He’ll make you laugh, then he’ll make you scream: The Films of John Landis

When I think back to my earliest film memories there are a few things that stick out. A full moon backdrop to children on flying bikes, a multitude of vibrant colours and a yellow brick road, a girl swimming in the sea at night, spaceship battles, and a clown who lives in the sewers. The films: “E.T.”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Jaws”, “Star Wars”, and “Stephen King’s IT”, are just a few that took me on cinematic adventures as a child. They made me laugh, made me scream; they brought moments of joy, and moments of heart pounding tension. Above all, they introduced me to the world of cinema, and inspired my continuing love of the medium.

However, there is one scene, and one film, that stands in the memory more clearly than any of the others. The images, sounds and feelings I had when I first saw this particular sequence still resonate today, twenty years later. And, I wasn’t supposed to see the film. I was seven years old and the film had been given an ‘18’ rating under the UK’s film certification guidelines for its violent and bloody content. It was part of my Mum’s VHS collection of 70s and 80s horror films. These movies, which I caught a glimpse of from time to time, sat in a closed cupboard too high for me to reach.

One day, my older cousin was visiting. He asked if he could watch one of my Mum’s horror movies. She said that he could and he chose his film. I should clarify something about our living room. It has an open archway leading to the dining room. As a seven year old I could quite easily hide myself under the dining room table and see the television from my hidden position. My mum must have either gone out for the night or gone to bed, but I was able to secretly hide myself under the dining room table in anticipation of my first proper horror movie. The lights were off, the room was lit dimly by the flickering television. The camera showed images of green hills under an overcast sky. Then a truck is seen driving along a winding country road. It stops at an ominous crossroads. Two men – both wearing thick, winter coats – get off the truck. They thank the man who offers them a single piece of advice: “Keep off the moors. Stay on the road.”

The film is, of course, John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London”. The scene, which so vividly stayed with me as a child and still resonates today, occurs a few minutes later when Jack and David leave ‘The Slaughtered Lamb” pub. The night is here, a mist has enveloped them. We see, as they see, only by the light of the full moon. There’s a noise, they become scared, they start to run. David slips over and they both begin to laugh at his perceived clumsiness. Then suddenly, something attacks Jack, knocking him over. He hits the ground and starts screaming, as the beast begins to tear his flesh from his body. Brilliantly premised, beautifully photographed, kinetically edited. Terrifying, affecting, memorable. See our Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s and Top 10 Scariest Movie Scenes for more.

“An American Werewolf In London” is the film that I remember most distinctly as a child. It’s partly because I knew I wasn’t allowed to watch it, partly because it scared me so much. It’s only later in life that I fully appreciate the frightening influence it had on me – the reason I slept with the light on for weeks afterwards – was because it was so good. It is the cinema of attractions, the spectacle. An immediate and direct injection of emotion, be it humour, fear, anger, happiness. John Landis was a master at toying with his audience’s primal emotions. But, with classic Hollywood narrative as his blueprint, he could also tell a great story.

John Landis – Early life and career

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The great skit from “Kentucky Fried Movie” when Henry Gibson instructs you what to do if you find you’re dead

John Landis was born in Chicago, Illinois but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was still a baby. He didn’t like school and dropped out as a teenager, applying and getting a lowly mailroom job at 20th Century Fox. He managed to get work for MGM on the film “Kelly’s Heroes”, flying over to Yugoslavia with the film crew as a production assistant. Through an unfortunate piece of luck, the assistant director took ill, and Landis became his replacement. This gave the would-be director his first taste and experience of front line filmmaking.

He stayed in Europe to work on many films as production assistant, actor, stunt double, and voice coach. Earning a little money, and gaining valuable experience, he moved to London where he worked as an un-credited co-writer on James Bond flick “The Spy Who Loved Me.” This enabled him to return to Los Angeles to make his first feature film – the low-budget horror “Schlock”, which paid homage to classic Hollywood monster movies. The film, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, was a complete failure, leading to him being ignored by Hollywood for several years. He did however forge a friendship with special-effects expert Rick Baker, who he would work with many times in the future.

The first success: John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are The Blues Brothers

Finally getting another opportunity to direct, Landis took the helm of pastiche sketch comedy “Kentucky Fried Movie”, which was written by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, who would go on to write “Airplane” and “Police Squad”. The low-budget film was a surprise success. This enabled Landis to take up the director’s chair for “National Lampoon’s Animal House”. “Animal House” was a massive hit, both critically and financially, solidifying Landis’ place in Hollywood and allowing him to pursue his own projects.

