The Dark Night of John Landis

True comedy film auteurs have been so rare since the 1930s (NOT hyperbole) that the loss of any one of them, be it through their own misdeeds or some other cause, can only be regarded as a misfortune. That’s my feeling on the subject of John Landis (b. 1950). He was one of Hollywood’s top directors in the late 1970s through the late ’80s. Then, by the late ’90s, he was through. The copycat scribes of the internet continue to parrot the shibboleth that his criminal negligence during the 1982 shoot for Twilight Zone: The Movie, in which three people died, is the reason for his long sojourn in Siberia. That of course is nonsense. Hollywood is the most immoral town on the planet. Dealmakers there don’t care if anyone gets killed, raped, tortured, abused, or baked in a pie, so long as the ticket-buying public doesn’t care. The Twilight Zone accident was big headlines in its day. Then Landis went on to direct another dozen movies and numerous tv shows over the next 15 years. He only became a pariah after a series of critical and box office failures — the time honored avenue.

Interestingly, Landis’s career as a movie director also sank permanently around the time the internet came into being. The internet is beyond powerful. For the first time in pop culture history, your scandal NEVER DIES DOWN. There is stuff up there permanently, like a billboard, to remind people, “Oh, right, he killed those kids”. So I think the tragedy became a factor too. But believe me, if studios could keep the story quiet as they used to do so well, and if they thought Landis could still make money for them, he would never have stopped being hired as a director. And that’s why he kept working as long as he did.

He did it to himself of course. Never for a moment do I imply that he deserves something he isn’t getting (with the exception of greater punishment). But I still mourn the absence of a great comedy director. Unlike, say, Harold Ramis or Ivan Reitman, his peers and colleagues whom you will frequently hear me castigate, I think Landis directed several movies that can deservedly be honored with the too-loosely used term “classic”. Landis has a pictorial eye, a knack for shot composition. Not just for aesthetics, but for which angle is funniest. He has a mind for gags. He brings out lively, focused performances from actors. And he has an encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood film, often quoting beloved moments to rewarding effect. At his peak, even Steven Spielberg was copying him (recall 1941). I have already written about his work in the horror genre. I held off posting on his comedy films until I could get around to seeing those ill-reputed films of the ’90s, most of which deserve their notoriety.

Landis is one of the last people who got into the movie business the old fashioned way. He started out in the mailroom as a kid. He was only 16 when he began stunting in spaghetti westerns. Persistence paid off. By 1970 he was a production assistant, assistant director and second unit director on the all star WWII caper movie Kelly’s Heroes. In 1971 he directed his first film, the self-financed low-budget horror parody Schlock, starring himself — in an ape suit. No one would distribute it for two years, until Johnny Carson saw it, loved it and showed clips on The Tonight Show. It is primarily a spoof of the then-recent movie Trog, and contains a climax montage that owes something to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, and a tit-for-tat car dismantling scene that is straight-up copped from Laurel and Hardy (and throughout the movies, Landis gives us several Oliver Hardy straight-to-the-camera takes). He clearly knew his beans. It was a few years until it led to anything, however. Before that opportunity arrived, he did some stunt work on The Towering Inferno (1974) and sold a story idea to the sitcom Holmes and Yoyo.

In 1977, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker hired him to direct their hilarious Kentucky Fried Movie. It’s a parody of multiple movie and TV genres, giving Landis even more opportunity to demonstate his storehouse of comedy knowledge as well as his directing chops. It had ten times the budget of Schlock but was still small ($650,000 vs. $60,000), and then went on to gross ten times its investment. This, despite its relative obscuity today. Comedy buffs know it, but few others. At all events, it set him up to get hired for three famous hit movies, each of which I have written about at some length: Animal House (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981). Next came the ill-fated collaboration with Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller, Twilight Zone: The Movie on which actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed through Landis’s negligence. (The accident involved a premature explosion resulting in a falling helicopter which killed the three actors who were standing directly underneath).

