Underlying the seemingly simple narrative of a sniper who massacres moviegoers just as an aging actor makes his final promotional appearance, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets primarily functions as a meta-commentary on the changing nature of the horror genre.
Debuting after the launch of the slasher film subgenre that was inaugurated with John Carpenter’s Halloween, Targets showcases the horror genre’s transition away from classical monsters of the old regime. The transformation occurring in the horror genre is embodied by the film’s character of Byron Orlok, played by the infamous king of blood himself, Boris Karloff. Karloff largely plays himself, an aging horror actor who is determined to retire – believing himself to be an anachronism. Targets IMDB
Orlok knows that the glory days of monster flicks has faded away. “My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore,” Orlok tells Sammy as he hands him a newspaper that reads: Youth kills six in supermarket. “No one is afraid of a painted monster,” Orlok confesses and the film suggests that he is right as the entire plot is revolved not around an external threat to society but by a seemingly average man who simply wants to kill people with a sniping rifle – a chilling echo of the University of Texas Sniper. The film’s commentary on the horror genre is clear: the monster has lost his fangs. Now, he looks like everybody else. Indeed, the killer in Targets, Bobby, is even told by the gun store owner who sells him the rifle, that he has an honest face. The ‘Other’ is no longer the foreign count with an insatiable bloodlust; the ‘Other’ is the reclusive neighbor living three houses down. Thus, the cinema of the fantastic, like the monster of the old regime, died out in favor of the horror within.
The post-classical horror film aims to appeal to a younger generation – a generation that is no longer frightened by monsters that go bump in the night. This younger generation, due to the increased availability of television which featured old horror classics, are well aware of the conventions of horror. They have seen the gothic castle and the alien pods … they know what lies in the fruit cellar, thus the genre had to reinvent itself, culminating a new horror film that was ripe with allusion. In the case of Targets, the referencing of other horror films is not even remotely subtle. Orlok’s name is an homage to Count Orlok in the 1922 horror classic, Nosferatu.
Furthermore, the fact that Orlok is played by Boris Karloff instantly forces the viewers to recall his roles in famous horror films, notably Frankenstein. Orlok even watches his own films on television as he remembers his glory days fondly; the trope of television’s ability to create informed viewers and recall film history is a trope that continues throughout the film. Bobby, the sniper, returns home after buying the rifle to the anatomy of murder playing on the television; this scene serves to foreshadow the horrible act he will commit. Boris Karlof IMDB
The film’s climax at the theater shows two different versions of the horror genre colliding, Orlok’s last film which embodies classic horror style versus the horror of the sniper killing spree, where audiences are more worried about their movie in the drive-in theater being interrupted instead of the killer on the loose. The film is unclear as to which version of horror wins; both versions bring attention to spectacle. Orlocks film showcases the gothic castles and atmosphere of classic Hollywood while the end of Targets makes a spectacle out of the sniper’s killing spree. Though Orlok slaps the murderer into submission, the focus on the film screen and the projector at the drive theater calls attention to the artificiality of classical horror as if to say that the new post-classical horror genre is more grounded in reality.