John Landis has experienced an amazing career as a leading comedy- and horror-film director; he’s responsible for monster hits like Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places, not to forget Michael Jackson’s immortal “Thriller” video. Having become frustrated with a modern studio system, which tampered with his last two big movies, namely Beverly Hills Cop III and Blues Brothers 2000, Landis has spent the past several years working more in television and on smaller film projects, but he still has plenty of creative irons in the fire. The infectiously energetic, hilariously insightful Landis chatted about Family, his recent Masters of Horror episode, which stars Cheers veteran George Wendt as a lonely, homicidal lunatic who kills strangers to collect a “family,” as well as about his forthcoming Don Rickles documentary.
Why did you choose to make Family?
Brent Hanley wrote a script years ago called Frailty. I desperately tried to direct that movie; however, the producer ended up giving it to Bill Paxton. I was very disappointed, because it really is the best script that I’ve ever read. The producers of Masters of Horror independently approached Brent Hanley, who lives in Texas, and asked him to write one [episode]. He said he would write one only if John Landis directed it. So they came back to me and asked if I would direct a script by Brent Hanley. I had intended to write my own, and I was very disappointed, but Brent is a wonderful writer, so I didn’t want to turn that down.
I was watching Family last night, and it’s more sinister than your other horror work. It’s more Twilight Zone than American Werewolf.
My [story in] Twilight Zone, which is obviously truncated, was trying to be closer to the spirit of Rod Serling, who was often very political and very heavy. Family is not that political. When I do fantasy, it tends to be stuff like American Werewolf, Deer Woman, and Innocent Blood, about fantasy monsters. In fantasy, I tend to like monsters, because I think that’s more difficult to bring off. Stuff like serial killers, mass murderers, and psychopaths is relatively easy, because they’re real. Vampires are not real. Werewolves are not real. So to create suspension of disbelief is harder.
For you, why are horror and comedy so closely related?
They’re both very unforgiving in that you either laugh or you don’t, or you’re either scared or you’re not.
You like to mix them together.
Yes and no. That’s not unique to me. Hitchcock always referred to Psycho as a comedy, and if you watch the film repeatedly, you can see it. Norman Bates says, “Mother’s not herself today.” It’s full of lines like that. There’s some very sly stuff in that movie. James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are high camp. I find humor in the supernatural, and I think I find humor in it because it’s not true. Whistling in the graveyard is like laughing in church. It’s the same thing.
You’ve been working on a Don Rickles documentary, which I imagine could be kind of a horror movie in itself, given his abrasive sense of humor.
I actually met Don when I was 18 years old and a gopher on a movie called Kelly’s Heroes, which was shot in Yugoslavia in 1969, when “behind the Iron Curtain” actually meant something. I was at Don’s 80th birthday last year, and I looked around the room and thought that people don’t appreciate Don’s place in history or what he does. I discovered that most people know him from movies, TV, the Carson show, or the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, but most people haven’t seen him perform. He’s a unique entertainer, and he’s still out there.
This week, I’m going to Las Vegas to shoot his opening at the Golden Nugget, which is pretty much going to be the ending of the film. Last week, I shot the demolition of the Stardust, and last September, I shot Don’s whole show at the Stardust. He says, “Now I play a hotel, and they blow it up.” Well, guess what I cut to?
It’s quite a unique documentary, and I’m very excited about it. It’s a labor of love, and it’s going to be wild. It has clips from a lot of old performances, television, and movies, [plus interviews with] Chris Rock, Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier, Warren Beatty, and Sarah Silverman. Other than Michael Jackson, he’s the most opposite of his person onstage than anyone I’ve ever met.
What do you find most fascinating about him?
He’s just an absolutely dear, sweet guy, and he has nothing to do with that abrasive schmuck onstage. And he’s so funny. Here’s a guy who is as funny now as he was 50 years ago. He was the one who was brave. If you see what he was doing 50 years ago, it’s shocking. This is when there were real gangsters, when Vegas really was controlled by the mob. He has that great line: “Frank Sinatra saved my life. He said, ‘That’s enough, boys!’?”
You started off with the camp film Schlock so many years ago …
A lot of people think I’m still doing it.
It’s surprising to learn that with all your success, it’s still tough to get certain films produced, like the offbeat musical Bat Boy, which you’ve been trying to make for years.
We live in different times. I look back with 20/20 hindsight, and I was very lucky to come into the movie business during the late ’60s and early ’70s. There was a good 15 years when the studios were collapsed and nobody understood what was going on, so they really allowed filmmakers, meaning writers and directors, to make decisions. I wrote An American Werewolf in London in 1969. I made it in 1981, and I got to make it only because of Animal House and The Blues Brothers. Do you think I’d be allowed to make Animal House or The Blues Brothers now? I would be allowed to make rip-offs [of the films], but I’d never be allowed to make anything as dangerous as those films, or even Trading Places or Coming to America.