Appointment at the Drive-In

The Terror of Targets

Targets (1968) | Art by Dani Manning
illustration by Dani Manning

COMING ATTRACTIONS

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I’d like to leave you with a little story to think about as you drive home through the darkness. Once upon a time, many, many years ago—”

To tell a story—especially a scary story—isn’t easy. To construct a kind of sweaty, bloodied sense (no matter how nonsensical) that imposes itself upon senselessness. To take aim at your target audience, to take that first almost holy, ecstatic inhalation, to then weave plot and character and terror into an uncanny and unyielding force, one that’s hard and cold and smooth and strong enough to tear through that target’s spine once released, searching for nerves to strip and shatter and unsettle, a story so forceful that it can press deep inside a body and stop the beating heart it finds there, all because you set your sights, chose a victim, and sought to impose the thrill of storytelling fear upon them.

“—a rich merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the marketplace to buy provisions. And after a while, the servant came back, white-faced and trembling, and said, ‘Master, when I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and I turned to look, and I saw that it was Death that had jostled me. And she looked at me and made a threatening gesture!’—”

To tell a scary story, to terrorize with it, to cohere the chaos of existence into the shape of something malevolent to thus explain that chaos, is a galvanic effort both thrilling and exhausting, requiring the imposition of narrative order—however mad, however unrealistic, however strange—tight across the expanse of a meaningless universe composed of true and truly abject horrors. Despite their ghastly innards, these stories serve to make sense of the inchoate and Stygian madness that vomits daily from the razormawed throat of existence (even if these stories make use of fictional horrors, trifling monsters, and nonexistent demons in order to do so). To tell any kind of story such as this, and to tell it well, is a kind of dark miracle, a long lineage of cave paintings and constellations and myths and campfire tales and penny dreadfuls and Shock-o-Scopes, a centuries-long cultural howl that assuages our twilight longing to experience unreal terror in order live with the very real kind.

“—‘Oh, Master, please, lend me your horse, that I may ride away from this city and escape my fate. I will ride to Samarra, and Death will not find me there.’ So the merchant loaned him the horse, and the servant mounted it and dug his spurs into its flank, and as fast as the horse could gallop, he rode towards Samarra—”

We need to tell and experience these stories, don’t we? These strange terrors as paradoxical narrative comforts. To share them, to survive as best we can amidst the true horrors of this absurdist geysering of pain and dread that is waking life?

“—Then the merchant went to the marketplace, and he saw Death standing in the crowd, and he said to her, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?—”

So perhaps wearied and retiring horror actor Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, playing a version of himself so thinly veiled that only a few vowels and consonants separate the two men) muses in the film Targets, on the last day of his professional life, and what—unbeknownst to him—may also be the last day of his actual life. In a bravura single take, Karloff-as-Orlok rehearses the telling of “Appointment in Samarra,” an old Mesopotamian tale about the deadly inescapability of coincidence and fate and death, all bound in a parable designed to both frighten and make sense of life’s madness. Orlok plans to recite the tale after the premiere of his newest (and final) horror film, The Terror, at the Reseda drive-in theater that night. But the old man is unaware that when he stepped outside the studio the previous morning, announcing his retirement from horror to make way for younger and more realistic terrors with which he cannot compete, he was standing in the literal crosshairs of one such extant of modern madness: burgeoning spree-killer Bobby Thompson’s rifle scope. And like an ironic fable of old, it’s Orlok’s effort to abandon the art of cinematic horror-telling that will lead him directly to that madman’s eventual killing floor—beneath the story-carrying light of the local drive-in.

“—And Death said, ‘I made no threatening gesture. That was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight…in Samarra.’”

~

Another such trafficker in gothic depravity, Edgar Allan Poe, once wrote, “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing / Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,” portraying a brain’s slow-rot, supernatural descent into total madness in his 1845 poem “The Raven,” a work specifically designed to broadly, even crassly appeal to the masses, to spread a vision of popular fear as far as it could possibly reach.

~

Some 120 years later, in 1963, a writer-producer-director with a similar, but far deeper, drive to crassly appeal to the masses had just completed shellacking Poe’s immortal work into the 86-minute confines of a cheaply-produced horror-comedy/gothic psychotronia starring Boris Karloff, also called The Raven. And while Byron Orlok in Targets—and perhaps Karloff himself during the making of The Raven—may have pondered such ontological storytelling concerns as Poe’s “deep into that darkness peering,” Roger Corman simply did not have the fucking time. 

