Targets: When meta-horror meets reality

Peter Bogdonavich’s Targets (1968) draws the binaries between the constructivism of classic horror cinema and the verisimilitude of late 1960s America through Boris Karloff’s meta-performance and the use of a film-within-a-film. Boris Karloff plays a version of himself named Byron Orlok, a former horror icon whose star is waning. Meanwhile, a Vietnam War veteran Bobby Thompson starts murdering people in the nearby suburban San Fernando Valley. He eventually wields his sniper gun on the spectators of Karloff’s 1963 film The Terror at a Reseda drive-in. Karloff is there for a final promotional appearance. With its melodramatic score and campy sets adorned with gaudy coffins and phony ravens, The Terror could not be any different than the sniper’s frightening banal nihilism. As Bobby observes the looming figure of Karloff on the screen, the real Karloff skulks behind him and manages to stop him from claiming more victims. This act rescripts Karloff as a hero with a tangible effect on his world rather than a two-dimensional image confined to a screen.

Bobby Thompson is not the hackneyed horror villain of yesteryear. He does not possess the simple motivations of a classic cinema character; unlike Karloff in The Terror who seeks revenge after being cuckolded, Bobby’s barbaric desire to kill is cryptic. We can assume that it is a consequence to fighting in Vietnam, but the references to his service are offhanded. Bongdanovich employs the subversive camera techniques of New Hollywood with POV shots that subsume the spectator within the pleasure of Bobby’s voyeuristic sadism; we scan each car on the highway in the hope of finding the next victim.

After Bobby rains bullets at the drive-in, a young boy cannot look away from the sight of his dead father’s body lying like a rag doll over the seats. The campy violence of The Terror that he eagerly chewed his popcorn to only moments ago no longer has the ability chill his bones. How can it, when he now faces the reality of late 1960s anarchy? The blood and carnage that safely existed on the distant screen now freely spills onto America’s soil. Reality has become stranger than fiction. In 1997, Scream 2 will reference Targets in its opening scene. Ghostface stabs Jada Pinkett Smith as a fictional version of Scream plays on the screen; the audience laughs and believes it is all a marketing ploy. Life will sadly imitate art in 2012. Not unlike Bobby Thompson, a gunman will open fire in a Colorado movie theatre during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Even in 1968, Bongdanvich prophesized that horror cinema would evolve to contend with a wave of American violence that occupies a liminal space between reality and fiction.

by Caroline Madden

Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. She has an infinite and ever-expanding list of favorite films, but her top three will always be Dog Day AfternoonRaging Bull, and The Lord of the Rings. Caroline loves cheesy 1980s teen comedies, Mad Men, young Al Pacino, and films with moving musical sequences. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies and writes for her blog You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins


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