The Horror of John Landis
Continuing on with our series of posts for Halloween horror month. This one has been germinating for a while. I have a great deal of admiration for the work of director-producer John Landis, an attachment that’s probably not atypical for someone of my age. Animal House hit when I was about 13 years year old and his peak years of success happened over the next decade. I think of him as one of our few comic auteurs — he really knows his beans when it comes to shooting comedy. I’m planning an entire post on his work as a comedy director, but that’s for another time. Like many or most of the great directors, however, he excels in more than one genre. His second strongest suit has been in horror. Over the past four decades he has gradually amassed a decent profile in his secondary field. The survey below covers his credits as director and producer, although he actually has some acting credits in the field as well. He appears in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Death Race 2000 (1975), Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers (1992) and The Stand (1994), and Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader (2012) — admittedly a couple of these are horror comedies. As for his work behind the camera:
Schlock a.k.a Banana Monster (1973)
It won’t surprise fans of his better known Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) to hear that Landis cut his teeth directing this parody of B movie horror, in which a young lady romances a missing link ape man. Clips are available on youtube. The quality is way better than you would expect. As in all such movies, the star of the movie is the ape suit.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
I hope I am not alone in considering this the best werewolf movie of all time, and possibly Landis’s best film. Not only do the special effects surpass everything that came before including the classics of the genre, but as far as I have seen, they have not been surpassed in the 35 years since. The transformation scenes are harrowing and Landis spares us nothing as star David Naughton goes from a lovable goofball into a carnivorous monster at the light of the full moon, a feat achieved not just with the make-up and effects, but also through his acting. I hope I don’t seem to be trivializing the miracle of childbirth (quite the opposite) but when I watched my ex go into labor, I thought of this scene — painful metamorphosis, loss of humanity, a ride you cannot get off of as you become pure animal. But Landis scores in so many other areas. I’ve personally found the film MORE effective because of its humor. because Naughton and pal Griffin Dunn are such regular guys there is a real power in these events happening to even them. Something about them seems like they ought to be above it, immune from it. They are having such a great time, enjoying life, just being. The interruption of it seems unthinkable, yet we know it is coming the whole time — it’s baked right into the movie title! And the atmosphere in certain scenes…the moors, the London subway station. And the pace: he really takes his time when he needs to, and that can be very important in horror. How to maintain tension while doing that (without boring the audience) is very hard. Most directors fail at it, but Landis succeeds.
NOW: here’s a question to which I’ll never know the answer. Is the great impact of this movie due to the fact that I saw it at a young age (about 15)? It may well may be — my favorite movies remain ones that I first saw when I was between the ages of like 5 and 8, a time when you are a blank slate and open to anything. All I know is the movie still affects me like it always did.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Today Landis’s roles as co-producer and one of the directors of Twilight Zone: The Movie are overshadowed by the tragic deaths of star Vic Morrow and two children on his set, possibly due to alleged recklessness on his part. The section he directed concerned an Archie Bunker type racist, who suddenly wakes up to find himself in shifting realities as a Jew in Nazi Germany, an African American in the Klan-dominated American South, and as a Vietnamese during the war years. Sometimes the horror gets too real. In his excellent book Horror Show (truly the Bible for classic horror lovers) David J. Skal writes at length about the impact the two world wars and the cold war had on horror. That’s what this section makes me think of. A little more on the nose than usual, but truly, there is more than enough “horror” on planet earth. More happily, Landis also directed my favorite part of Twilight Zone: The Movie, the legendary intro section with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks (“You wanna see something really scary?”)
The Thriller video (1983)
I’ll write at much greater length some time about the impact of MTV on me, back when music videos dominated after-school television for teenagers. They are their own form, with their own laws. Widely considered the best rock video of all time, the ambitious film-let for Michael Jacksons’s hit song “Thriller” features the great Vincent Price, an army of zombies and (a horror rarity) were-cats.
Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
Landis was one of the co-producers and directors on this anthology parody of late night B movies, some of which were horror parodies. The best sketch in this movie by far, though Landis did not direct it, is Son of the Invisible Man.