Corman, known as “King of the B-Movies,” was already infamous for churning out extremely low-budget horror and sci-fi films, strangely spooky (and silly) genregasms that reveled in questionable taste as they ran roughshod past mainstream standards of the day, hurling an audience’s subconscious desires for sex and violence and terror and death at the screen, chiller cheapies all made via corner-cutting tactics as bizarre as they were fitfully brilliant—releasing a movie, then recutting it years later with some newly-shot footage and releasing it under a different title; shooting a film, then in the days after its completion (but before the sets were torn down) shooting an entirely separate film over the course of 48 hours or so at the same location—with each successive gonzo title raking in box-office cash because, as Corman had discovered, audiences wanted to be scared. Yet in 1963, just days after completing The Raven, and a few months before a shooter’s explosive gunfire would end a president’s life in Texas, Corman’s hyper-cynical form of wildly entertaining, carnival-barker, tits-‘n’-tentacles cinema had hit a snag: The Terror.

Having just completed The Raven, Corman had two days left in his contract with Karloff, and before the gothic castle sets of the film were to be demolished. Capitalist entrepreneur that he was, Corman set himself to wringing an entirely new production out of those two days by directing The Terror, a gothic-horror starring Karloff (because the sets were gothic and Karloff was, well, there). But, perhaps unsurprisingly, two days became nine months, as Corman discovered that going into production with a scant outline for a script, leftover costumes from a Brando picture, and four young-gun directors (future filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and Dennis Jakob were all brought in at different times to shoot additional footage/make sense of the random shots Corman had compiled; it’s rumored that at one point, very young co-star Jack Nicholson directed sections of the film) wasn’t enough to make or salvage a film, no matter how desperately a murderer’s row of talent worked to save it from itself and Corman’s B-movie aesthetic. (When in doubt, flash as much fucking or fighting or frighting as midcentury censors would allow.) The mishmashed movie came and went in the summer of 1963 with little fanfare and no stellar box-office receipts. Karloff went unpaid an additional $15,000 owed to him, and the King of the B-Movies had failed to reach, and to frighten, his audience. In the five years that followed, Corman would not forget The Terror, nor stop searching for ways to reconstitute it into a monster (and monster-filled) hit. A true original in his own rubber-fanged and bent-antennae way, Corman waited, peering deep into the darkness, until he saw an opportunity, a way to dream of a film no mortal had dared to dream before.

THE A-MOVIE

A screeching rubber bat jiggling from a string! Stock footage of thunder and lightning! A famous horror star trudging down the stairs of a castle bricked with Styrofoam!

1968’s Targets begins with a dizzying sensorial assault, throwing its audience into an emulsive whirlpool of B-movie imagery that the brain immediately contextualizes as shoddy pop filmmaking. We believe we’re settling in for a cheap and dirty horror quickie, a story that will kill 90 minutes and not much else.

And then, out of the concussive battery of images, recognition takes hold: Targets doesn’t begin with a Beginning. It begins with an Ending. As with any good scary story, it begins with death casting a shadow of dread over all. Targets, Peter Bogdanovich’s directorial debut (with Corman producing), begins with the climactic final scene from Corman’s The Terror, in which Karloff and his castle collapse within the supernatural vortex of a massive oceanic flood. 

And then, over The Terror’s purple and red gel-lit sets of cobwebs and cheap furniture, as Karloff from a half-decade earlier drowns with his gothic old castle, the title “TARGETS stretches across the screen, followed by an opening crawl of credits. As the walls cave in on the structure, with a Biblical flood crushing it to pieces and washing away the dated artifice of The Terror’s setting, so too do the bold modern credits of Targets dissolve the creaky, already-outdated, artificial horror of Corman’s Poe-light misfire.These credits serve as a sly meta-commentary on Corman-styled ‘50s horror, with Targets announcing itself within its opening seconds as a film flush with such self-aware ‘60s film criticism.

And then, The Terror fades to black…and Targets fades in to reveal that the Corman picture was being watched in studio screening room…by a very bored, very depressed, very un-frightened Bogdanovich and Boris.