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Carrie Fisher is crazy in “The Blues Brothers”

His first personal project was “The Blues Brothers” which he co-wrote with Dan Aykroyd. Developed from the characters created by Aykroyd for “Saturday Night Live”, the film is a musical-comedy, heavily influenced by a love of 1960s and 1970s rhythm and blues. The film features many singer/songwriters appearing as characters within the film including James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. The film is grandiose in scope and cast, featuring huge musical numbers and expensive action sequences. Indeed, it was one of the most expensive of its time. But the money was well spent as it became a critical and financial success.

An American Werewolf in London: the director’s most personal film

Landis first envisaged his werewolf movie in the late 1960s while working in Yugoslavia. He became preoccupied by how travellers treated their dead, and began imagining what would happen if these corpses got up and started walking around again. Landis concedes that “An American Werewolf in London” is based on other movies. Essentially, his vision of London and England is an interpretation based on British films. He cites films made under the Eady Levy (a tax-break scheme to encourage American production companies to film in England using British actors and production crew) as inspiration, most notably, Dick Lester’s work with The Beatles. His love of music certainly inspired the array of lunar tunes, or as film director Alex Cox puts it, the film ‘features every conceivable song in which the word moon appears’. But he was also influenced by the British setting – what he perceives as ‘horror central’ – where Jack the Ripper, and Jekyll and Hyde once resided, and Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley wrote their classic tales. The film portrays the traditions of gothic horror and Victorian London but in a modern, metropolitan guise.

One scene that stands out is when the two American characters walk into the country pub and everything just stops dead. Silence. Everyone in the pub stares at the ‘intruders’. It has become a joke, particularly in London, that every local pub outside of the capital is like that. It isn’t necessarily true, but it isn’t complete fiction either. Landis told film critic Kim Newman that he was pleased the scene still holds true but that he conceived it from old American westerns.

The film is known as the most successful horror-comedy of all time. However, Landis prefers to think of it as a straightforward horror movie that, through its characters naivety and tongue-in-cheek genre references, has humour. Either way, it is both funny and scary. And it’s little wonder the director’s film is funny since he was the man who had already made “Kentucky Fried Movie” and “The Blues Brothers”, and would go on to make the Eddie Murphy-starring comic classics “Trading Places” and “Coming to America”.

“An American Werewolf in London” is definitely an example of how humour and horror can coexist if used correctly. The comedy and horror genres might be distant cousins in terms of convention, but their emotional affect on an audience is similar in its directness. You feel instantaneous joy laughing at something funny, and likewise, you experience fear at something horrific or uncomforting. When they are thrown together they can impinge on the other’s effectiveness – the humour distilling or mocking the horrific, the horror alienating the audience from the comedy – but when staged effectively, these disparate genre cousins heighten the emotions of both fear and joy.

Consider the early part of “An American Werewolf in London” where the two boys go into the pub and ask for a hot drink. They are told there isn’t anything but beer and spirits. However, says the landlady, “if it’s something hot you want, you can have tea.” Jack says, “Then you have some hot tea?” “No,” says the woman, curtly, to which Jack answers “Oh!” It’s one of a few amusing pieces of dialogue clustered amongst the gothic and foreboding references – the five-pointed star to warn off bad spirits, for example. The dart player telling the boys: “You made me miss!” and the “Beware the moon lads” comment as they leave. The comedy and horror juxtapose each other heightening their influence. The horrific is increasingly powerful because our guard has been lowered by the humour, while the humour is funnier because it allows us to release our fear if only for a few minutes. The humour becomes our safe haven.

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Those Amazon Women on the Moon

“Comedy is the most unforgiving. In other words, you either laugh or you don’t. The quality is not the issue. No matter how high or low the comedy the result is the same. Horror is an awkward name because Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff always objected to being called horror stars, because to horrify someone is easy. To horrify just means to repulse. You show a dead child, or anything horrific. That’s not hard. That’s really not hard,” Landis tells The Fantasist. “To really frighten someone, profoundly, is hard. Because you need to care about the characters involved. To make a really good suspense film, that’s something else, and that requires skill.”

Collaborations with comedians and world-renowned pop stars

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Michael Jackson as a zombie in Landis’ “Thriller”

When Michael Jackson saw “An American Werewolf in London” he became fascinated by Rick Baker’s make-up and prosthetic effects. Perhaps some would say it had something to do with the singer’s obsession with image and physical transformation, but it seems a stretch to suggest Jackson’s enjoyment of Baker’s human-to-werewolf mutation was anything more than pure fancy. And Jackson’s imagination was to be given a pedestal, recruiting Landis and Baker to work on the video for his song “Thriller”. The music video, which sees Michael Jackson first turn into a werewolf and later a zombie, memorably performing the elaborately orchestrated zombie-dance sequence, became one of the most important films of its type ever made. It is the most successful music video of all time, and was a milestone for the music industry in its cinematic portrayal of a pop song. It was awarded the Video Vanguard Award for The Greatest Video in the History of the World.

