The Banality of Evil: The Terrifying and Ongoing Relevance of ‘Targets’

By Brian Keiper

If 1960 struck a major blow to gothic horror with Peeping Tom and Psycho, then 1968 put the final nails in its coffin with Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, and Targets. Though Targets was not financially successful at the time, of these three it is the one that most successfully argues for a more modern brand of horror, one grounded in reality and humanity rather than fantastical settings and supernatural monsters. The film is largely a commentary on the nature of the film industry at the cusp of the “New Hollywood” revolution, real horrors of the world being more terrifying than fiction, and above all, how devastatingly ordinary, even banal, the source of unspeakable evil can be.

For a film that deals with such dark subject matter, it all begins with a joke. After working for several months with Roger Corman, the greatest titan of exploitation filmmaking the world has ever known, Peter Bogdanovich was given the opportunity to make his own film. He was tasked by Corman to take twenty unused minutes from his notorious disaster The Terror (1963), shoot twenty minutes of footage with Boris Karloff, who contractually owed Corman two days, shoot about forty more minutes with other actors, and then tie it all together in some way. He would then be able to release a “new” Boris Karloff feature-length picture.

Desiring to make a film, Bogdanovich agreed having no idea how it could be done. He recounts how he and then-wife Polly Platt went about creating the story:

“So, Polly and I spent a long time trying to figure out what we were going to do. We saw The Terror and we couldn’t figure out how to make Boris Karloff a legitimate heavy in the modern world and how we were going to use this Victorian horror movie footage…we couldn’t figure out what to do. And in my frustration, I went to a joke. And I thought to myself, okay I know how to begin the picture. We’ll start in a projection room, The Terror will end, the lights come up and Boris Karloff will be sitting there. He’ll turn to Roger Corman and say, ‘Roger, that’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.’ And I thought, wait a minute, that’s not a bad idea.”

That “joke” turned out to be a great source of humor and satire about the film industry in an otherwise very serious film. The old, dying Hollywood system gets no reprieve from either Karloff’s Byron Orlok or from director Sammy Michaels played by Bogdanovich himself. Orlok is finished with being a schlockmeister and demands to retire. “The world belongs to the young, let them have it,” he asserts. Ironically, the young Michaels, while watching Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code (1931, starring a young Karloff) laments, “all the good movies have been made.” Both these characters are a stern indictment of the collapsing Hollywood studio system that refuses to give up making the kinds of movies they’ve always made, even if they are no longer art or even interesting and entertaining. Ironically, the younger generation that was making films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), and, yes, Targets, revered the studio classics but also longed to subvert the current system. They would soon get their wish with films like Easy Rider (1969), The Wild Bunch (1969), The French Connection (1971), and The Godfather (1972) — the point where the inmates were given the keys to the asylum for a while.

Part of this subversion was related to the horror genre. Gothic horror, deeply rooted in the German Expressionism movement of the 1920s, had been the default for horror for nearly half a century. Though horror had occasionally ventured into a more familiar, domestic world with Psycho and its imitators, Hammer Films in England and Corman’s Poe-inspired pictures were still much more the norm. But by 1968, the real-life horrors of a seemingly endless war in Vietnam, riots, assassinations, and a rise in violent crime — all being widely broadcast on television — had turned this brand of horror into “high camp,” as Orlok calls it. “My brand of horror isn’t horror anymore,” he says as he hands Sammy a newspaper with the front-page headline ‘Youth Kills Six in Supermarket.’ “No one’s afraid of a painted monster.”

And from this point on, there is much more of a drive toward realism. The settings became our backyards and neighborhoods or the summer camps we frequented as children. The characters were our friends and neighbors. Perhaps most frightening of all, the killers and monsters became humans. In 1963, Hannah Arendt released her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of the Nazi “final solution.” During the trial, many were greatly disturbed by the fact that the man was not a monster, but a paper-pusher. A dull, unimposing man with a desk job. Arendt subtitled her book A Report on the Banality of Evil. And ultimately, that is what Targets is all about. In Targets, the monster is not only human but one that is remarkable only in how ordinary, even boring he is. Even more frightening, Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) is based on a real person.

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the 28th-floor observation platform of the clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin with an arsenal of firearms, shot and killed 14 people and wounded 31 more before being killed by police. Earlier that morning, he had murdered his wife and mother as they lay in their beds. People who knew him were shocked that he would do such a thing. He had served with distinction in the Marine Corps, come from an apparently stable and loving home, and had been given the label “All-American Boy” by friends and family. How could someone like that commit the crime of the century? The film never really attempts to answer that question, but instead shows Bobby’s evil acts in a cold and detached manner, making them all-the-more horrifying. We never learned Whitman’s motive and we never learn Bobby’s either.

In the film, Bobby is very much the “All-American Boy” type. Young, attractive, well dressed and spoken, if a little shy. He is married to a beautiful young woman and they live with his parents in the middle-class house where he grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He seems to have a good relationship with his wife and parents, though he perhaps considers his father rather stern. Still, one morning after a sleepless night, he sits at a typewriter and writes this note in red ink:

“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: IT IS NOW 11:40 A.M. MY WIFE IS STILL ASLEEP, BUT WHEN SHE WAKES UP, I AM GOING TO KILL HER. THEN I AM GOING TO KILL MY MOTHER. I KNOW THEY WILL GET ME, BUT THERE WILL BE MORE KILLING BEFORE I DIE.”

