Like many movie buffs, when news of the the murders in a theater in Colorado broke last week, I thought about the classic 1968 low-budget thriller “Targets” which followed a young man on a shooting spree that included a stop at a drive-in theater.
Peter Bogdanovich made his directing debut with “Targets” and it remains a deeply unsettling experience all these years later, especially the sequence in which people in their cars watching a horror movie are picked off by a sniper who has hidden himself behind the giant screen.
Bogdanovich went on to an illustrious career as the director of “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon,” among others, and he has continued to do important work as a historian and cultural commentator.
Bogdanovich was interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week about his debut film and what happened in Colorado.
“We made ‘Targets’ 44 years ago. It was based on something that happened in Texas, when that guy Charles Whitman shot a bunch of people after killing his mother and his wife… It was meant to be a cautionary fable. It was a way of saying the Boris Karloff kind of violence, the Victorian violence of the past, wasn’t as scary as the kind of random violence that we associate with a sniper — or what happened last weekend. That’s modern horror. At first, some of the people (at ‘The Dark Knight Rises’) thought it was part of the movie. That’s very telling.”
“Nothing’s changed (since ‘Targets’). Things have gotten worse when it comes to the control of guns…. I’m not sure what the solution is. I just know that the violence in this country is out of control. And the fact that guns are so easy to get is chilling. But nobody wants to blame the movies. Nobody wants to blame guns. And yet, it’s so easy to buy them and there are more murders in this country than anywhere else. I’m not too eloquent on the subject. I’m just too angry about it.”
Bogdanovich was a highly regarded New York critic in the early 1960s who became determined to crossover to filmmaking just as the French critics Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard did.
Bogdanovich moved west and hooked up with the B-moviemaker Roger Corman — who was famous for employing and exploiting ambitious young men such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
Corman put Bogdanovich to work as an assistant on several pictures and then came up with a unique challenge for the aspiring filmmaker. If Peter could figure out how to use some leftover footage from a Corman turkey called “The Terror” along with a few days’ work Corman was owed by veteran actor Boris Karloff, the B-movie producer would underwrite any picture that Bogdanovich could construct within those limitations.
The would-be director and his production designer wife Polly Platt pondered the challenge for a few days and came up with a brilliant solution — they would combine a story about an aging and increasingly irrelevant horror movie actor in Hollywood with a tale of a mentally unbalanced young man who goes on a killing spree with his collection of high-powered rifles.
The 1966 massacre at the University of Texas inspired Bogdanovich’s character, Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), who has a dead-end job and an aggressively bland family life.
One day, he flips, kills his family and then climbs onto a gas storage tank near an L.A. freeway and begins shooting people as they drive by.
Eventually, the two plot strands merge when the Karloff character goes to the premiere of his latest B-movie at the drive-in where Bobby has taken refuge in the screen tower. As the picture is projected, Bobby pokes a hole in the giant screen and begins to shoot moviegoers in their cars.
“Targets” managed to bring together Bogdanovich’s fascination with old movies and his unanswered questions about why “good boy” Whitman went on his Texas spree two years earlier.
Paramount thought “Targets” to be such an accomplished thriller that they bought the movie from Corman for national release. Unfortunately, right after they purchased the rights, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and the timing could not have been more wrong for an emotionally cool examination of a mass gun killer.
The picture never received a wide release, but after Bogdanovich scored a huge success with “The Last Picture Show” three years later, revival houses started booking “Targets” and it built a sizeable cult audience.
Sadly, the taut little thriller has retained its relevance through five decades of random, unexplainable massacres just like the one it dramatizes in such harrowing detail.