~

The opening scene of Targets mirrors a real-life moment in the life of young Peter Bogdanovich—then an encyclopedic film obsessive and critic with dreams of making films with his wife and creative partner, Polly Platt—in which he and Platt sat in desultory, cine-hammered depression after screening Corman’s The Terror. Not only was the film a confusing and cross-eyed jumble of scenes frantically spliced together as some kind of unintentionally shapeless monument to early-‘60s junk cinema (an old horror star, a Victorian-era set more silly than spooky), not only was it not at all frightening (a bad B-movie can be many things, but never ineffective), but most of all, it was Bogdanovich’s only shot at being a filmmaker.

Like a kind of real-life scary story, a deal with the devil had fallen into Bogdanovich’s lap. Corman, a fan of the young critic’s monographs, made a Mephistophelean offer. He’d grant Bogdanovich’s greatest wish: to make movies. All Bogdanovich had to do was sign a contract that called not for his soul, but perhaps the next worst thing:

  • Bogdanovich’s film would have to incorporate at least 20 minutes of footage from The Terror;
  • To justify Corman paying off the $15,000 still owed to Karloff, the aging actor (now in leg braces and a wheelchair, living with both rheumatoid arthritis and emphysema) would have to be filmed for two days to create another 20 minutes’ worth of footage to be added to The Terror;
  • Finally, once the first two conditions were met, Bogdanovich would be free to shoot an additional 40 minutes of whatever he wanted, which Corman assumed would be a Victorian-era horror-thriller in order to match The Terror footage.

It was pure gonzo-guerilla filmmaking from the Corman playbook, capitalist cinematic cannibalization to make a quick profit from The Terror’s failure, while also cancelling out Corman’s debt to Karloff and getting cheap work out of a hungry would-be filmmaker—and if it resulted in a story that scared viewers between backseat heavy petting at a drive-in, or generated a few nightmares in the kids who braved a sneak into the weekend matinee, all the better. That’s B-movie showbiz, baby.

But to Bogdanovich, a burgeoning artist who cut his aesthetic teeth on the films of Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Preston Sturges, simply selling off his soul to eternal torment might have been far less frightening than making a The Terror spin-off. He and Polly were aghast—how do you tell an effective scary story with a kind of horror that isn’t horrific anymore? And from that question sprung a brazenly bifurcated answer: a film that’s itself a kind of drive-in double feature, a killer combo of slyly snuck-in, A-film arthouse ambition and B-movie psychotronic extremity; a film that tells two scary stories at once, with each tale speaking to the other, spooking the other, and ultimately braiding into a postmodern scream of absolute terror.

The first part of the answer to Peter and Polly’s question was both simple and queasily complex: tell a satirically metafictive Hollywood horror story about their own soul-killing dilemma—what happens when a performer, a genre, an entire creative industry is no longer effective? What happens when horror is no longer horrible? How does the sacred act of telling campfire tales and penny dreadfuls continue?

~

As the screening room lights come back on, The Terror director Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich) looks miserable—he knows his latest film is a massacre, no matter what the sweat-sheened and speed-spun, hyperactive executive in the back of the room says, teeth-chattering on about box-office receipts and pop art and how many screens the film will hit tomorrow upon its release. But if Michaels looks miserable, Byron Orlok—star of The Terror as well as countless horror classics, in addition to a recent spate of unremarkable schlock—simply looks dead. The man who began his career decades earlier as a terrifying cinematic monster, is now slumped in a plush theater seat, having just watched himself stumble around a shoddy set for 80 minutes, knowing that the silence from viewers this weekend will be not from terror, but boredom. It’s 1968—America is descending into an inexplicably violent hell here at home while shipping off its sons to march into a meat-thresher on the other side of the planet. A wiry kid could come from nowhere and kill the president. A dark bloom of madness—new and without explanation and without rest—has thunderclouded modern life, leaving something as trifling as The Terror a kind of sad joke, an out-of-touch Hollywood vapidity unable to keep pace with the growing existential terrors of the day.

And so, seeing that Death has brushed against his kind of storytelling, his lifetime of efforts to entertain and thrill, Orlok abruptly quits. 