Innocent Blood (1992)
I think of Coming to America (1988) as Landis’s last “big” movie. That one was marred by a plagiarism lawsuit, which, added to Landis’s legal problems because of the accidental deaths on Twilight Zone, combined with the relative failure of his comedy Oscar (1991) seemed to take him off the directors’ A-list. In fact, I had never heard of Innocent Blood, released the next year, until the late ’90s, when a friend told me about it (she happened to be a friend of Michael Wolk, who’d written the screenplay). Apparently the film did well on its opening weekend, but performed only modestly at the box office after that. But I think it’s a wonderful, highly original film. It’s a perfect mash-up of genres: vampire films, mafia movies, and comedy. The cast itself is enough to bring moment to moment pleasure: Robert Loggia, Anthony La Paglia, Don Rickles, Chazz Palminteri, Luis Guzman?! Isn’t that the cast you’d want for this? With cameos by Frank Oz and Sam Raimi?! And Angela Bassett in one of the film’s few straight roles? Except for one crucial choice: and my theory about why the movie didn’t do so well hinges on it. The lead (a lady vampire with a moral code that permits her only to bite the necks of crooks) is played by French actress, Anne Parillaud, who’d made a huge splash as the star of La Femme Nikita two years earlier. On some level that’s inspired casting, but on another level, it’s a risk. Cinephiles knew that film; American audiences for the most part never heard of it. If this movie had starred an A-list Hollywood “bankable” star of the day, this movie might well have been another Landis hit.
Here Come the Munsters (1995) and The Munsters Scary Little Christmas (1996)
Some people might say “so this what we have come to”, unless of course you think (as I do) that The Munsters is great! I have no doubt that Landis was tickled to be associated with such a project (he’s only executive producer on this one). That said, I’d never dare watch it. It’s all cast replacements by this stage, with Edward Herrmann as Herman, Veronica Hamel as Lily, and Robert Morse as Grandpa. It doesn’t feel promising.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1998, 1999)
Executive producer of this tv movie and series, the umpteenth version of the original “giant dinosaur survival” tale. (The first one was in 1925). Landis’s is a different one from the all-star 2001 version BBC/A&E version (which I rather liked). In fact, I don’t recognize any of the names in the cast! But really, the real stars of the film are the large lizards, right? Naturally, they’ve put Doyle’s name above the credits so no one would confuse it with the Jurassic Park sequel that came out the year before. On the other hand…why would you come out with this movie with that title in that year UNLESS you wanted people to confuse it with the Jurassic Park sequel that came out the year before?
Fortunately for his fans, in the oughts Landis began to direct horror again, on television. First he did two episodes in the Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror:
“Deer Woman” (2005)
This was highly entertaining. A setting in the Pacific Northwest, based on a Native American myth about a deer spirit who takes the shape of a very sexy woman, entices men, and then tramples them to death. The case is investigated by a ne’er-do-well cop who has been busted down to the animal control division. This promises to be the biggest case of his career. There is an especially funny section where the detective imagines theories of the crime, all of them preposterous, because the crimes are so bewildering (how did a hooved animal get into the guy’s apartment?) There is also a clever reference to An American Werewolf in London.
A black comedy in the tradition of Psycho. George Wendt (Norm from Cheers) is an ordinary-seeming suburban guy who creates a family for himself by tricking strangers, murdering them, and melting the flesh off their bones with acid. He then dresses them and poses them around his house and talks to them, supplying their voices with their imagination. A nice new couple moves across the street and we fear for their safety until…
He also directed an episode of the NBC series Fear Itself:
“In Sickness and in Health” (2008)
This may be the “straightest” script Landis ever directed. It concerns a couple who are to be wed after a whirlwind, very brief courtship. On the eve of the ceremony the bride gets a note warning her that her groom is a serial killer. There is lots of tension and suspense leading up the ceremony (in addition to usual wedding jitters) as she gradually gets more and more information that makes her increasingly suspicious. This one will keep you guessing the whole time and has an excellent, highly unforeseen twist.
Burke and Hare (2010)
This was Landis’s return to the big screen after a 12 year absence. (By 1998 his movies were sinking like stones at the box office). I really enjoyed this black comedy based on the true story of the notorious grave robbers (here presented as a couple of comical bumblers). Released by Ealing Studios, which gives it a certain magic, the film stars Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis and Tim Currie, and some of the cast of American Werewolf in London in smaller roles. Its dark gallows humor didn’t fare well with either critics or audiences but I rather liked it. As always he does a wonderful job of establishing atmosphere and setting the scene.
Some Guy Who Kills People (2011)
Landis was executive producer of this black comedy, written by Ryan Levin and directed by Jack Perez. Kevin Corrigan plays a loser nerd who works in an ice cream shop and gets revenge on the bullies who tortured him …by chopping them up into pieces. The great cast includes Karen Black as his unsympathetic mother, Barry Bostwick as a dopey sheriff. Lucy Davis (The Office, Shaun of the Dead) is the love interest.
Also in 2011 his coffee-table book Monsters in the Movies came out and…
According to this article on the website Bloody Disgusting (dated August 2011), Landis said he was writing a new horror movie with Alexandre Gavras, a small scale monster movie. He said it would be released within a couple of years, and it’s five years later now, so who knows if it’s still in the works?
What I would like: wouldn’t it be great if he helmed a tv horror series, not just producing, but directing the occasional episode, and hosting it like William Castle or Alfred Hitchcock? The answer is, yes, it would.