On one level, Peter Bogdanovich’s first feature film, Targets (1968, prod. Roger Corman), is about a shift in horror cinema. In the late 1950s, gothic/supernatural and extraterrestrial monsters started to give way to the monsters of everyday life. This shift accelerated with the box-office success of movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (both 1960). Targets is a metaphor for this change in the major source of cinematic horror. Its two major story lines stand for the two sides of the human/non-human binary of monsters. Their convergence at the end of the film sets up a showdown between representatives of the two types of monster. This confrontation is not only between two generations of horror cinema. It is also between two generations of human beings and their respective histories. With regard to its history, this collision involves a change in the nature of war, particularly as experienced by its combatants. War became less of a shared experience — a nation united in common cause against a common enemy, as in World Wars I and II — and more of a psychological endurance test for individual soldiers, as in Korea and Vietnam. This is how American war movies have portrayed these armed conflicts.
As American cinema developed through the 1960s and beyond, war became an environment in which ‘normal’ American men transformed into monstrous killers. Films such as Deathdream (1974, dir. Bob Clark) connected their protagonists’ monstrousness to their experiences as GIs in combat — in this case, in Vietnam. Similar but bigger-budgeted movies that followed include Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Targets stands as a precursor to these films. The major story arc of Bogdanovich’s horror-thriller involves the monstrous transformation of Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly). Bogdanovich and fellow story creator (and then-spouse) Polly Platt based Bobby’s character and story loosely on Charles Whitman, the real-life sniper responsible for the 1966 mass-shooting incident at the University of Texas at Austin.
Bobby is a stereotypical, clean-cut, upper-middle-class young man who lives with his young wife in his parents’ home in the suburban San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles. He is also a Vietnam War veteran, although the development of Bobby’s story within Targets‘ plot does not emphasize this fact. Instead, it becomes a ‘structuring absence’: although it lacks emphasis in the story, it still provides a partial explanation and motivation for the shooting spree that turns Bobby into a murderer. Another source of this transformation involves Bobby and his father (James Brown). They share a passion for gun collecting and range shooting. But Bobby’s interest in firearms becomes an obsession that comes to include fantasies of homicide.
At first, these “strange thoughts” disturb Bobby, who realizes their implications and tries to talk about them with his wife. Even so, his ‘targets’ have already shifted from tin cans to human beings. In a target-practice scene, he aims a loaded rifle at his father and comes close to pulling the trigger. Given that Bobby’s father is a stereotypical domineering family patriarch (Bobby addresses him as “Sir”), there is an Oedipal overtone to Bobby’s impulse to shoot him. This father-son dynamic implicates the normative white middle-class family as a cause of Bobby’s transformation — as much so as his combat experience in Vietnam.
Parallel to Bobby’s story is the plot line involving Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff). Orlok’s name is a reference to Count Orlok, the vampire in Max Schreck’s Nosferatu (1922). In Targets, Orlok is an aging star of classic gothic horror films. Given the footage from Karloff’s The Terror (1963, dir. Roger Corman) that opens the film, he is in effect playing himself here. So it is ironic that Targets was Karloff’s last major American movie production. Orlok believes that he is past his prime and out of touch with the interests of popular youth culture. As a result, he decides to retire, exasperating his producer and agent by refusing to do another picture. The writer-director of that project, Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich) attempts to convince Orlok to change his mind with the help of Orlok’s assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), who is also Sammy’s girlfriend. Although Orlok will not relent on his intention to retire, he does change his mind about canceling a final personal appearance at a Reseda drive-in showing of one of his old films. This decision sets up the fateful intersection of his story with Bobby’s.
Old enough to be Bobby’s grandfather, Orlok represents the generation before Bobby’s parents: the ‘Greatest Generation’ that fought World War II. So the climactic meeting between the two is also a confrontation between the ‘total war’ strategy that won WWII and the ‘search and destroy’ tactics that lost the Vietnam War. For horror cinema, it is a showdown between the classic monsters (represented by Karloff as Orlok) and the new, human monsters (represented by Bobby). Ever the cinephile, Bogdanovich is clearly biased towards the former. Orlok defeats Bobby with a whack with his cane and a few humiliating slaps, which reduce Bobby to a sniveling coward. Here Orlok also overcomes his own fear of death, as symbolized by the classic line, “Is that what I was afraid of?” Orlok’s victory can also be seen as a triumph of Karloff’s brand of horror, which is fictional and highly stylized, and a defeat of the ‘real-life’ and frankly gory horror caused by deranged killers like Bobby.
Yet Bogdanovich’s celebration of Karloff’s era is really a monument to the passing of its gothic style. On the wider level of the text, the movie showcases a human being who is transformed into a monster by his white, middle-class, suburban upbringing and his military service in Vietnam. It’s also an early contribution to the emerging horror cinema of everyday life. While Bogdanovich would not return to the horror genre, other New Hollywood directors would continue to mine this vein, especially William Friedkin (e.g., The Exorcist, 1973) and Brian De Palma (e.g., Carrie, 1976), both of whom added a supernatural component to the transformation of human to monster.