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Dissecting John Landis!

06.23.2015by: Jake Dee
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JOHN LANDIS!

In addition to being a lifelong horror dedicatee, John Landis is a cinematic jack of all trades. A throwback. Not only has the man slalomed in and out of every genre under the sun, Landis has amassed multiple credits in every above and below the line vocational field - writing, producing, directing, acting, stunt-work, music, hell...he even pulled puppeteer-work for the muppet movie back in 1979. Dude's done it all!

Of course, classic comedies like ANIMAL HOUSE, THE BLUES BROTHERS, TRADING PLACES, COMING TO AMERICA, THREE AMIGOS and SPIES LIKE US will always hold rank among his most popular credits, but let us not forget for single tick how accomplished ol' Johnny is among the dark realm of the cinematic macabre. I'm talking flicks like SCHLOCK, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, TWILIGHT ZONE, Michael Jackson's THRILLER, CLUE, INNOCENT BLOOD, SUSAN'S PLAN BURKE AND HARE...and extending all the way down to small-screen episodes of Masters Of Horror and Fear Itself. Don't let the big grin and jolly demeanor fool you friends, John Landis has just as sick and demented a sensibility as we all do around here. And we'd love to take a closer look. You down? F*ckin-A! Please join us in this most overdue deed. We now, finally, Dissect the genre career of one John Landis!

BEST WORK

Get AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON Here

In terms of the terror, it would be awfully difficult, if not openly foolish, to refute AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON as being Landis' strongest and most memorable movie to date. Come on now, we're talking about an absolute classic! Think about. If nothing else, John Landis has proven his deft hand and essaying both comedy (ANIMAL HOUSE, BLUES BROTHERS, TRADING PLACES, etc.) and horror (SCHLOCK, TWILIGHT ZONE, INNOCENT BLOOD, etc.), but never has his talents reached such an absolute apogee than when he melded the two together. The result is AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, a movie that, despite Landis codifying as a horror movie, holds rank as one of the most beloved hybrids of light and dark we've ever seen. It can't be overstated. Really, it's so damn hard to credibly establish a single tone in a movie, sustain and make it work throughout. So to combine two dissonant tones, two totally different emotions (laughter, terror) and make them sing so beautifully, the feat deserves all the accolades in the world.

Even more lasting, it's worth noting how Rick Baker's awe-inspiring werewolf transformation sequences in the film - which hold up incredibly well today, almost 35 years later - were so damn compelling at the time that his work forced the Oscars to create an Academy Award for the category of makeup. Of course, Baker won his first of like seven Oscars for his groundbreaking work AMERICAN WEREWOLF, deserving and rightfully so. In this day and age of fake CG gimmickry and phony green-screen trickery, here's a piece of practical VFX driven comedic horror that has withstood the test of time. Talk about value that has only appreciated considerably since released back in 1981!

Get MASTERS OF HORROR SEASON 1 Here

Televisually, we'd be remiss if we failed to mention how the same deft hand was used to fuse comedy and horror to such alchemical ends in Landis' Masters of Horror episode, Deer Woman. What a goddamn riot!

If you've not seen it, Deer Woman is the 7th episode in the first of two short-lived seasons of Masters of Horror. Written by John with his son Max, and starring Landis' longtime Dream On buddy Brian Benben (Landis exec-produced the 90s HBO sex-comedy series), Deer Woman is at once as droll and demented as you might expect from a tonal Landis mash-up. Equal parts horror and humor, Deer Woman uncorks the faux-Phoenician legend of an anthropomorphic half-deer-half-woman hybrid that tends to clomp to death every man she seduces. Eerie, awkward, funny, disturbing...Deer Woman marks a clear return to form for Landis' and his darkly comedic horror stylings. Go see it!

WORST WORK

Get TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE Here

On screen and off, the prologue and opening segment of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE has to be among Landis' most rueful movie outings ever attempted. Well, at least until BEVERLY HILLS COP III. So sad. So tragic. So messy. There's no easy way to dance around the utter heft of what happened that ill-fated day in 1982, but to gloss over it would too be disservice. So let's carefully, respectfully reflect...