In what becomes a kind of proto-Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood undergirded with a postmodern “Appointment in Samarra,” the Orlok half of Targets is at once a sorrowful elegy and a love letter to an old-fashioned kind of filmmaking that could no longer remain in vogue in 1968, as well as Bogdanovich-the-film-critic’s scathing, almost Bosch-like rage-portrait of a clueless industry gravely unmatched against the world it now attempts to entertain and frighten. It tracks Michaels and Orlok as Sumarrian master-merchant and servant throughout the bustling marketplace of tales that is Hollywood, with Orlok, having felt the death of his effectiveness onscreen, spooked into a sullen retreat while Michaels begs and pleads for Orlok to make one more film with him: an actual art film (one suspects that it’s likely called Targets), which Michaels sees as his one shot at respectable filmmaking. Yet Michaels can’t even get Orlok to agree to a simple public appearance at the gala reopening of the Reseda drive-in where The Terror is holding its premiere, let alone agree to another film. As Byron sadly laments, “Anybody can walk through the special effects for you…I’m an antique, out of date. I’m an anachronism.” And then, in what will become an irony worthy of an ancient parable, of which Orlok in this moment cannot see that he’s a part, warns: “The world belongs to the young. Make way for them. Let them have it.” 

What follows is a cultural topography of Hollywood as a storytelling entity in midlife crisis, an arthouse dark comedy in which everyone is mired in turgid disappointment at their inability to effectively communicate with their target audience (a studio PR hack drunkenly whines at one point, “I graduated from Princeton. Summa cum laude. I majored in English Literature”—in Bogdanovich’s nightmare Hollywood, everyone has a scary tale to tell, and no means to tell it). In a haunting moment of sadness, Orlok watches himself on TV in Howard Hawks’s 1931 noir The Criminal Code (starring a young Karloff, thus allowing both Byron and Boris’s aging sorrow to fold in on themselves in one of Targets’s jarring moments of melancholy metafiction). “King of Blood, they used to call me,” Byron sadly announces to his hotel room.

Finally, though, he relents, and agrees at the very least to give Michaels a public appearance. Despite seeing the latest L.A. Times headline (“YOUTH KILLS SIX IN SUPERMARKET”) and noting “my kind of horror isn’t horror anymore; no one’s afraid of a painted monster,” he sees the appearance as an opportunity to say farewell to the fans he can no longer frighten, and perhaps close off his career with a dignified final scene, in which he takes one last part in the cultural tradition to which he (and Karloff, his real-life analog) have given so much: a reading of “Appointment in Samarra”—countering The Terror’s flaccid frights with a truly disquieting story of the inescapability of the horrors of existence. Or so he hopes, as his limo ushers him past an increasing number of siren-squalling LAPD cruisers descending around the Reseda drive-in, leaving him to mutter a truth about the city, the industry, the existence we’re all enmeshed within: “What an ugly town this has become.”

INTERMISSION

(MORE COMING ATTRACTIONS)

To tell a story—especially a scary story—isn’t easy. To build a kind of terrifying narrative (no matter how fictional) that can compete with the real-life atrocities we live and die amidst. To impose a storytelling order upon the chaos. To take aim at your target audience, to fire off a series of plots and characters and terrors with a ratatatat clarity that can tear into their bodies, past the desensitization of the day, and confront them with a tale or a truth bound in campfire-flit light or the glow of a screen. In a world such as ours, in which meaning is as rare as happy endings, how do you tell a scary story that matters?

~

One such purveyor of modern, meaningless atrocity, Charles Whitman, wrote in 1966, “I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed,” a thick-fingered and inarticulate attempt to detail his brain’s slow-rot descent into total madness. He left the note behind in his home after spending a day loading up on Spam and hunting supplies, then stabbing his mother and wife to death in the middle of the night. The next day, he’d drive to the University of Texas at Austin, climb atop the main building’s clock tower, and, over the course of 90 minutes, shoot and kill 14 people while wounding an additional 31, before being shot and killed by local police. He’d been a popular high school student, then a US Marine, and by all accounts a loving son to his mother and wife. In his note, his attempt to cohere the growing madness within him into a kind of narrative, Whitman ultimately failed. He was able to offer no reasoning for these murders, beyond the fact that he felt “many unusual and irrational thoughts.” He left these, along with his suicide note and descriptions of the stabbings of his mother and wife, in an envelope marked “Thoughts for the Day.”

