Tales from Down the Front goes Down to the Front Row to talk with Hollywood director John Landis about horror, Michael Jackson and this crazy ol’ world we live in…
After a number of portentous visits from his undead friend Jack, David Kessler sits nervously in the living room of his girlfriend’s London apartment, trying to concentrate on the book in his lap. Bobby Vinton’s slow and soothing version of “Blue Moon” plays over the scene as David tries to keep his mind off the warnings Jack has brought him from beyond the grave. Suddenly David clutches his head in agony and falls to his knees, screaming…
What follows is two-and-a-half minutes of the most visceral horror cinema ever made as David’s body stretches, contorts, pops and creaks into the form of a bloodthirsty werewolf. His muscles bubble, his bones crack and elongate, and his skull extends into a canine snout as he writhes in the terror and excruciating pain of his own curse.
Amazingly, three decades after Rick Baker’s make-up and special effects set a new benchmark for on-screen lycanthropic transformation, the pivotal scene of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London remains the standard that all other man-to-wolf metamorphoses are judged by. It can be argued even today, as the landmark film celebrates its 30th anniversary, that advances in computer technology would struggle to replicate the authenticity and startling nature of the straining skin, rancid sweat and coarse hair of Baker’s Oscar-winning turn.
“Even by today’s standards, the picture is very, very gory and violent,” Landis says proudly. “At the preview we had about 1000 people show up thinking ‘this is the guy who did Animal House and The Blues Brothers, it’ll be a riot…’ When Jack is killed by the wolf on the moors, about 150 people walked out. Another 200 or so left when he first turned up as a talking, rotting corpse. By the end of the film, there was about 300 people left. So the next night, I addressed the audience and told them that this isn’t Animal House, it’s a shocking, gory horror movie with lots sex and violence so…be warned. And it was a huge hit. The audience just needed to know what to expect.”
No-one could have expected where Landis and Baker would end up next and how much impact their next project together would have, not only on the medium of film but on the whole of popular culture. Combining the make-up and effects techniques from American Werewolf with the talents of a performer who was about to become the biggest star on the planet by some distance, Landis, Baker and a young man called Michael Jackson set about making history.
“Working with Michael Jackson on Thriller was like working with a brilliant ten-year-old,” Landis says. “I liked Michael, he was a hard worker; very professional, unbelievably talented and creative. Michael was like a neutron bomb; he had so much power. He was such a slight little guy which you could snap in half but when he performed…man! When he rehearsed with the professional dancers on set, he’d be at 20 percent and was still blowing them away. But even in 1983 Michael was a tortured guy; a real tragic guy. By the time I made Black or White some eight years later, he was completely fucking insane but still a good guy.”
By the time Landis worked with Jackson on Thriller, he had already made some of the highest grossing movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s with actors who would go on to become some of the biggest movie stars of that era.
Contrary to popular belief, however, Michael Jackson was not the most difficult person that Landis had to deal with at that time. “I have to remind people that actors like Eddie Murphy and John Belushi weren’t big stars when I worked with them,” Landis says. “When I made Trading Places with Eddie, he was 20. He was fabulous. He was very unsophisticated when it came to acting but he was so unbelievably gifted, a genius mimic. He was great, we had a great time.”
“Then eight years later when we made Coming to America, he was a horror show. He did what I told him to because he’s not stupid but he wasn’t a very happy guy. I don’t know what happened to him during the in-between years but he was not happy…just kinda weird and creepy. Then on Beverly Hills Cop 3, six years after that, he didn’t want to be funny. He took direction but he wanted to be seen as a serious actor and everything I tried to make him funny again just failed. I found out that Eddie was having a hard time dealing with the fact that guys like Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington and Sam Jackson were all doing serious action movies while he was still seen as a comic.”
Comedy is a staple in all Landis movies, even in the darkest of them. An American Werewolf in London is peppered with blackly humorous moments which makes it an even more uncomfortable viewing experience. From juxtaposing light-hearted music with gratuitous gore to the Monty Python-esque conversation between David and an increasingly decomposed Jack in a seedy Soho porn cinema, Landis manages to keep the chills and the chuckles on an even keel, a style and balance that acknowledges the influence of many of the films which have inspired him throughout his career.
“The great Ealing comedies were all really dark,” Landis says. “My favourite is Kind Hearts and Coronets which is a very kind and witty film about a serial killer and if you look at The Ladykillers, the original not the lame remake, the entire cast has murdered each other by the end of the movie. The Man in the White Suit? Another really great, really dark comedy. I was definitely honouring those movies but an Ealing comedy would never show violence. They were always very discreet about that.”
The Ealing influence is most clear in Landis’ last film, Burke & Hare – the true-life tale of two 19th century grave robbers who find a lucrative business providing cadavers for an Edinburgh medical school. Starring Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead fame and Andy ‘Gollum’ Serkis in the title roles, Landis manages to make the gruesome story of a couple of detestable characters into a darkly funny film which he describes as “a romantic comedy based on hugely inappropriate material.”
“The thing that attracted me to Burke & Hare is that these guys are really nasty and the challenge was to make them likeable,” he says. “There have been many films about Burke and Hare but I’d say there are maybe only two good ones; The Bodysnatchers with Boris Karloff and The Flesh and the Fiends with Donald Pleasance and Peter Cushing as a very cold and arrogant Dr. Knox. But most of the Burke and Hare movies have been bad. And they’ve all been horror films. It’s a story about many things. It’s set at the time of the Industrial Revolution so it’s about capitalism, it’s about science. It’s an interesting subject but a lot of people have missed the subtleties of it and gone for the schlock. My version is not a horror film.”
With his next project – the period piece, pistols-at-dawn romantic comedy The Rivals – in pre-production, it could be some time before we get another slice of the macabre from the man who brought an American werewolf to the streets of London. “Where would my next idea for a horror movie come from? People. Just look at the world right now. It’s fucking crazy. It’s in total chaos. People should be afraid of the news. Monsters aren’t real. Something fantastical lumbering about on screen doesn’t scare me. The psychopaths, they scare me. The normal people pushed to the edge of sanity and beyond. Monsters don’t scare me. People scare me.”
Nick Amies interviewed John Landis at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF) 2011.