While filming the aforementioned opening stint of TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE on July 23, 1982, a horrific helicopter crash claimed the lives of the great screen actor Vic Morrow (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, THE BAD NEWS BEARS) and child actors Renee Chen and My-ca Dinh Le. And not only that, poor Vic Morrow was gorily decollated in the process. Adding insult to fatal injury, this was the first segment of the film to be shot, with this heinous misfortune casting an inevitable shadow on the entire production. After-all, Landis and a host of fellow producers on the film were sued in court for involuntary manslaughter, though not a single person was found guilty by the assigned jury. All things considered, it's quite a wonder how the film turned out as well as it did.

Because, frankly, devoid of George Miller's show-stopping fourth and final segment - Nightmare at 20,000 feet - the film would be nowhere as effective. It just wouldn't. Part of this has to do with the tone-setting opener by Landis, which, even without the devastating tragedy occurred while making it, doesn't favorably compare with Landis' other flicks. The prologue is solid enough, starring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd, and does a good job establishing the expected TWILIGHT ZONE mood. Unfortunately, Landis chose to tackle an original tale rather than, like his contemporaries, update a classic episode from the long-running TV series. The result feels inorganic, almost unrelated to everything we know and love about Rod Serling and the whole TWILIGHT ZONE mystique.

TRADEMARKS

Get BURKE & HARE Here

There are a number of creative dots that can be connected through Johnny's gem-studded career. We can talk about the recurring collaborations with Rick Baker behind the lens, or Dan Aykroyd and Stephen Bishop in front of it, or how he tends to cast fellow genre filmmakers in bit roles and cameo appearances. We can talk about the ironic use of music in his films (every song in AWIL has the word "moon" in it). We can talk about his odd affiliations with Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy. We can talk about how, as a nod to the title of his first short film, he uses the line "see you next Wednesday" in many of his films. the More than anything though, I think it's the ability to so smoothly blend the thrills and chills of a horror flick with the gut-busting jokes of a comedy that set his career apart from his contemporaries. It's what he does best.

And not just the agility to meander in and out of genre, but mediums as well. Landis has done just as much TV as film, both producorially and directorially. Hell, he's acted in just as many projects as he's directed over his four-decade career. Now, as the landscape as Hollywood has changed dramatically since the days when Landis was atop the moviemaking world, Landis is a go-to director for high-profile commercials and corporate advertisements. Can't really call him a sellout since major motion pictures are just $100 million ads anyway, but we can certainly say that no matter the medium, no matter the subject matter, by and large Landis excels.

HIDDEN GEMS

Get CLUE Here

With such an eclectic career path as Landis', you know there's bound to be some buried pearls along the road. His little known first feature SCHLOCK, for example, is a wonderfully wicked piece of trash cinema if there ever was one. Or hey, if you like vampiric-mafia-mash-ups, INNOCENT BLOOD will do you just fine. Hell, if you really want hidden...how about Michelle Pfeiffer's tits. Of all things I salute John Landis for, it's perhaps the feat of being the only director to ever coax the top off of one Michelle Pfeiffer in INTO THE NIGHT (1985) that impresses me the most. Son of bitch John, you did it!

All jesting aside, I now feel the profound need to profess undying my love for the movie CLUE. Besides, it may be a hidden secret to some that Landis was actually given story credit for the film. Now, I realize he had little to do with the flick beyond that - having neither scripted, directed or produced it - but I don't care. This has always been one of my favorite movies. Not only is there an underlying whodunit murder mystery element - six murder mysteries in fact - the crackling pace and dynamite dialogue rattled off by an A-list cast is nothing short of brilliant. This is war peacock!!! Tim Curry, Martin Mull, Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Leslie Anne Warren, Lee Ving and last but not least, the buxom Colleen Camp as my inveterate pubescent wet-dream, French maid Yvette. Don't tell me I'm alone! This is a stupendous cast that makes an otherwise larky board-game movie actually elevate to heights it really has no business being at. 30 years later and the film is still wildly entertaining and eminently quotable!

Here's another piece of arcane Landis filmographic trivia. How many of you knew he directed the music-video for Michael Jackson's Thriller? Okay, how many of uyou didn't know? Yup, Landis did the whole thing, from the romantic movie-date setup to the gnarly zombie-dance number to that maniacal cackle that ends the video with Jackson's eyes aglow. The whole 14-minute, $500,000 shebang! In fact, his boy Rick Baker did the makeup for the film, and his wife, Deborah Nadoolman, designed the red jacket Michael wears in the short. The four day shoot, which Landis "saw as a chance to resurrect a genre (short films) that had once been a Hollywood staple," also used sound FX (growling) and the same VFX crew from AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Even further completing the perfect circle, look out for a background poster at the movie theater for SCHLOCK, Landis' first feature.