~

Corman—for all his adherence to creepy crawlies and tentacled terrors and goopy gore and alien attacks—could feel the grips of existential insanity that had oozed out of the hellscape of the 1950s and had, like some kind of pod-people attack, replaced modern life with a twisted funhouse version of existentialist brutality by the early 1960s. One year before his failure with The Terror, in 1962, he experienced his first true filmmaking failing. As ardent a leftist as he was a swamp-women-and-crab-monsters huckster cinemauteur, he funneled his disgust and horror at the violent civil rights violations in the American South into a rough-hewn but noble Molotov cocktail of a drive-in quickie: The Intruder. It’s the story of a racist charlatan who travels from southern town to southern town, purposefully inciting racial violence between citizens as a kind of one-man assault on Black America. It was shocking. It was truly terrifying. And it was a bomb, with Corman famously noting that it was the only film he ever lost money on. 

Later, when autopsying The Intruder’s failure, Corman noted that it was less a film and more of a lecture. To make a film—especially a scary film—should require “entertainment on the surface.” The target audience should be lulled by an entertaining story—and then horrified by whatever theme, idea, or truth burbled, screaming and insane, beneath the surface. A true scary story should be like a piece of candy, but with a bloodied bullet inside.

THE B-MOVIE

All-American Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) quietly steps into the home in which he lives with his wife, Ilene (Tanya Morgan), and his parents, Robert Sr. (James Brown) and Charlotte (Mary Jackson), after a day of buying rifles and driving around the greater Los Angeles area, curiously stopping whenever he notes a tall, perch-like building. He drifts throughout a home and a story that makes no sense to him—his own story. His face is one of affable blankness, a kind of rubbery US-of-A handsomeness only fitfully shrouded by a troubled glance, as if his toothy smile were infected with sugar-rot cavities like the pitted madness taking hold in his brain. He drifts through the home, looking at the pictures of his life—smiling in his Marine Corps photo, smiling on his wedding day, smiling with his family—as if he can piece together a narrative by staring long enough, as if the emptiness welling inside of him will stop if only he can make sense of who Bobby Thompson is, and is supposed to be. Instead, the faces in the pictures seem as alien as the animal head-hunting trophies on his walls, and his blank eyes are rendered as just as threatening as the guns that line his walls and pack the truck of his white Mustang convertible.

As he drifts deeper inside, the home becomes like a B-movie horror house, a truly haunted and haunting modern castle; the walls are slathered in strange, unnatural shades of indigo paint, and none of the doors have any knobs. The smiling pictures all seem vaguely threatening, the guns on the walls positioned to line up with the head of anyone who might stand near them. He’s locked in a story he’s neither intelligent enough to comprehend nor articulate enough to tell, even as the TV in his living room advertising Anatomy of a Murder screams at him all he needs to know: “You’re guilty of murder—premeditated and with vengeance. That’s first-degree murder in any court of law.” Instead, he continues to drift through his home in the San Fernando Valley—far from the storytelling of Hollywood—unable to realize that his is a scary story, a scary movie, the first of its kind, and one still being told.

~

Bogdanovich and Platt could insert as much witty and insightful commentary as they wanted into Targets, comment on the travails of modern Hollywood as well as their own horror at having to bring not only 20 minutes of The Terror but 20 new minutes of Karloff to the screen. In the end, though, they were still working for Corman, a man known for producing thrills. They had the darkly comedic candy coating—but where was the bullet to hide inside? They still needed to fully answer the question posed by The Terror’s inherent antiquity: how do you tell an effective scary story with a kind of horror that isn’t horrible anymore?

The answer was, again, both simple and queasily complex. If the artful and elegant Orlok story in Targets addresses what happens when a performer/genre/industry is no longer effective in scaring its audience, then the violent and volatile and disturbing tale of Bobby Thompson interwoven throughout discovers the new horror that can now reach that audience. It’s one not from space, nor deep within the seas. It’s the horror of shocking suddenness, of random violence, of soft and damaged men unable or unwilling to articulate the crumbling castle within their minds, who cannot tell a story to delight and to haunt, but instead can only pitifully express their own inner horror story by grasping a killing machine with talismanic fervor, forcing that tale upon us all, and rupturing reality itself with a violence both inexplicable and inevitable. Boris Karloff or Byron Orlok could no longer be a face of B-movie fear. But Bobby Thompson could.

