard quite a few people suggest that, if you have to see one, the Snake People film is probably the best of the lot. I've no doubt that Bogdanovich probably did say TARGETS was Karloff's final film in the commentary track -- it is emotionally, anyway. When the facts and legend don't agree, in this case it's much more satisfying to print the legend. TARGETS certainly is Karloff's last REAL film worth watching. Besides the 4 Mexican films which one cannot say Boris was that involved in, there was the voice-only work on Rankin-Bass' claymation extravaganza MAD MONSTER PARTY as well as THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR which some sources site as being released after TARGETS. For someone in such ill health and in the last year of his life, Karloff's determination to keep working was phenomenal! You've gotta hand it to old Boris -- the man just would not lie down! He was going to go out with greasepaint still on, bless him!

Pax Romano said...

Amen, my brother!

How said that Bela's swan song, was Plan 9 ... sort of.

Anonymous said...


I'm aware that I'm about two years late to the party here, but when you commented on MY review of the film and said that you had reviewed it as well, I had to rush right over and see what you had to say. Good stuff! I wondered why this hadn't found a wider audience, but you actually had the motivation to find out why.