A fictionalized version of serial killer Charles Whitman, the Vietnam vet who went on a rampage in a Texas town in 1966. Here he’s Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly). For his unfortunate family we have dad Robert, Sr. (James Brown), wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan), and mom Charlotte (Mary Jackson). Director Bogdanovich plays director Sammy, and Sandy Baron is producer Kip Larkin.
A strange subplot, in a sort of parallel reality, concerns Byron Orloc (Boris Karloff), an aging horror movie star (what else?), his secretary Jenny (Nancy Hseuh), and manager, Ed (Arthur Peterson). It will be interesting to see how this horror juxtaposition works.
The premise of the main plot contains some important clues to Bobby’s losing it: he escapes from the ‘Nam maelstrom (well, the historical killer did), only to end up living with his folks, while his wife has to work (unusual for the time, and a humiliation for Bobby).
The opening scene from The Terror sets the stage well: Karloff, Poe, gothic horror, and camp. And a pre-Jack Nicholson Jack Nicholson. For a pre-screening audience: Jenny, Sam, Ed, Byron, and Kip. Byron says he’s retiring, leaving Sam high and dry. Byron’s told that, if he walks out of the picture they’re working on, the only place he’ll be featured is in the wax museum!
Ominously, Sammy tells him, “six months from now you’ll blow your brains out.” Out of boredom.. We shift to Bobby, buying a gun across the street from the studio. When he opens his trunk to put the rifle in, we see a veritible gun show back there.
Speeding down the freeway, he passes a couple of water towers, a drive-in, and other Reseda CA landmarks. At home, the first thing we hear is a TV ads for a murder mystery. Then, from his mom, to his wife “I’d like to know where that husband of yours is.”
More guns on the wall; looks more Texas than California, but maybe that’s the point. Anyway, they’re sitting down to dinner; Ilene looks so nice. As Bobby mentions spotting Orloc, we switch to the old guy having dinner with Jenny and Ed. Byron blows off another movie-related bit–a personal appearance at the local drive-in.
Now Bobby and dad are out target-shooting. Another portent: he draws a bead on dad as pops sets up the beer cans. Back with Byron and Jenny, we see Byron continuing with his withering disdain and sacrcasm. Like Bobby, Byron’s an outlier. But Byron is enjoying himself, Bobby’s seething.
Bobby tries to talk Ilene out of going to work; he really wants to talk to her about the big picture (his alienation, not a cinemascope movie). But he keeps to himself. I can’t help noticing the muted blues and purple shades all over the house–both moody and macabre.
Some more parallel structure: Byron, who’s just had room service, watches one of his old movies in which his character provides room service. Sam pops in, they discuss the current movie script. The old mystery continues on TV, but the sound is from a crime movie about lynching. They discuss how movies have changed, and both drink way too much.
Ilene gets back, Bobby can’t sleep. That luminous blue light everywhere. She asks if he wants to talk, but, no, guess not. If he’s going to chain-smoke, why do it with Kools? In the morning he murders half of the cast: all of his family. What a garish place for Ilene’s body: lavender room with blue curtains. Mom has blue walls, brown accents. Almost as bad. Dad comes off the cleanest, slumping down in the periwinkle/off-white kitchen.
His typewritten letter announces “there will be more killing before I die.” Jenny comes pounding on Byron’s door. She’s got reservations for him back to England, he could care less if the world ended: he’s hung-over. Perhaps because it’s easier than traveling 6,000 miles, he agrees to do the drive-in appearance instead of the journey.
Ironically, Bobby charges his bunch of ammo to his dad’s account. Since Byron’s back on board, he has to suffer through a “deadly dull” interview. So he tells a creepy story. Well, where’s Bobby’s next stop? Not the shooting range. Well, if we consider the water tower a shooting range…yes, there. Let’s see, five guns. Might work.
As he starts plugging cars on the freeway, a worker at the tower confronts him. He’s shot too. Now cops swarm below. Bobby figures he’s got to split. He manages to drop tons of clues. Plus the cops tail him; he ducks into the drive-in.
Meanwhile, Byron and Jenny are enroute. Not by chance, more weird blue everywhere. Bobby’s got the nerve to go to the snack bar. The evening quickly darkens, as there’s a full house for Orlac. The movie rolls… it’s The Terror again.
I get it: Bobby’s really headed for another shooting position. He shoots a guy in the phone booth. Orloc arrives; apparently, they’ll pause the movie for his live bit. Bobby keeps shooting. It doesn’t seem realistic that no one other than the victims knows what’s going on for far too long.
After the projectionist is shot people wake up and start to leave, but naturally there’s a traffic jam. Ed and Sam show up, oblivious. Bobby’s climbing down from his perch. Only now do they call the cops. Jenny’s hit. Police arrive. A final parallel bit: Orloc stalks Bobby as his screen counterpart does the same with his prey.
The plots come together elegantly, as Orloc disarms Bobby. The shooter is reduced to a sniveling kid. At daybreak we see the completely empty lot. The end.
Targets is better than what I expected. Far from being a campy distraction, Byron and his gang give a comedic and ironic backdrop or flipside to the tragedy playing out with Bobby and his family. Orloc represents a world in which horror is contrived as an amusement; Bobby’s horror plays out in real life.
I was surprised that there was absolutely no background on Bobby (the Vietnam able isn’t even mentioned). Realizing that Bogdanovich wants to focus on the what, as opposed to the why, it makes Bobby out to be so unstable that he just gets up one day and murders his family for no very good reason.
In fact, I doubt if this is consistent with a serial killer m.o. All I can see is a guy who’s underemployed, somewhat remote emotionally to mask his shame, and he likes guns. If that’s all it takes to trigger a shooting spree, there’d be a Bobby in every neighbor.
He has nothing against his family; why does he kill them? Ok, they’re sort of muttering behind his back, and the like. But Ilene never bugs him, and is willing to listen, even when she’s tired. His dad is very conventional, but doesn’t much bother him either.
Most serial killers are so emotionally damaged (from childhood forward) that it’s nearly impossible for them to form or maintain any healthy relationship. But Bobby, though somewhat beleaguered, and maybe vaguely bored, doesn’t have those handicaps.
That slice-of-life approach was intentional and valid in other ways. Too many movies take so long ‘explaining’ this or that character that the main plot never develops. Not a problem here. He only misstep that I can see in the script is the unrealistic amount of time that Bobby has to shoot things up at the drive in.
In fact, considering the police were already after him, and spotted his car, wouldn’t they automatically search every parking lot in the vicinity? The drive-in is an obvious place to blend in with hundreds of cars.
Overall though, this movie does so many things right, that the issues I’ve raised aren’t more than quibbles. I’ve mentioned the impact that the lurid colors that surround Bobby much of the time; it’s as though the atmosphere permeates Bobby, symbolyzing his loss of sanity.
Like most good movies, Targets leaves me wanting to know more–about the actual killer, that is. This is a hard film to categorize. In Cold Blood comes closest perhaps, but the horror movie-within-a-movie changes everything. Ambitious film. 8.5/10