~

“I don’t know what’s happening to me. I get funny ideas,” Bobby murmurs to Ilene, alone in their room, unable to communicate with the person closest to him what’s metastasizing within him. When she attempts to laugh him off, he turns to the sullen petulance of men of his type, men who in the years to come will become more and more familiar on film, on TV news screens, on phones, and in our homes: “You don’t think I can do anything, do you?”

Like everyone else in Targets, Bobby is tormented by a failure to express his ideas, to tell his horror story. Unlike everyone else, however, he uses his easy access to guns, and his experience with them, to weave a story that no one—not his blithe wife, nor his quietly controlling parents, can ignore. But the truth at the center of his story—and perhaps the stories of all men like Bobby Thompson—is that there is no story to tell. There’s a hazy emptiness to the man, brought to bear by O’Kelly’s deeply disquieting performance. It’s as if his confusion when trying to make sense of all the living room pictures of his story stems from the cloudiest suspicions—suspicions perhaps far more than his tenuous ego can withstand—that there’s simply nothing unique or special about Bobby Thompson. That aside from his vague conversations with his wife about wanting to do something, he’s simply an unremarkable man living an unremarkable life in the unremarkable shadow of the Valley of Hollywood, and this emptiness is just too much for him to stand or fill. And so instead, like Whitman before him, and so, so many soft, undefined men after him, he gives himself to the madness that the emptiness engenders, and amasses the guns necessary to accomplish an act that will make him known, and make him feared. Only by doing so will he then have a story and a purpose. He will finally be the Main Character, and not just the hollow man in the mirror, as empty and American-made as the calories he endlessly guzzles with bottle after bottle of Pepsi, and bar after bar of Baby Ruth. 

It’s in mining the character of Bobby that Bogdanovich and Platt discovered the new monster for a new time in Hollywood, and the fundamental Samarra-esque irony of him—that the empty frights provided by a Karloff or an Orlok were too safe, too nonthreatening to an audience that woke to headlines like “YOUTH KILLS SIX IN SUPERMARKET” every morning, but that the utter emptiness of a Bobby Thompson, with its lack of an explanation, its banality of story, was itself a horror story, one unlike anything we’d previously experienced.

It’s why, over a half-century later, the moment when Bobby—having just murdered his wife and mother—climbs to the top of a giant oil tank off the 405 freeway, and, between munching on a brown-bagged PB&J and slurping a Pepsi, begins randomly murdering drivers and passengers alike, still manages to ignite dread and panic and horror within a viewer. This is an empty calorie horror of the kind we see continually, one that doesn’t require the contextualization of ravens whispering “Nevermore” or spooky old haunted castles or gimmicky buzzers in theater seats for us to believe it. It’s a horror in which there’s no meaning or purpose or lesson, it simply is. The tale of Bobby Thompson is the B-movie we’re all trapped within, the grindhouse thriller we doomscroll past every day. It’s Bogdanovich and Platt’s answer to the questions of the Cormans and Karloffs and Orloks about what’s scary now. The exultant brilliance of Targets is that, equipped with so very little, it was able to discover this truth; the tragedy of Targets, the fucking terror of it, is that it still remains that truth.

END CREDITS
(HOUSE LIGHTS/DRIVE SAFELY)

There’s a moment very early in Targets, just after the screening of The Terror, when Orlok exits the studio for his waiting car. As he stands on that sloping curve of Sunset in West Hollywood, telling Sammy “The world belongs to the young. Make way for them. Let them have it,” we see Byron framed not only by Bogdanovich’s camera but the crosshairs of Bobby’s rifle. Across the street, at a gunshop, he’s testing the aim of the one he’ll use to slaughter so many by aiming it at Orlok’s head.

