Writer/director/actor/film critic Peter Bogdanovich is a true cinephile. His love of classical cinema permeates both his films and his critical writing on Hollywood auteurs like John Ford, Fritz Lang, and Orson Welles. Although he started his career as an actor, Bogdanovich eventually moved on to writing and directing after working in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes for producer Roger Corman on such low-budget classics as The Wild Angels (1966), The Trip (1967), and Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (1968). Bogdanovich emerged as an A-list director in the early 1970s with a string of commercial and critical successes—The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973)—all three of which are nostalgic pastiches of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood films.
Corman gave Bogdanovich his first solo directing opportunity in Targets under one condition: he must write a part for horror film veteran, Boris Karloff, who, after appearing in two Corman horror cheapies (The Raven  and The Terror), still had five days left on his contract. Realizing he could never shoot an entire film in five days, Bogdanovich and his creative partner and then wife, production designer Polly Platt, crafted a story comprised of two separate narrative threads (only one of which featured Karloff’s character) that eventually come together in the film’s climax.
The first is the director’s self-reflexive valentine to Karloff, who plays Byron Orlock, a veteran horror film actor whose name, like Karloff’s, is synonymous in Hollywood with the horror genre. When a young writer/director, Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich) asks Orlock to star in his next film, the aging thespian decides it’s time to throw in the towel because he’s become an anachronism. Compared to the violence going on in the world, his favorite horror movies, which are set in haunted castles and feature actors in heavy make-up, are too old-fashioned for modern audiences. Holding up a newspaper with the headline “Youth Kills Six in Supermarket,” he explains that this is the reason why “his kind of horror isn’t horror any more.”
The scenes involving Bogdanovich and Karloff are less about their characters and more about the director getting a chance to appear side-by-side with one of his screen idols. In one overly long scene, the two men sit around in a hotel room talking about the current state of Hollywood cinema (“All the good movies have been made,” moans Sammy), while watching Howard Hawkes’ The Criminal Code, in which Karloff got his big acting break. Although both Sammy and Bogdanovich’s affection for the actor is genuine, one questions his decision to cast himself in the role of the director. His acting is stiff, self-conscious, and distracting.
As the second plotline begins to unfold, Orlock’s assertion that the real world is a modern horror film becomes clear. This thread focuses on Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) a handsome, All American-looking guy in his mid-20s with a pretty wife, Ilene (Tanya Morgan). Bobby is unemployed, but his wife works nights to support the couple while they live with his parents (James Brown and Mary Jackson).
In the first half of Targets, Bogdanovich is less than subtle in making it clear there’s something not right about Bobby. Loosely based on Charles Whitman (the ex-Marine who, after murdering his mother and wife, killed 16 people and wounded 30 from atop a tower on the University of Texas campus in Austin), Bobby is a military trained marksman. He drives around with an arsenal of guns in the trunk of his car and, in one truly disturbing moment, purposefully aims his rifle at his father, who reprimands him for being so careless.
When a distraught Bobby is unable to articulate his feelings to his wife, he finally snaps and kills her, his mother, and a delivery boy who happens to be in the house (he waits for his father, the one person he fears, to leave before he starts shooting). What follows is a disturbing bloodbath that begins with Bobby randomly shooting motorists from atop an oil storage tank overlooking a freeway. Later that evening, he opens fire on patrons of a drive-in, who are watching Orlock’s latest picture (actually Corman’s The Terror), the screening of which is to be followed by a special public appearance by the master of horror himself.
Bogdanovich doesn’t offer any clear psychological explanation for Bobby’s actions, though it’s obvious his stockpile of weapons are compensating for his feelings of being emasculated by his wife, who is supporting him, and his parents, who still talk to him like he’s a teenager. In the director’s commentary on the new DVD release of Targets, Bogdanovich draws many parallels between Bobby and Whitman, though there’s a much larger issue at stake: the availability of guns, which the director believes is at the root of the rise of violence in America.
Although the film draws to a satisfactory conclusion when the two plots finally merge and the still commanding presence of Orlock (really Karloff’s) is able to take down with one wave of his hand this one-man militia. Bogdanovich is aware, of course, that this kind of ending can only happen in the movies. The tragic events that preceded the film’s release in August of 1968—the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June—no doubt made the film’s representation of violence all the more disturbing. But in light of recent events (the Columbine High School massacre, the Washington D.C. area sniper attacks), it’s difficult not to wonder how many Bobby Thompsons are out there right now, driving around with an arsenal in their trunks, ready to fire their first shots.