The opening act from a highly successful Hollywood director, whose box office success pretty much ended during the mid-1990s, admittedly has its moments. But it is also unapologetically juvenile. Mark Fraser revisits a work which turns out to be more miss than hit.
One only has to watch the first few scenes of John Landis’ debut feature Schlock (1973) to get a good idea of what the rest of the film is going to be like.
Following a brief montage partly made up of MGM war movie stock footage (the inclusion of which seems to be purposely misleading given it really has nothing to do with the rest of the movie), the story starts in earnest with the aftermath of the slaughter of the entire Canyon Valley Metaphysical Bowling Society during its annual picnic at Gazotskie Park – a mass murder involving 289 victims and, in the words of television reporter Joe Putzman (Eric Allison), several cadavers that are so badly torn apart “it will be quite impossible to ascertain exactly how many bodies these pieces belong to”.
The carnage (sans any blood or gore) is captured in a wonderfully composed extended dolly/crane shot (by cameraman Robert E Collins) over which the opening credits roll, the moving frame finally resting on Detective Sergeant Wino (Saul Kahan) and lanky policeman Ivan (Joseph Piantadosi), who have just arrived at the crime scene.
“When I discover who or what is responsible for this, they are going to be in big trouble,” the geeky Wino utters, providing the movie with one of its more amusing deadpan lines.
From here on in it’s all strictly played for laughs. As the authorities start cleaning up the mess (one policeman steals the watch of a teenage male victim, another sits on a swing reading the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, while others load bodies onto wheelbarrows), Putzman files his live TV report before inviting his audience to guess how many individuals are contained in the “baggies” of body parts.
The prize? A free Kentucky chicken dinner “with all of the trimmings and enough cola for a family of six”.
It’s also Putzman who well and truly gets the ball rolling on one of Schlock’s running gags, that being the promotion of a movie called See You Next Wednesday which, in one instance, is described as “a fun-filled musical frolic through the leper colonies of Europe during the 30 Year War” starring Charles Laughton, Claudette Colbert and Mickey Rooney while, later on, finds itself touted as an “action packed war drama of defrocked missionaries in the Belgium Congo” with James Stewart, Donna Reed and “Stymie” (Matthew) Beard. Eventually a poster advertising the film turns up at the cinema which the titular Schlockthropus (Landis in an ape suit designed by Rick Baker, who was also making his motion picture debut) visits to watch an Irvin S Yeaworth Jnr double feature (The Blob and Dinosaurus!) – the joke here being that its texta-written title is merely stuck on a broadsheet for Target, a 1952 western starring Tim Holt and directed by Stuart Gilmore.
Schlock, also known as The Banana Killer, does not enter the story in earnest until the second scene, when he kills teenagers Billy (Gene Fox) and Bobby (Jonathan Flint) after they – along with their friends Betty (Susan Weiser) and Barbara (Amy Schireson) – find the entrance to the ape’s underground cavern.
Again both the police and Putzman turn up at the rustic location, where it is announced that Mrs Blinerman (Enrica Blankey AKA Harriet Medin), the sponsor of the upcoming high school dance, has won the chicken dinner.
As it transpires, her daughter Mindy (Eliza Garrett) – who has not been able to see for the past three years due to some medical affliction – is having the bandages removed from her eyes on the day of the big event. Later, in a plot development not really worth going into, Schlock falls for the girl and eventually kidnaps her, allowing Landis (who also wrote the screenplay) to make his low rent homage to Merian C Cooper’s original King Kong (1933).
While all of this makes it sound like Schlock is jam-packed with giggly gags, it isn’t. Certainly there are a few reasonable yuks along the way, but by the film’s closing curtain it feels as if they have been few and far between.
One of the movie’s basic problems is that many of the jokes fall flat – either they are just a bit too juvenile or simply laboured (particularly when making jokey references to other films). This means Schlock ultimately suffers from extended periods without a good laugh, something a number of viewers may annoying given it is meant to be a comedy.
There are, of course, a number of obligatory sight gags (seeing a temporarily blind girl walk into a wooden fence is always worth a chuckle), but nowhere near enough to keep the humour momentum going. Instead, Landis relies heavily on extended moments of clumsy slapstick to maintain audience interest. Unfortunately, watching a fake ape stuff its face with cake isn’t particularly funny the second time around; nor are the repetitive sequences of wailing police vehicles swerving erratically around the road as they make their way to the different crime scenes. As for joke-laden shoot-outs, one is really enough.
If anything, the director – whose box office success in the 1980s on the back of hits like The Blues Brothers (1980), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Trading Places (1983) and Coming to America (1988) effectively came to end in 1994 with Beverley Hills Cop II (which, oddly, is one of his highest grossing films) – sums this work up perfectly during an interview that is included in the extras of the Arrow Video Blu-ray release of the film: “Schlock is a terrible movie,” he says, “but there are some funny things in it, and it’s charming, but it’s very silly.”
Having said this, there are a couple of truly funny scenes in this debut feature worth singling out. The first, a pure sight gag, occurs around the 30 minute mark when Wino can’t fully open the passenger door of his parked squad car because the curb it’s standing next to is too high.
Meanwhile, around 10 minutes later, Schlock enjoys what is arguably its funniest moment when Mindy has the bandages over her eyes removed after three years of living in total darkness.
As the last layer of dressing comes off, the first thing she sees is the beaming face of former US President Dwight Eisenhower on the cover of a Saturday Evening Post colour supplement, prompting her to excitedly squeal: “I can see! I can see mom, I can see!”
Landis’ nostalgia for 1950s America, it seems, goes well beyond B-grade cinema of the day.
Words by Mark Fraser
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The Wrong Box was released by Powerhouse Films in the UK on November 26, 2018.