Targets’s story may be built out of two Corman-mandated halves (further ironies: the mandated inclusions make up the more jazzy, art-inflected half of the picture, while eternally-snobbish Bogdanovich’s “additional 40 minutes of whatever he wanted” are pure B-movie terrorizing), but from the film’s earliest minutes, these two tales of movie monsters are linked together by random coincidence and dreadful fate, each action taken by either monster further binding them inextricably together. Each story interweaves, tighter and tighter, until the concurrent threads are forced to splice together like reels of film, and it all happens, of course, at the Reseda drive-in. It’s there that one movie monster goes to announce his retirement, the other to announce his ascension.

There’s an almost unspeakable shudder that blooms in a viewer’s chest when watching Bobby, now on the run from police following his shooting spree, take solace by hiding his Mustang amidst the cars of the drive-in for the premiere of The Terror. Cinema is solace, for you and me and Karloff and Corman and Orlok and Bogdanovich and Platt and the person next to you at the AMC and the hungry eyes in row after row of cars tucked into the theater for the next Michaels/Orlok picture, or the next Corman/Karloff B-movie, these strange and silly and scary films we watch to experience fear from a safe remove. To see a curdled human monster like Bobby seek shelter in the same place is an offense; to see him project the final act, the final reel, of his bloody story there is a horror beyond words.

As Orlok’s sedan glides to the front row of the drive-in, The Terror looming over all as projected across an immense white screen, Bobby has infected the screen itself, both within the world of Targets and Targets the film itself; he’s crawled inside the giant screen, and, from a small hole, begins picking off targets in the cars below. Amidst the whirs and hums of The Terror’s film moving through the projector, doing little to cause fear in its audience, the projection of Bobby’s horribly empty story upon the crowd causes a devastating panic within them, and us. Bodies pour out of cars, children weep while watching their parents bleed out on steering wheels, bodies flee and panic in the dark, bled red by bullets and taillights.

And then, out of that panicked pulse of screaming figures running away from the screen in the dark, Byron Orlok/Boris Karloff emerges, stomping forward as best he can with his cane and leg braces. Marching with a kind of inevitable screen monster stomp, some chilling, unstoppable thing driven by an otherworldly fury. Orlok/Karloff spots Bobby struggling to escape from behind the screen, and chases him like a terrifying screen monster of old. Orlok/Karloff is in a rage; despite his disgust for Hollywood, for the stale stories, for the films that no longer fright, he understands the bond between storyteller and audience, the almost holy and shared trust between those who scare us and those who ask to be scared.

And then, Bobby whimpers and screams in horrible confusion as he looks to the screen and sees Orlok/Karloff marauding in The Terror, and then sees the monster-man coming to get him like the monster lurking at the end of every story. And when Orlok/Karloff slaps Bobby, he falls to the ground in fear, the same emptiness that made him a monster having also made him a coward.

And then, in a final irony, a shaken Orlok/Karloff, one and the same, the monster in our stories for so long, stares at this pathetic, murderous thing and asks what so many have asked about men like Bobby since, shaken by both their meaninglessness and their horrible effectiveness: “Is that what I was afraid of?

~

To tell a story—especially a scary story—isn’t easy. To construct a kind of sweaty, bloodied sense (no matter how nonsensical) that imposes itself upon senselessness. To take aim at your target audience, to take that first almost holy, ecstatic inhalation, to then weave plot and character and terror into an uncanny and unyielding force, one that’s hard and cold and smooth and strong enough to tear through that target’s spine once released, searching for nerves to strip and shatter and unsettle, a story so forceful that it can press deep inside a body and stop the beating heart it finds there, all because you set your sights, chose a victim, and sought to impose the thrill of storytelling fear upon them.

So, perhaps, mused wearied and retiring horror actor Boris Karloff as he finished filming on Targets, the last of his films to be released in his lifetime. Perhaps it’s what sustained him during that stunning single take earlier in the film, where he told “Appointment in Samarra” directly into the camera, knowing that in that moment, he was summoning decades of performance and of frightening audiences, and, for one final time, telling a scary story that would matter—both in that scene and with Targets, a B-movie that elevated itself to a kind of drive-in parable, designed to frighten and make some kind of sense of life’s madness. And like an ironic fable of old, Karloff’s and Corman’s and Platt’s and Bogdanovich’s effort to overcome The Terror created a new kind of terror, a new scary story to be told; the truely horrific twist in this particular story’s heart is that, a half-century later, we must still tell it.