Naturally, one of the things I got out of it was a list of horror films which I hadn't previously seen or registered the existence of, but would clearly enjoy, and this went straight to the top of that list. Leeder argues in the book that horror is a particularly self-referential genre, for two main reasons. One is that non-mainstream genres tend to work that way anyway - they build up and rely on a committed audience with a strong knowledge of the genre, so there is a lot of mileage to be had out of in-jokes and inter-texts. The other is that horror in particular draws a lot of its impact from the inherent uncanniness of visual effects. This has been true since the early days of phantasmagorias, but in a film context it includes things like the weirdness of seeing realistic-looking moving images of people on screen whom the audience knows are not actually there, as well as the additional levels of similar weirdness made possible by sound effects (e.g. disjunctions between what we see and hear), the use of colour (consider Suspiria) and digital effects. Horror is always trading on these, but often also chooses to draw direct attention to the uncanniness through meta-references.
In the book, Leeder capitalises on all this by using examples of scenes and dialogue from the films he's discussing to introduce a topic, before going on to talk about it in more analytical and theoretical terms. This film was one of the ones he used in that capacity, mainly to discuss the shift from Gothic horror to serial killer movies at the end of the 1960s, but also as an example of a film dealing meta-referentially with the figure of the horror star and the uncanniness of the projected image. This caught my attention in a big way (the meta-referential horror star was the main thing I liked about Fright Night (LJ / DW)), so, having determined that it was available via Google Play, I persuaded lady_lugosi1313 to watch it with me.
It is a low-budget film made by an early-career director lucky enough to have impressed and secured the support of Roger Corman. As a result, Bogdanovich was able to make use of Boris Karloff, in one of his final few screen appearances, because Karloff owed Corman a couple of days' work from another project and Corman gifted them to Bogdanovich. Karloff plays Byron Orlok, an elderly horror star with an obviously meta-referential name, who feels he has become obsolete in a world of real-life horrors filling the newspapers, and whose films are derided as camp. However, they are still shown as having a huge cult following, and Orlok somewhat reluctantly agrees to make a final promotional appearance at a drive-in theatre showing one of his movies, represented by footage of Karloff's actual performance in Corman's The Terror.
On the day of the film screening, an example of the very real-life horror Orlok despairs at breaks out in the Thompson household. Bobby Thompson appears to be the perfect American man with his clean-cut appearance and attractive wife, but deep problems lurk below the surface. He and his wife still live with his parents, with all the weird tensions, overtones of failure and implications of a broken society that entails. Gradually we realise that he is unemployed but hiding it from his wife and family. He collects guns. You can see where this is going. His storyline was apparently modelled after a couple of examples of recent real-world shooters in the US (Michael Clark in 1965 and Charles Whitman in 1966), and begins with him coldly and methodically shooting his entire family, before sniping at cars from the top of an oil storage tank and finally holing himself up at the drive-in theatre where Orlok's movie is due to screen.
The main effectiveness of the Thompson storyline comes from the imperceptibility of the slip between an apparently ordinary life and a killing-spree. We can see that he is at odds with and closed off from his family, but he never goes into a rage or appears to struggle with the terrible consequences of what he is contemplating, and nor are we prompted to respond viscerally to his actions via dramatic music or high-speed action sequences. He just starts quietly killing as though it were a logical continuation of the life he has already been living, tidying away the bodies of the first few members of his family so that the others will not recognise what is happening and cause a scene. The fact that he begins in the very ordinary domestic setting of the family home creates the same jarring effect, as does the meticulousness of his planning - for example, eating a sandwich lunch he has made for himself on top of the oil tank. This all adds up to a far more terrifying indictment of what is wrong with the society that has produced him than a sudden flip-out would do, and of course it all only looks massively more horrible and damning some fifty years later when the problem has only grown.
At the drive-in theatre, Thompson makes a hole in the cinema screen and begins shooting the audience through it - a very clever little prod at the relationship between the safely imaginary horrors we choose to watch on screen and the unwanted reality of violence. A horrible dramatic tension is maintained for several minutes as the audience of Targets see what he is doing, but most of the audience at the drive-in movie within the film still haven't realised yet what is going on. (He's using a silencer and of course most of the victims are inside their own cars.) There are some very effective and quite harrowing shots of the results of his carnage, and then chaos as people catch on and scramble to get away. The two parallel stories of the film finally come together as Orlok confronts Thompson, who is momentarily confused by the actor from the movie appearing for real in front of him, and uses the opportunity to thwack Thompson's gun out of his hands with his walking stick, allowing the police to arrest him. The film closes on a final shot of a single car left in the drive-in lot - Thompson's, which he is now unable to collect.
I'm not usually a serial killer movie fan, but this is an exceptional commentary on what gives rise to them as well as a fascinating reflection on the horror genre. If you're a horror fan and haven't seen it, it is an absolute must-watch.