Targets: The Horror of Reality

Targets (1968) draws binaries between cinema’s old horror and the new horror that was unfolding in 1960s America. Allusion, especially in terms of reworking the horror genre, is present throughout the film but thoroughly envisioned in the final confrontation. The killer looks up at the large, looming presence of Boris Karloff on screen in The Terror, cut to Karloff’s character making his way towards him. Karloff’s defeat of the sniper allows him to live out as a real-life hero who has a tangible effect on the world as opposed to being confined to a two-dimensional figure on screen. Targets juxtaposes the “stylized” horror of old to the new by using scenes from The Terror. The Terror’s melodramatic and slightly campy horror, adorned with coffins and fake ravens, stands in stark contrast to the sniper’s methodological and nihilistic actions, the “banality of evil” in American life.

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Targets points out that terror and violence did not just live in Vietnam, it existed right there on American soil. In the late 60s, there was a growing phenomenon of mass gun violence. The character of Bobby was based on a highway sniper and Charles Whitman, a man who killed his entire family and then opened fire on a college campus. Bogdanovich crafts this new horror by making his villain’s motives elliptical, no longer goal-oriented. The removal of “the way” creates a particularly sinister villain. Bogdanovich uses POV framing to insert the audience within Bobby’s voyeuristic pleasures, placing us in the viewfinder as we scrutinize each passing car for our next kill. The violence in The Terror is now seen as diluted and silly in comparison to the violence surrounding America, reflected in Bobby. Horror was departing from the campy and theatrical to the realistic and scary to reflect real life.

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Targets realizes the tangibility of horror and it bleeds off of the screen and into our doors.  Cinema allows us to surrender to the fantasy, yet the film shows that we are being confronted with the reality of true-life horror, such as that enacted by Bobby. This collision is crystalized in the scene where a young boy stares at his dead father in the car. In real life, this violence is terrifying and awful. On screen, it is acceptable and safely distanced from us. This blend of illusion and reality will be present and infer future films which will in turn infer real-life horror. Scream 2 will feature an opening scene in a movie theatre where a woman is killed, crying in front of the audience who believes it’s all a joke. After seeing Taxi Driver, John Hinckley Jr. will evoke Travis Bickle and try to assassinate the president. And unfortunately, a gunman will open fire in a movie theatre during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. This new horror is present still today, it not stop being relevant after Vietnam, nor did it stay within the confines of a movie screen.

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