Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Other than that, Mr. Landis, what did you think of the movie?"

On October 12th, the Scribe was lucky enough to see director John Landis at a screening of An American Werewolf in London at NYC's Pioneer Theater. I’ve seen Landis do this once before at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a showing of Innocent Blood (meh) and the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which was the real highlight. Shown for the first time in 35mm since its original theatrical showings almost 25 years ago, Thriller looked and sounded absolutely magnificent – the best music video ever made. Landis stayed for a lengthy Q&A after the showings, and told a story involving Michael Jackson, Vincent Price, and an unexpected obscenity that makes me smile even wider every time I see Price onscreen.

I’d been thinking a lot about Landis’ career since that night. By total coincidence, my copy of Twilight Zone The Movie had arrived at the office from Amazon on the day of the Werewolf, so I had it in my bag. Luckily, I remembered why handing that to him to sign wouldn't have been the best idea. For those who don’t know, while filming Landis’ segment of the Twilight Zone movie in 1982, star Vic Morrow and child actors Renee Chen and My-ca Le were killed when debris from a special effect explosion damaged the rotors of a helicopter directly above the actors and sent it crashing to the ground. The incredibly grisly accident (the main rotor, still spinning, landed directly on Morrow and the children) was caught on film by several cameras that were set up to film the climactic stunt. The ensuing criminal and civil trials and lawsuits stretched out over several years, with writer-director Landis being front and center as one of the named defendants. A far more detailed and nicely impartial accounting of the case can be found here

Twilight Zone was a big summer movie for Warner Bros in 1983, with four of the then hottest directors – Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller – taking on remakes or variants of classic Twilight Zone television episodes. Instead of scrapping the segment, it was re-written and pieced together using sequences already shot (Nearly all of Morrow’s scenes had already been filmed) and put in the leadoff position of the film. Much more memorable, however, was the brief prolog, also written and Directed by Landis, starring Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, a stretch of lonely highway, and one question – “Do you want to see something really scary?”. The prolog is one of the best things Landis has ever done; deftly mixing comedy and horror as well as he did in the previous years An American Werewolf in London. As for Landis’ actual segment, given the tragedy and the story changes that it caused it may be unfair to employ traditional means of criticim. But taken on its own merit, it runs a tie with Steven Spielberg’s thunderously dull "Kick the Can" segment as the least of the four. The story of a modern day bigot forced to live life as a Jew in Nazi occupied Europe, and a black man facing a lynching, was supposed to find salvation after living as a Vietnamese man during said same conflict, and coming to the rescue of two children threatened by an attacking American helicopter. This final act of heroism, added to Landis' story at Warners request, was to give the story a more upbeat, redemptive finale. Since this was now impossible, the story now ends with Morrow’s character being carted off on a train to a concentration camp – a very depressing ending that doesn’t match the tone of anything else in the picture, a decidedly mixed bag to be sure.

When people think that they hate Spielberg, they’re usually thinking about stuff like his segment here. The schmaltz is laid on so thick and forcefully, we feel like farm animals getting force-fed through some kind of extruder. Dante’s segment, a remake of the “It’s a Good Life” episode, is fun, but it’s heavy on effects that haven’t aged well. The proceedings are enlivened, however, by Dante regulars Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy, and William Schallert. The final segment is a remake of the “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” episode, featuring John Lithgow in the William Shatner roll of an airline passenger who spots a gremlin on the wing of the plane, tearing the engines apart in mid-flight. The one thing that seemingly everyone agreed on was that this segment, directed by Miller fresh off the success of The Road Warrior, is the real standout. A remake that stood on its own, it’s 25 minutes of sweaty, white knuckle suspense that almost makes you forget how disappointed you had been for the last 80 minutes.

My own feelings regarding the Twilight Zone criminal trial have always been clouded by my unabashed adoration for Landis. Comedies are notorious for not aging well. It’s a dispiriting experience to go back and watch films that you’ve been reared on through childhood like Caddyshack and Stripes (sorry, Bill) only to find that the seal was broken, and the contents have spoiled. Not everything Landis has made has been a winner (I’m sure he’d like to forget about Beverly Hills Cop 3 as much as I would) but consider Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places. Those 3 films were all made within roughly 5 years of each other, and most directors who specialize in comedies would have sacrificed their eldest child for just one of them in an entire career. It’s not that they were just funny; they were smartly plotted and sharply written. Trading Places in particular (the best film Eddie Murphy has ever made - period) brilliantly mixes erudite satire with bawdy farce and is one of the best American comedies of the second half of the 20th Century. During that same period, he fashioned a script written more than 10 years earlier while working as a gopher on Kelly’s Heroes into the most successful blending of comedy and horror since Abbott & Costello met Frankenstein almost 4 decades prior. An American Werewolf in London is still the water mark by which every monster picture must measure itself.
The best Landis film that you’ve never seen, however, is Into the Night. The story of a cuckolded insomniac Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) whose aimless night driving throws him in to the path of Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a stunning blonde being pursued by an Iranian goon squad, half the criminal underworld of L.A., and nearly the entire DGA appearing in cameos. The film takes place over a single night, and captures the otherworldly isolation of Los Angeles at night as well as any film ever had (see Michael Mann’s Collateral for an updated take and a more sinister vibe). Landis shot the film while still awaiting trail in the Twilight Zone case, and the effect is palpable. Into the Night, still technically a comedy, has a much darker tone than anything else he had done and also has a surprising amount of on-screen violence – certainly contributing factors in the disappointing box office.

Coming to America was a sizeable hit in 1988, but the film strained the relationship between Landis and Murphy, with the latter commenting publicly that Vic Morrow was more likely to work with Landis again than he would be. Well, Karma may well have been listening, as Coming to America was the last funny movie that Murphy has made. Landis has had a rough time in the ensuing years as well, with some films going straight to video (the woefully titled Susan’s Plan) and others, like Blues Brothers 2000, coming straight from Hell. The last few years, though, have been brighter. His two episodes of Masters of Horror, "Deer Woman" and "Family", were quite good, and his documentary about a week in the life of a used car salesman, Slasher, received excellent reviews.

So, it would have been as a true fan that I was going to stand up during the Pioneer Theater Q&A and tell him how much I loved the opening of Twilight Zone, and that it's one of my favorite memories of film-going as a child, but I just couldn't do it. He's such a cool, funny guy in person - and one of the greatest Hollywood storytellers I've ever heard - I could never be the one to harsh his mellow by bringing up such an obviously sore subject. Not that he needed my question and/or comment to get going; he was off right from the start telling stories about writing James Bond movies with Anthony Burgess and encountering a Gypsy burial in the middle of a crossroads in Tito-ruled Yugoslavia. He was also proudly plugging his new documentary on Don Rickles entitled Mr. Warmth, which was about to play at the New York Film Festival – but which you can catch on HBO in December.

There are some people who despise Landis for what happened back in 1982, and I can’t blame them. Luckily, my own sociopathic tendencies allow me to disregard certain ugly realties and leave me free to embrace the man and his movies.
Thank you, John