Horror movie icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) is sitting in a studio screening room watching the final cut of his next movie due for release, but something's bothering him, and it's not the quality. As the film finishes, the director Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich) wonders what he has made of his latest script, but then Byron shocks everyone in the room by announcing he wishes to retire; the reactions are various, but most of them are denial, why would he want to give up this life? The answer to that is Byron thinks at his advancing years his roles are passé, and real life is scarier than any movie...
While he goes to his car, what Byron doesn't know is that someone is aiming a rifle at him from across the street, in this, the first significant work from one of the brightest directorial talents of the seventies whose career would take a spectacular nosedive in the second half of the decade, never to truly recover. Bogdanovich was that man, here credited with producing, acting, writing and directing, given his big break by Roger Corman, though Targets was a film Bogdanovich subsequently disowned for what he regarded as contributing to the brutalising qualities of the future of screen violence: he couldn't endorse this when he felt it and works like it might be planting ideas in disturbed minds.
Which was a real shame, because it was one of his finest achievements, and its message was the opposite of what he latterly believed it was, that screen violence was never going to match the real thing for harrowing impact, simply because the movies, no matter how engrossing or powerful they may or may not be, will always offer a distance between the medium and the viewer: if that means you can be shocked by the violence or enjoy it and get a kick out of it, that is possible because you do not have a personal investment in it. The character in Targets who does have that yet acts as if he does not is Bobby Thompson, played by Tim O'Kelly in hs sole movie role of much note.
Indeed, O'Kelly dropped out of sight very decisively shortly after his chilling depiction of a spree killer who we are not supposed to understand, since getting inside the mind of someone who will shoot strangers is beyond the majority of us. It is he who was aiming the rifle at Byron, and it is he who is blandly filmed going about the business of mass murder in scenes all the more effective for their understatement. Bogdanovich had assistance from his then-wife, production designer Polly Platt, a too often forgotten but very influential figure in American pop culture (it was she who introduced cartoon hit The Simpsons to the world), and also the veteran director Sam Fuller; they both worked on the script which is notable for its economy and clarity.
But for horror fans of the old school, Targets was most welcome for allowing Boris Karloff to finally play the hero, just as his life was drawing to a close. He was in pretty bad shape when he made this, but managed a new lease of life for the few days he performed here, witty, charming and somehow melancholy, acknowledging his form of entertainment belongs to the past when real life horrors are overtaking anything that he could ever have acted in. He did make a few negligible films afterwards, but Targets was his swan song, and cheeringly he did live long enough to receive some of the best reactions of his career, but the film was not a big success and a lot of that would ironically be down to the reasons being observed in the story: 1968 was the year of major assassinations, and the trend for lone gunmen attacking was establishing itself in the era that we have to deal with to this day. That makes Targets, though visually planted in the late sixties, still relevant, and it's difficult not to be affected by its icy depiction of such atrocities even now.