What surely turned a lot of people off was the apparent lack of consequences. Landis and others were acquitted of criminal wrongdoing, and a civil lawsuit was settled. Not only did Landis seem unchastened by the experience, he never even broke stride. There was no sabbatical or stock-taking, let alone a suspension or jail time. There was no new public commitment to be a better man, making better films. That sort of thing can seem phony anyway, although there is something like good form about the pretense, and something cold about NOT doing it. Instead, Landis went on to direct his next classic film, Trading Places (1983) starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. This is one of the many things that make me call “foul” as regards Murphy’s oft quoted interview about how he was doing Landis a favor by hiring him to direct yet another classic, Coming to America (1988) since, he claimed, “no one would hire him because of the accident”. Not only did Landis direct five movies between Twilight Zone and Coming to America, but one of those movies had STARRED Murphy! In his second Hollywood role, thus assuring his future. Landis had helped make him a huge star.

At any rate, I always thought Trading Places had a certain magic, with its Christmas in Philadelphia setting, it’s Capraesque rags-to-riches/riches-to-rags plot, and major late career performances by Hollywood veterans Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy, as a pair of wealthy old brothers with lots in common with the Brewsters in Arsenic and Old Lace or the pixilated Faulkners in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In 1983, Landis also directed Michael Jackson’s famous “Thriller” video, one of the hottest MTV music videos of all time. Thus began a brief period where he incorporated major musicians into his films, B.B. King in Into the Night, and Paul McCartney in Spies Like Us, both in 1985. The theme song to the latter was McCartney’s last top ten single in the U.S. Both films needed the boost. Into the Night, a Hitchcock tribute starring Jeff Goldblum and Michele Feiffer, took a slight loss and was not well-recieved. Spies Like Us did much better, probably because it was more in Landis’s wheelhouse. A Hope and Crosby “road movie” tribute, it was penned by Dan Aykroyd and Dave Thomas to star Aykroyd and John Belushi. Belushi’s death put paid to that so he was replaced by Chevy Chase. While this all sounds very promising, somehow it’s not very funny. But it does have a cameo by Bob Hope, cementing its place in comedy history. ¡Three Amigos! (1986) was originally to star Aykroyd, Belushi and Steve Martin, who co-wrote it with Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman (who also wrote some songs for it). In the end, it starred Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. This movie too was a tribute to classic movies. It’s about three Hollywood silent film stars who get mistaken for actual Mexican mercenaries. While it contains both intentional and unintentional stereotypes, it also has lots of hilarious comedy business from the three co-stars. This was followed by Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), a spoof film in the tradition of Schlock and Kentucky Fried movie, of which Landis was but one of a half dozen directors. And then the final film of his classic period, Coming to America (1988), a huge box office hit that made close to ten times its original investment. There were major contretemps between Landis and star Eddie Murphy on the film. One can’t help but note that the falling off happened immediately afterwards. (Even so, Murphy worked with Landis yet again on Beverly Hills Cop III).

Just what the world needed — a Sylvester Stallone comedy!

The 1990s were a disastrous decade for Landis. His next two films suffered, I feel, on account of the miscasting of the lead roles. I found Oscar (1991), a sort of combination screwball comedy/ gangster movie/ French farce, to be potentially perfect but for the fact that the lead role was played by Sylvester Stallone, who is scarely an actor, let alone a comedian. Landis wanted Al Pacino, who would have been better, but he turned it down in order to give what probably would have been the same performance in Dick Tracy. It’s especially a shame because the supporting cast is dazzling: Kirk Douglas, Yvonne de Carlo, Eddie Bracken, Don Ameche, Harry Shearer, Marisa Tomei, Chazz Palmenteri, Tim Curry, Peter Riegert! It was both too smart for contemporary audiences, and crippled by a fizzled firecracker at its center. Audiences stayed away.

Still, it did much better than Landis’s next film, the horror comedy Innocent Blood (1992). Again the movie suffers due to its star, French actress Anne Parillaud. I swear, if he’d cast a major, recognizable American star in the lead, this genre-mash-up would have done much better. Again, a dream cast, Palminteri, Robert Loggia, Don Rickles, Luis Guzman, Angela Bassett (and, as with several of his earlier films, many cameos). This was the last film that still seemed to have Landis’s strong voice.

