Targets: When Reality Eclipses Fantasy
When people talk about movies that predict the future, they often turn to sci-fi. Back To the Future II was recently focused in many articles, with it being the year in which the film took place. And many a clickbait has been published showing how a few of the predictions made in Back To The Future II hit the mark, while countless more were off by a mile. Other movies I see mentioned when talking about celluloid-based crystal balls include Escape From New York, Demolition Man, The Terminator and Mad Max. But no sci-fi film has come as close to predicting the dystopic future we find ourselves trapped in now as Targets, a little-known low-budget drama/thriller from 1968.
It foresees the sad future we live in so much that when I recently watched it for the first time it literally gave me chills.
You probably haven’t heard of Targets, but don’t worry, you’re not alone. It was a low-budget affair produced by Roger Corman, and it didn’t do much in terms of box office. If it was known for anything in the years after its release, it’s probably due to the fact that it was the directorial debut of Peter Bogdanovich, who went onto do The Last Picture Show, and it served as a silver screen farewell to horror legend Boris Karloff, who died not long after it was finished.
While Karloff was known the world over as one of film’s greatest villains, in Targets he doesn’t play the bad guy, instead plays a rough approximation of himself by the name of Byron Orlock. In the film, Orlock has just finished another in what appears to be a long line of B-movie Victorian horror flicks, and while meeting with the filmmakers to discuss his next picture with the company, he announces his sudden retirement from show business. His decision upsets everyone in his professional circle, and they spend most of the film trying to convince him to return to filmmaking.
But the Orlock story, which is largely a dramatic one with some comedic elements, only takes up about half of the film. The other half tells the story of Bobby Thompson. We’ve never privy to much of Bobby’s history, other than that he’s a family man with a wife, and that he and his wife live at home with his happily married parents.
Oh, and Bobby also has a trunk full of guns and frequently lapsing impulse control.
He seems to be fighting it at first, even complaining to his wife about his headaches and dark thoughts, but eventually the compulsions get the best of Bobby. After calmly writing a note detailing his violent actions to come, Bobby murders his wife and mother. He then calmly cleans up the mess in his home, gets in his car, buys a small army’s worth of guns to add to his already impressive stockpile, and, in his own words, goes out to “shoot some pigs.”
It’s not until the tail end of the film that the two narratives combine, when Bobby begins his murderous rampage across the city. At first, he takes up a sniping position alongside the freeway and aims at passing motorists. But after the cops catch on he flees the scene and ends up taking shelter at a drive-in movie theater that will be hosting Orlock for the premier of his latest film later that night. It’s during that showing that Bobby unleashes his most violent terror upon his unsuspecting victims, killing countless people.
The character of Bobby Thompson is largely inspired by Charles Whitman, the man who climbed the tower at the University of Texas in Austin and murdered 16 people before he was eventually taken down by the police. Actually, to call Thompson “largely inspired” by Whitman is probably an understatement, the film borrows wholesale from the Whitman massacre, right down to the note he leaves in his home after murdering his family as well as the reported comments about pig hunting Whitman made at his local gun shop the day of the massacre.
Targets may take its inspiration from the (then recent) past, but it sure as hell does a great job of showcasing the dark future that has become modern day America, where there’s a mass shooting nearly everyday. The film even accurately predicts the chosen venue of a recent mass shooting, the horrific 2012 Aurora shooting, where a madman opened fire on an audience in a theater, killing 12 and injuring dozens more.
The massacre at the theater in Targets is utterly terrifying and disturbing, not only because of how it echoes shootings to come, but because of its cold, almost documentary-like, presentation of the events. There’s no music, and the editing is manner-of-fact, the camera neither lingers on the victims nor avoids them, it often just passes by them as if they’re just part of the background. The film’s lackadaisical treatment of an act so malicious and awful mirrors our society’s treatment of more recent events, caused largely due to the overwhelming fatigue we’re facing thanks to the increasing deluge of mass shootings in the states.
I’m writing this on December 1st, 2015 and until I began researching this post, I had already forgotten about the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon. That massacre left 10 people dead, it happened only two months ago, and I’ve already forgotten it. Looking over a recent timeline of mass shootings in the states I’m discovering others I hadn’t even heard about. If a gunman “only” kills two or three people these days it doesn’t register much on the national scale. Targets doesn’t only predict our growing epidemic of mass shootings, but with its cold presentation and detached presentation, it also predicts our sick desensitization to them.
About halfway through the film, Orlock shares his reasons for his retirement, pointing to a newspaper article about a gunman opening fire in a supermarket. He laments that audiences today find his preferred style of horror, classic Victorian, to be high camp, while the real world seems to be producing more than its fair share of real monsters. His friend sadly agrees.
Strangely, if Karloff was alive today, I suspect that his brand of horror might do better. While Targets is ostensibly about a spree killer, the film is also an examination of horror and what people find horrifying. And the conceit of Targets is that Victorian and classic horror have no place in a world filled with real life horrors like serial killers and mass murderers. But a quick look at the horror trends of 2015 would beg to differ. Sure, there was a trend of torture porn and serial killer flicks a few years back, but if you look at the kind of horror that’s hot now, it’s mostly supernatural. Ghost stories are vogue again. We’ve even gotten some Victorian revivals like Crimson Peak. Perhaps the glut of real life horror has reached a peak and we as a people have chosen that we don’t want to see it in the media we consume right now. I certainly have.
Not soon after the Aurora shootings, Bogdanovich penned a piece for the Hollywood Reporter, saying that the movie made him “sick” to think about now. He goes onto say that films today are too violent, and he argues that audiences have become desensitized to it all. He says that movies need to be less violent, that we need less action films and more dramas.
Although he never comes out and says it, I suspect that if given the choice, he wouldn’t make a movie like Targets today. And that’s a shame. Because for all my disgust for graphic horror films as of late, and my distaste for watching death on film, I think that now is the perfect time for people to watch Targets. And I think we need more films like it, films that show the world we live in, and that show it in an honest, unflinching way. Perhaps if that happened, people might wake up a bit to see how gun control laws (not to mention help for the mentally ill) need to change.