Perhaps the most depressing thing about “Targets” is believing in its prescience: it makes sense to watch the film and believe that it predicts our current era of mass shootings and domestic terrorism. The truth, that the film is loosely based on a mass shooter from the 1960s and that mass shootings stretch back several decades, reveals America’s complicated history with murderers, mental health, domestic terrorism and craziness.
As the viewership numbers for the latest Ted Bundy documentary attests, Americans are obsessed with murderers and mental illness. Bundy died 30 years ago; his last victim was murdered 40 years ago, but his name remains relevant decades later. He’s not the only one in the public consciousness: Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Albert Fish, The Zodiac Killer, Wayne Williams, and the list goes on.
In recent years serial killers have been replaced by mass murderers in the national news. Instead of a series of murders carried out over time the mass murderer commits his act in one fell swoop. In a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Chuck Klosterman posits that serial killers tend to be motivated by an internal conflict while mass shooters seem to be motivated by some flaw that they perceive in society. A number of mass murderers have left manifestos decrying society’s ills. Additionally, with the exception of Manson, the serial killers listed above seem to affirm the internal-conflict thesis.
So what was the motivation for the murderer (Bobby Thompson played by Tim O’Kelly) in Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets”? It’s tough to say. He seems vaguely upset at his wife and mother for not believing in him though we’re never made certain of what dreams Bobby has. He appears to be aware that he’s wasted some indefinite thing; his youth, his talents or maybe his intelligence.
In fact the whole film is about waste. The studio man (Ed Loughlin played by Arthur Peterson) explains that he went to Princeton and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English literature. Now he’s a measly fixer for a film exec, groveling at the feet of a has-been star. That has-been star is Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff more or less plays himself), a retiring actor who feels like his talents were wasted, or at the very least expended, in the horror genre. His secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh) wastes her Oxford education following around the aging thespian. The director of Byron’s last two films, Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich doing his meta-best as this did turn out to be Boris Karloff’s last film) made two potboilers with Orlok and now his opus, written with Orlok in mind, will go to pot as the former star plans to retire leaving the film unmade.
And it’s not only people that are wasting time and talent. The city of Los Angeles is also being wasted by the youth and schlock consumerism. Towards the end of the film Byron Orlok riding in an automobile looks out the window at the cheap advertisements for a car dealership and comments on how ugly Los Angeles has become.
If there is one reassuring aspect of “Targets” it’s that certain themes never die. Los Angeles, for example, in 1968 was dying and deteriorating and becoming ugly and as of 2019 it appears it will continue to do so ad infinitum. Another age-old trope from the film is recited by Bogdanovich’s character. He laments that, “All the good movies have been made.” It would seem that given Bogdanovich’s next three films (“The Last Picture Show”, “What’s up, Doc?”, “Paper Moon”) that he didn’t believe those words, but maybe he did given his penchanct for referencing old Hollywood films. It’s certainly quite common for critics and artists alike to proclaim that such and such an art form is dead.
Byron Orlok faces the reality of his professional death. He recognizes that he is past his prime, that his talent is used up and he fears the youth that will come and take his place. "The world belongs to them now" as he says in one of the opening scenes in the film.
By the end of the film Orlok is forced to confront that which he fears. At the drive-in movie theater where Byron happens to be making an appearance the youthful, handsome killer, the new face of evil, has gone on a shooting spree. After Bobby shoots Jenny, Orlok marches deliberately towards him, beating him with his cane in a scene that would make Clint Eastwood proud. Cowering in the corner, shielding himself from being hit, Bobby Thompson looks up at Byron Orlok who asks, “Is that what I was afraid of?”
In the film Byron Orlok’s poetic declaration works as a moment of catharsis. In real life, however, the Bobby Thompsons of the world are something of which to be very afraid. The film may have been based on the past but the details it changed from the original story do anticipate the future. Bobby is taken into custody with nary a scratch on him and his comment to the police is an unrepentant remark about the accuracy of his shooting. The movie ends shortly after so we don’t get a manifesto from Bobby or even a detailed explanation for his crimes. We can imagine that he does go to trial and sits stone-faced in the courtroom neither remorseful of his crimes nor moved by the cries of his victims' relatives. There are no social media posts to sift through or message boards to read, but it’s easy to project motives onto him. At this point we’ve seen so many murderers from Dylan Roof to James Holmes to Stephen Paddock to Adam Lanza, that it’s easy for us to fill in the back story for Bobby Thompson. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination for the character to seem not only real but modern.
That’s the power that “Targets” has, a power it couldn’t have had or hoped to have had when it was made; 60 years after the first mass shooting and 50 years after “Targets” was made mass shootings have become an epidemic. Stories of Bobby Thompsons are not outliers but the norm. And just like in the film, a good amount of time, energy and human lives have been wasted and there has been very little progress to show for it.