“Wake me when they call ‘action!'”

Then…two famously terrible sequels. These two films seem calculated to set up Landis as a fall guy, to scapegoat him with predetermined failures so the industry could be rid of him. The first was Beverly Hills Cop III (1994). This proved to be Landis’s last money-making feature, based on the strength of the franchise recognition. But it has to have harmed his reputation. If the original premise was a stretch (streetwise Detroit cop is allowed to help solve a case in tony Beverly Hills), and the second was a collosal stretch (he returns to do it AGAIN), his doing it a third time is so cosmically unlikely that the only way to ever truly make this film would be some kind of tongue-in-cheek approach. Instead, the vehicle just reaches for diminishing returns from familiar territory. As with the earlier ones there’s too much action and not enough comedy. This is a shame, because it is set at an amusement park. Opportunities are missed for cartoonish fun. There is one memorable scene where a ride is going haywire, and Murphy’s Axel Foley climbs up the outside of the ride like a superhero to rescue a small child. There is much opportunity here for Harold Lloyd style thrill comedy, and for a Buster Keaton moment for a topper, when a ride car falls and just misses him (Keaton would have had the car land around him, Landis just has Murphy jump out of the way). At this stage, he seems to be just marking time on his assignment. And the touches he does bring are weird. At the very top of the film he has three very overweight men dance and lip sync to a Motown song for no good reason. It evokes the old silent comedy team of Tons o’ Fun and it seems there for the same reason — so the audience can laugh at fat people.

Yeah, they put a black guy in the picture but it’s still way too white,

The other unfortunate sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), is yet another movie directed by Landis where a part that ought to be played by John Belushi was replaced by another actor, in this case John Goodman. The movie is offensive to people with brains from beginning to end. There really is no plot. Elwood Blues learns that his brother has died, but he goes on to reform his band anyway (with no goal or objective), adding Goodman, and for small reason, a small orphan boy. There are tons of distinguished musical guests, but it does not hang together as a movie at all. No one went to see this movie, because why would anyone go to see a Blues Brothers movie without John Belushi?

In between those two turkeys was a family film called The Stupids (1996), based on a kid’s book. This one was kind of cute and well realized, but no one went to see it because it stars TOM ARNOLD. In 1998, Landis released his last comedy film, the self-penned Susan’s Plan, a black comedy that actually looks kind of promising, though I’ve only seen clips. Nastassja Kinski plays a woman who puts out a hit on her husband. The supporting cast includes Billy Zane, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Sneider, Bill Duke, Lisa Edelstein and Carl Ballantine! This was a very little film, virtually returning Landis to a pre-Kentucky Fried Movie level of production. Also throughout the ’90s, Landis directed lots of television, including 17 epsiodes of the show Dream On.

One thing I have noticed about Landis’s post-accident phase is that, starting with Innocent Blood his work starts to get much darker. Human life gets much cheaper. Those three portly guys dancing at the beginning of Beverly Hills Cop III? They’re all shot to death! Through a lot of these later films, characters are blown up in explosions, are shot, or fall from great heights, and DIE. It seems like he thinks he’s getting a Warner Brothers animated cartoon effect, but it’s way too live-action and grisly for that. It just seems cold. And increasingly he gets interested in horror. In fact after the murder comedy Susan’s Plan, the only big-screen movie he has directed has been the grave robbing picture Burke and Hare (2010)! Is he dealing with the nightmares of his conscience? Does he know he is? If he is, it doesn’t seem he’s doing it in a healthy way, he just seems to be reliving it, and trying to laugh at it. Or, worse: get us to laugh at it. (Given that his son, writer/director/producer Max Landis has had multiple sexual abuse and harrassment allegations hanging over his head for years, one is inclined to wonder if there isn’t a family cruel streak. And what a shock, the son of the Animal House guy is getting #Metooed out the yin-yang!)

For more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.