“My kind of horror is not horror anymore”: Boris Karloff and the 1960s murder-spree thriller Targets

Peter Bogdanovich’s debut feature was also a farewell turn for horror king Boris Karloff. It said goodbye to his era, and hello to a frightening new one.

20 September 2023

By Chloe Walker

Targets (1968)

Boris Karloff had been acting on the big screen for almost half a century. Peter Bogdanovich had yet to direct a single feature. The film where these two titans met, one that stands apart from anything either had made or would make in their long careers, was 1968’s Targets.  

Targets follows two men whose stories collide in a terrifying finale. The first is Byron Orlok (Karloff, clearly playing himself), an ageing horror star, eager to retire from Hollywood, who after some gentle persuading from his entourage agrees to make a final appearance at the screening of one of his old movies at a drive-in theatre. 

The second is Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), a young insurance salesman who lives with his wife and parents. His existence is entirely conventional, until one day he kills his wife and his mother, and then goes on a shooting rampage across the city. The last stop on his bloody tour is at that same drive-in theatre.

Bobby’s murder spree was based on the Texas Tower shootings in 1966, where Charles Whitman killed 17 people (including his wife and mother) and injured 31 more. Lending even more of a timely edge to Bogdanovich’s debut were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968 and Robert Kennedy two months later – Targets was released in August of that year, into an America that was bloodied, baffled and scared. 

Targets (1968)

While Targets was striking in its timeliness, the film actually originated for more pragmatic reasons. Peter Bogdanovich was one of many budding directors who came up under the tutelage of B movie legend Roger Corman. Karloff owed Corman two days of work. So, wanting to thank Bogdanovich for his assistance on The Wild Angels (1966), Corman offered his young apprentice the chance to direct his first movie with those two days of Karloff as its centrepiece. Bogdanovich leapt at the opportunity – and Karloff was so taken with the neophyte, he agreed to stay on for three more. 

The film boasted other luminaries among its crew. Iconoclastic director Sam Fuller was something of a mentor to Bogdanovich, and helped so much with the screenplay that his mentee named a character (his own, in fact) for him. And as well as being Bogdanovich’s debut, Targets also marked the inaugural production design credit for his then-wife, Polly Platt (the subject of the 2020 series of Hollywood lore podcast You Must Remember This). They’d collaborate on three more features before parting ways, and she’d go on to amass an impressive solo filmography on movies including The Bad News Bears (1976), Terms of Endearment (1983), and Broadcast News (1987).

As he would later do often in the movies he helmed, Bogdanovich took a significant onscreen role in Targets, as the young director who Byron trusts above everyone else. Having the offscreen actor-director dynamic recreated in front of the camera allows the film more explicit commentary on its central themes. “My kind of horror is not horror anymore,” Karloff laments to Bogdanovich, indicating a newspaper headline reading, ‘Youth Kills Six in Supermarket’. “No one’s afraid of a painted monster.” Though Targets could hardly be accused of subtlety in its messaging, that tendency to treat the subtext as text does nothing to lessen its impact. 

Targets (1968)

Karloff was almost 80 when the film was shot, and so ailing that only half of one lung was operating properly, and yet he still carried himself with magnificent dignity. Whereas the scenes revolving around Bobby are particularly horrifying for their chilliness and complete lack of humanity, Byron exudes a gentle but resolute warmth. His character functions as the audience surrogate; just like Byron, America was confused and horrified by the sudden rampant inescapability of this new kind of violence, a violence that could spring from anywhere, coolly and impersonally, and end lives.

The horror icon was concerned that acting a character so close to himself could make him vulnerable to ridicule, but the immense respect Bogdanovich – already renowned for his ardent cinephilia – had for Karloff is palpable throughout; the entire set burst into spontaneous applause after his recital of the spooky story ‘Appointment in Samarra’, and that admiring energy permeates the whole production. 

Targets wasn’t technically Karloff’s final movie (as many as five far lesser efforts followed), but it’s such a thoughtfully written and wonderfully performed part, that it makes the perfect swansong.

So it was goodbye to Karloff, and hello to a frightening new era in which we’re still dwelling to this day. It’s jolting how much an early scene, where Bobby obtains 300 rounds of ammunition from a gun store with alarming ease, could fit comfortably in a release from the 21st century decrying America’s lack of gun regulations. And although Bogdanovich is not gratuitous in depicting Bobby’s violence, the way he lingers over the horribly ordinary details – the sandwich he casually eats during the freeway massacre, for one – just heightens the brutality. As we watch Bobby loom above that busy road like an angel of death, choosing whose life to end with the off-handedness of a person choosing a flavour of ice cream, the precarity of those driving by below is rendered nightmarishly vivid. Targets treats the idea of murder needing a motive as something quaint, old-fashioned. In this new world, the randomness of the horror is what makes it so horrific. 

Targets (1968)

Though it was well received by most critics contemporaneously, audience aversion to screen violence following the assassinations of King and Kennedy led to the film floundering at the box office. Nevertheless, Targets put Bogdanovich on the map as a director to reckon with, and his next movies, released over three consecutive years, would solidify that reputation: The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973). As for Karloff, after decades of entertaining the world in a string of horror classics, he’d die the year after Targets was released, aged 81. 

While Bogdanovich and Karloff made many more renowned features over the course of their celebrated careers, the one collaboration between the two men would produce the most unusual of things: a film that feels both very of its time, and – depressingly, distressingly – ahead of it.

Targets is out on BFI Blu-ray on 25 September.

BFI Player logo

All-you-can-watch access to 100s of films

A free trial, then just £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get free trial