NEXT PROJECT

While Landis has not directed much of anything since a single 2012 episode of Franklin & Bash, he's more or less passed his filmmaking reins over to his son, Max. That said, Papa John continues to tally up the acting credits, as he's set to play a character called Jebediah Rex in the promising horror anthology TALES OF HALLOWEEN. With a who's who of horror hall of famers like Adrienne Barbeau, Lin Shaye, Barbara Crampton, Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante and more joining a whole host of up and comers, TALES OF HALLOWEEN adheres to the following:

Ten stories are woven together by their shared theme of Halloween night in an American suburb, where ghouls, imps, aliens and axe murderers appear for one night only to terrorize unsuspecting residents.

Kickass setup, no? In case you're wondering, the ten directors in question include Darren Lynn Bousman, Axelle Carolyn, Andrew Kasch, Neil Marshall, Lucky McKee, Mike Mendez, Dave Parker, Ryan Schifrin, Clint Spears and Ryan Skipp. Quite aptly, TALES OF HALLOWEEN drops into theaters on October 30, 2015.

As for son Maxie (CHRONICLE), you may have heard he's scripted the high-profile VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN for 20th Century Fox. The flick, currently in post, is poised to land in theaters November 25, 2015...less than a month after Johnny can be seen in TALES OF HALLOWEEN. Could and should be a fruitful fall for the Landis family!

Directed by Paul McGuigan (GANGSTER NO. 1, THE RECKONING), VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN shapes up like so:

When Dr. Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and his trusted assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) go too far in their noble attempts to aid humanity, Victor's obsession turns to madness. He then unleashes his final creation --a monstrous figure that holds unimaginable terror for anyone its path.

I suppose we can cynically snipe at the nepotistic nature of Hollywood and how son Max has benefited greatly from his father's showbiz success, but at the end of the day, talent rules out. If, however, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN turns out woefully inadequate and it looks like CHRONICLE was more of a lucky exception than the established norm, we shall revisit the topic. As it is today though, John Landis probably is, and no doubt should be, proud of passing the horror torch down to his bloodline.

Which upcoming Landis project tickles your fancy most: TALES OF HALLOWEEN or VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN?

OVERALL

Get INNOCENT BLOOD Here

Few filmmakers can claim proven, sustained success in a single genre, nevermind many. Landis is that dude. Johnny's one of those rare breeds who has qualitatively stamped his name - in indelible ink mind you - over two ostensible cinematic poles. Comedy and horror. And at his absolute best, he seamlessly solders the two halves into a unified whole. AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is the highest exemplar of such, which is why, almost 35 years since its release, it has attained classic status as an all-time horror great. Beyond that, directorial efforts like SCHLOCK, TWILIGHT ZONE; THE MOVIE, INNOCENT BLOOD, SUSAN'S PLAN, BURKE & HARE, not to mention Michael Jackson's Thriller, or the killer TV work on Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Landis has distinguished a unique style all his own. And whether it's writing and producing stuff like CLUE, HERE COME THE MUNSTERS, THE LOST WORLD, SOME GUY WHO KILLS PEOPLE, whatever...Landis has, from the beginning, served an ambassadorial role in the horror movie realm. It's damn good to have you on our team, Johnny!

Extra Tidbit: Which Landis flick is your favorite?
Source: AITH

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5:51PM on 06/25/2015

Extra Tidbit

An American Werewolf in London
An American Werewolf in London
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9:39AM on 06/24/2015
I agree that his best work is An American Werewolf in London (with Thriller music video being second best) but Twilight Zone the Movie isn't that bad. It shouldn't be his worst work. That should belong to Beverly Hills Cop 3. And as much as I love Clue, I thin his hidden gem is Innocent Blood. It's sad that the movie isn't that widely known but I really enjoy that movie. Extra tidbit: An American Werewolf in London.
I agree that his best work is An American Werewolf in London (with Thriller music video being second best) but Twilight Zone the Movie isn't that bad. It shouldn't be his worst work. That should belong to Beverly Hills Cop 3. And as much as I love Clue, I thin his hidden gem is Innocent Blood. It's sad that the movie isn't that widely known but I really enjoy that movie. Extra tidbit: An American Werewolf in London.
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