Horror legends rarely get as respectable a send-off as Boris Karloff was afforded in Peter Bodgdanovich's Targets, a thriller loosely based on the Charles Whitman water tower murders of the early 60s. It's rather interesting that both Karloff and Bela Lugosi ended their careers working with young, eager filmmakers on a low budget, but while Lugosi hammed it up in Bride Of The Monster, Karloff was given one of his very best roles – basically playing himself – in an effective (though occasionally muddled) meditation on modern horrors.
Karloff plays the aging horror actor Byron Orlock who, after seeing his latest opus (represented by clips from the Roger Corman stinker The Terror), decides that his style of victorian horror can no longer cut it compared to the real-life horrors that fill the newspapers. Young director Sammy (Bogdanovich, also a playing a variation on himself) tries to lure Orlock out of retirement to star in a script which he feels will be something different and respectful to the actor. Sammy's girlfriend is Orlock's personal assistant and is trying to get him to make a final personal appearance at a local drive-in theatre before leaving for England.
Meanwhile we follow the young Vietnam veteran Bobby Thompson as he goes from attempting to discuss his seemingly random thoughts of violence with his wife, to acting out on these thoughts by horrifically murdering his family. Leaving a note stating that more will die, Thompson climbs a water-tower and uses a sniper rifle to randomly shoot at drivers. Eventually the two stories meet as Bobby, running from the police, hides behind the drive-in movie screen and begins to target those watching the film.
Despite being his first directorial effort (having worked on Roger Corman's The Wild Angels previously), in the included commentary Bogdanovich states that his two least favorite genres of film are horror and science fiction. With Corman producing, he likely didn't have much say in the matter but he's actually quite good at directing suspense, attempting some ambitious shots and cinematic references to Hitchcock and Fritz Lang that foreshadow his major success over the following decade. In particular, the choice to use only ambient sounds and radio noise (inspired by Rear Window) give everything a realistic, verite feel that serves to build tension in the sniper scenes. This is particularly true in an early scene where Bobby is skulking around his house and we can hear conversations in the other room. Bogdonavich gives a lot of credit to his sound editor, and it really is quite well done for a low budget production.
While not actually Karloff's final film – he made some mostly forgotten Spanish sci-fi films afterwards – Targets was made just two years before the actors death and makes a fine capper to a masterful career. Bogdanovich was obviously in awe of the man and his cinematic importance, and takes several opportunities to pay tribute. Orlok watches a clip from Howard Hawks The Criminal Code (the film that introduced Karloff to many), meditates on his importance at the height of his career, and - most memorably - is given an opportunity to tell W. Somerset Maugham's tale of the Appointment in Samarra, showing that even at this late stage of his career Karloff retained his ability to chill the audience.
However it's the Bobby Thompson segments that prove to be the most terrifying, particularly since he envelops the usual idea of the all-American boy, with his young wife and strong relationship with his parents. We're never given any strong idea of just what pushes him over the edge - even his military background is barely hinted at - but when he finally snaps it's truly horrifying. The scenes on the water tower with Thompson drinking soda and eating a sandwich as he calmly picks off drivers are equally shocking, and have retained their power to disturb.
The Paramount DVD of Targets features the film in its original 1.85 :1 aspect ratio, and the image quality has held up quite well for a low-budget film of the era. Music is minimal throughout, usually only heard blasting from speakers (or introduced by Corman regular, the late "The Real" Don Steele), but is effective and the mono soundtrack is never difficult to decipher.
We also get a couple of wonderful extras, including the thirteen minute Targets - An Introduction by Peter Bogdanovich where the director/actor relates how he got into directing and some of the fascinating stories behind the creation and (eventual) distribution of Targets. Even better is the full length commentary by Bogdanovich, who repeats a lot of the information from the Introduction, but continues to pack the running time with interesting anecdotes about his experiences making the picture. One of the biggest reveals involves how much maverick director Samuel Fuller contributed to the final script, basically re-writing the whole thing without asking for credit. Both features are very worthwhile.
While the two stories never really gel effectively - likely because of the limited time that Karloff was available - Targets remains a striking example of low-budget horror, as well as a timely epitaph for the style of horror pioneered by Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney. The film feels relevant even today, where issues of gun violence and post-traumatic stress still dominate headlines, but for audiences in 1968 - shaken by Robert Kennedy's assassination - the film must have been almost too much to bear. A minor masterpiece, and one well worth revisiting.