“Thriller” was sandwiched between “Trading Places” and the director’s segment of “The Twilight Zone” and one of his most underrated films “Into The Night”. “Trading Places” is perhaps his most-loved film after “The Blues Brothers” and “An American Werewolf in London”, while “The Twilight Zone” is his most infamous due to the tragic accident that led to the deaths of actors Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi.

After “Into The Night”, Landis stuck with light-hearted comedy, making western-inspired “Three Amigos” with Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short, James Bond parody “Spies Like Us” with Chase and Dan Aykroyd, and Eddie Murphy vehicle “Coming to America”. He followed the well-received and commercially successful “Coming to America” with the terrific “Oscar” starring Sylvester Stallone. He then returned to horror with vampire film “Innocent Blood”.

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John Belushi in “Animal House”

Decline and obscurity

You could say John Landis has been unlucky. You could also say he has brought bad vibes on himself, but luck hasn’t always favoured the director. He, along with other members of the crew, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment over the deaths resulting from a helicopter crash during filming of “The Twilight Zone”. He was, however, eventually acquitted of the charges.

Landis also had problems over the “Thriller” video, claiming Michael Jackson owed him four years of royalties. But whatever differences the two appeared to have seemed to be patched up when they collaborated again on Jackson’s video “Black or White”.

After “Coming to America” was released, Art Buchwalk sued the film’s producers claiming the concept for the film was stolen from a script he had written and sold to Paramount in 1982.

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Eddie Murphy as one of many characters in the brilliant “Coming To America”

This adversity may have affected the director’s work in the 1990s, which veered steeply from the quality he showed in the 1980s. He made the terribly misjudged “Beverly Hills Cop III” which had about as much in common with the first two films as “The Terminator” has with the “Teletubbies”. He then made the cardinal sin of working with Tom Arnold on “The Stupids”, and made another ill-conceived sequel “The Blues Brothers 2000”.

The director then took a break from filmmaking altogether, filming a few television pieces including the documentaries “Slasher” and “The Don Rickles Project”.

The legacy of John Landis

John Landis has a back catalogue of work that betters many of his contemporaries. For instance, George Lucas and Landis hit Hollywood around the same time. Lucas grabbed the headlines with “Star Wars” but actually only directed one of the original films, coming back to helm the appalling prequels. Landis, throughout the 1980s, made consistently great films. I would liken him to Spielberg – they both had a similar sensibility towards the depiction of good and evil, they were both kids of the television generation, and have both favoured mainstream entertainment to niche projects or experimental movies. But again, Spielberg is the name that everyone recognises.

Thankfully, Landis will return to fiction cinema in 2010 with “Burke and Hare”, a darkly comic tale about two 19th century grave robbers who find riches providing cadavers for an Edinburgh medical school.

But whatever the general consensus on the man is, Landis has to let his films do the talking. Four or five of the best comedies, one of the best horror films, and the best horror-comedy ever made is quite an achievement. Landis is the man who introduced me to the vibrant power of cinema; the enchanting, twisted, fun and frightening world of fantasy entertainment in its visual form. For that I thank him wholeheartedly.

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Hmm. Landis isn’t exactly a household name these day, probably for the very reason you outline: he’s done nothing of note since Coming To America (I never really found Oscar that good, to be honest!). Mind you, if I had The Blues Brothers on my resume when I died, I’d go out a very happy man. I’ll admit to not seeing a few of these films, and wishing I’d never seen some that I have. I agree with you that Blues Brothers 2000 was a debacle from start to finish (with the exception of the Riders On The Storm segment), but I do look forward to seeing if his upcoming work recaptures some of that unique, twisted humor he’s known for.

    Great article Dan, which has prompted me to delve into the DVD library locally to find some of his other films…

  2. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Although, now that I think of it, I didn’t find Kentucky Fried Movie all that funny when it screened here a year or so ago. I remember being reminded of those juvenile Scary Movie-inspired “comedies” that the Wayans boys churn out each year. Still, each to their own I say!!

  3. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    I can see where the comparisons to the spoofs of the Wayans brothers come from (they borrowed heavily from Airplane/Naked Gun of which the Zucker/Abrahams team had a big hand in developing, as they did with Kentucky Fried Movie) but I do find Landis’ film funny (in a way that intelligently satirises or spoofs) as opposed to Scary Movie (which is like the juvenile version of Scream).

    I’m looking forward to his next film and hoping it is a return to form.

  4. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Quite the article there on Landis. He’s certainly versatile and you picked some of his best films, Dan. Nicely done. I think Landis will be a legend for two films, Animal House and Werewolf in London. Coming to America is one of the funnier comedies of the 80’s as well. But his best film might be Trading Places. It’s certainly a classic and it’s incredibly funny as well.

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