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Old Hollywood collides with New Hollywood, and screen horror with real-life horror, in the startling debut feature from Peter Bogdanovich. Produced by Roger Corman, this chillingly prescient vision of American-made carnage casts Boris Karloff as a version of himself: an aging horror-movie icon whose fate intersects with that of a seemingly ordinary young man (Tim O’Kelly) on a psychotic shooting spree around Los Angeles. Charged with provocative ideas about the relationship between mass media and mass violence, Targets is a model of maximally effective filmmaking on a minimal budget and a potent first statement from one of the defining voices of the American New Wave.
Peter Bogdanovich’s first feature, Targets, receives a much-needed upgrade through a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, who present the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a new 4K restoration taken from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative (for the most part it appears, anyways).
Though the source materials and the film’s limited budget hinder the results a little, this new high-def presentation for the film looks remarkable, exceeding my expectations by a wide margin. The restoration work has cleaned up most of the damage present on the Paramount DVD from 2003, leaving little behind outside of what is present within the footage from Roger Corman’s The Terror. The digital encode is strong, grain looking to be rendered cleanly without coming off blocky and retaining a natural look.
Detail levels are decent, though they can vary. I’d say a good chunk of the film looks very sharp, rendering fine-object details and textures decently, whereas other moments can look a bit fuzzier. Since grain still looks fine during these weaker moments, I suspect this is all more than likely inherent to the source, a possible byproduct of less-than-ideal shooting conditions. The film was made over a short period and on the cheap under Roger Corman. In the included commentary, Bogdanovich mentions the restricted budget, the guerilla tactics required to get a lot of shots, and shooting everything as quickly as possible with the hope it would all turn out okay, and at one point, it feels he brings this up concerning how the film looks. There are also many processed shots and optical effects, including the point-of-view shots through a scope, all of which have a dupier look than the rest of the film.
Colors and black levels look stronger than the old DVD, which I always felt looked a bit pasty. The film does feature a warmer palette (which Bogdanovich comments on in one sequence), but outside of a couple of moments where things can maybe look a little greener (almost certainly by design), whites still appear white while the sky shows a lovely blue shade most of the time, not green or cyan.
Range and shadow detail are also better here, best showcased during the film’s drive-in finale. Contrast looks excellent with nice, deep blacks, impressive highlights, and the light blending cleanly into the darkness. While it’s a shame Criterion didn’t do a 4K edition with an HDR grade, the sequence looks excellent and is easy to see.
Minor setbacks aside (which almost certainly couldn’t have been helped), I thought this looked just wonderful.
The lossless PCM monaural soundtrack also exceeded my expectations. Considering the film’s age, budget, and guerilla tactics required to get it all done, the soundtrack probably sounds far better than it should. Overall quality is excellent, with voices sounding clear with remarkable fidelity, while sound effects feature a surprising level of range between the lows and highs. There are sudden pops, squeals, yells, and so forth, and they all sound pretty good. Damage has also been cleaned up, and I don’t feel any excessive filtering has been done. I was more than happy with it.
Criterion’s special edition ends up being a little underwhelming, simply recycling Paramount’s previous features and adding some archival material alongside one newly produced feature. The new feature ends up being a 27-minute appreciation of Bogdanovich and the film by filmmaker Richard Linklater. Linklater first goes over Bogdanovich’s background before discussing the film, feeling it gets overlooked due to the success of his follow-up, The Last Picture Show. Linklater then examines the film's merging of old Hollywood horror with the then (and now) modern real-life violence and terror, going over Vietnam, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and spree killings like the one committed by Charles Whitman. The latter was, of course, a primary influence for the film’s antagonist (brought up elsewhere in the disc’s features), and Linklater, a Texas native, talks about the impact of that incident, the rise in gun violence since, and how the film manages to approach the subject.
It's a thoughtful appreciation if nothing else. If I found it a little underwhelming it’s because he doesn’t delve much into the construction or look of the film or how it may have possibly influenced his own work, only commenting on a few elements. While a more focused examination of the film’s construction from a third party would have been welcome, Bogdanovich’s audio commentary (recorded in 2003 for the Paramount DVD) at least fills this gap as best a track from a film's director can. Bogdanovich first goes over his background and explains how he came to work for Roger Corman and directed his first feature film under him. Bogdanovich lept at the opportunity without question, but it came with some insane, very limiting conditions: he had to use Boris Karloff for two days, incorporate about 20 minutes worth of footage from Corman’s The Terror, and then shoot about a week’s worth of new material. Those conditions seemed impossible, but eventually, after much brainstorming and joking about possible scenarios in the film (like one in a screening room where Bogdanovich would tell Corman he thought The Terror was the worst movie he had seen, which more-or-less made its way into the film), he and Polly Platt started to flesh out the story as it is, with Samuel Fuller even throwing in some ideas (Bogdanovich can tend to name drop and there is plenty of that here, with Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, and others coming up on top of Fuller).
From there, he talks about shooting the film, which required a lot of sneaking around and being ready to film just about anything at any moment, and then the editing process, the filmmaker even breaking down a few sequences. He also talks about how he managed to sell the film to Paramount, all leading to what would be a disappointing release. There ends up being an excellent “film school” quality to it as Bogdanovich looks at the film as a learning experience with extensive detail around how he accomplished several shots and sequences. It also proves to be quite a bit of fun.
To accompany that, Criterion also includes the 13-minute introduction Bogdanovich recorded for the 2003 DVD (more-or-less a summary of things) and a 30-minute audio excerpt featuring Polly Platt talking about the film at the AFI in 1983. She repeats some of the same details Bogdanovich has already covered but expands on the inspirations behind the film. Though she mentions the obvious (Vietnam, the Charles Whitman shooting, etc.), it also sounds like just the act of seeing The Terror (which she stresses is “awful”) ended up being the real catalyst as it made her and Bogdanovich question why the film and others of its ilk (gothic horror) were no longer scary, the two figuring it was because there were real-life horrors now that made films and stories along those lines incredibly silly. With further discussion around the film’s customizable sets and overall look, this is an enriching addition.
Yet sadly, that’s it for disc extras, other than a re-release trailer for the film that mentions the director’s The Last Picture Show. The lack of academic material is probably the most disappointing aspect of the features, especially since BFI’s upcoming UK edition appears to include several newly created features. Criterion’s booklet at least features a decent essay on the film by Adam Nayman, followed by an excerpt from a 1968 interview with Bogdanovich. However, it still doesn’t make up for the lack of other academic features.
(The lack of The Terror is also somewhat disappointing.)
Features leave a little room for improvement, but the new presentation looks shockingly good.