He then begins to enact an evil that no one on the outside looking in could have possibly predicted. In a sequence taken straight from the life of Whitman, he shoots both his wife and mother and puts them in their beds. In the film, it is very reminiscent of the shower scene and clean-up in Psycho: a quick-cut montage followed by a slow and deliberate aftermath.

His next stop at a gun shop ends with an ominous line, one actually spoken by Whitman when he bought his ammunition, something that would become all-too prophetic a year later: “Gonna shoot some pigs.” In the heinous acts that killed the sixties, Charles Manson’s followers wrote several messages in blood at the scenes of their crimes. Among them the words “Pig,” “Political Piggy” and “Death to Pigs.” This would be the first reminder in a long chain of the ongoing relevance of Targets.

The scenes atop the oil tank near the freeway and the Reseda Drive-In at the end of the film both mirror the University of Texas shooting and foreshadow real-life events to come. Bobby climbs to the top of the oil tank and lays out his arsenal while watching passing cars, chomping on a sandwich and drinking a Coke, as though it were lunch break on an ordinary day at the office. As he shoots at cars that speed past on the freeway, a modern viewer can’t help but think of October of 2002, as the U.S. was still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a series of coordinated shootings occurred alongside Interstate 95 and other parts of the Washington, D.C. area.

The closing sequence at the drive-in is one of the most layered and impactful of the period. As Bobby sits behind the screen shooting at random, a number of elements become clear. At first, no one can figure out what is going on. Then a few realize and begin to panic. As they leave, they call out to the workers at the theater telling them that someone is shooting inside. The workers clearly don’t understand and, unable to find a manager, carry on with business as usual. This is very much a commentary on American leadership in the midst of the Vietnam and Civil Rights crises of the time; essentially, “people are dying and our leadership isn’t doing anything about it.” This film suggests that it is because of ignorance and incompetence.

The climax of the film underscores the banality of evil theme in a powerful way. Byron Orlok sees the rifle in Bobby’s hands and, in a remarkable traveling closeup on Karloff’s stony face, he moves to confront Bobby, who is confused by seeing Orlok both on the screen and looming toward him on the ground at the same time. The aged and frail man continues to bear down upon the boy even as Bobby shoots his pistol and the bullet grazes Orlok’s temple. Orlok knocks the pistol from Bobby’s hand with his cane and slaps him in the face as though scolding an insolent child. Bobby is sent cowering in a corner while the police descend upon him. As director Sammy dabs at the wound on his temple, Orlok looks at the pathetic, trembling boy before him and with brow-furrowed bewilderment comments, “Is that what I was afraid of?”

After the film was completed and sold to Paramount for distribution, but before it was set for release, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy occurred, sparking an outcry against violence in media. Many at Paramount felt the film should be shelved indefinitely while others felt it should be released right away — perhaps for the more altruistic reason of social commentary, but more realistically for brazen financial reasons. What happened was somewhere in the middle. The film was held until August of 1968 before being put into a very limited release in small theaters and drive-ins and did “no business” according to Bogdanovich, though it did receive several positive critical notices. Still, it got the attention of the producers of Easy Rider who contacted Bogdanovich to make a film with them at BBS, which turned out to be The Last Picture Show (1971), a film that catapulted Bogdanovich to unprecedented heights of success at the time.

Targets gradually developed cult status as the unseen first film of an important filmmaker and the last great performance of a golden-age star, but Targets is much more than that. The personalities and ingenuity involved in its production make it a fascinating film on reputation alone,* but the fact that it is so good, so skillfully made, and so consistently relevant makes it a classic.

The film was made partially in response to the University of Texas, but could have been a response to Columbine, the D.C. Snipers, the Lancaster Pennsylvania shootings at an Amish school, Virginia Tech, the Aurora movie theater shooting, Newtown, Charleston, Las Vegas, Parkland, and unfortunately a list of locations that could go on and on. These events were not perpetrated by demons with claws and fangs but by human beings. Broken and twisted to be sure, but human none-the-less. Within these ordinary containers lies the truest, deepest, and most ancient horror: the desire of some humans to destroy other humans. The evil that the human heart hides, the human mind conceives, and the human hand instigates — that is the essence of horror. There is nothing more frightening than that.

Footnote

*For more on this, I highly recommend the TCM Podcast The Plot Thickens (specifically Season 1, Episode 2: Target: Hollywood), The You Must Remember This podcast (Polly Platt, The Invisible Woman, Episode 2), and Quentin Tarantino’s article “Targets” at thenewbev.com, which focuses largely on the conception of the film.

Sources

Bogdanovich, Peter. Audio Commentary, Targets. Paramount Home Entertainment. 2003

Bugliosi, Vincent. Gentry, Curt. Helter Skelter. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY. 1974

Targets — An Introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, The. Dir. Laurent Bouzereau. Paramount Home Entertainment. 2003

Tower. Dir. Keith Maitland. Kino Lorber; Go-Valley; Independent Television Service (ITVS); Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). 2016

About

Brian Keiper is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, and Ghastly Grinning. Follow him on Twitter @BrianDKeiper.

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