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Though enormously successful and influential, Landis rarely turns up in film reference books--an indication of the continuing critical disrespect that greets youth-oriented comedy. Part of the same post-countercultural movement as the laugh-a-minute screenwriting team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, the creative staff of the original "Saturday Night Live" and National Lampoon, Landis translated this liberating sensibility to the big screen with such uproarious features as "The Kentucky Fried Movie" (1977), "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978) and "The Blues Brothers" (1980).
Flavored with rock'n'roll, rhythm and blues and nonstop movie references, Landis' films reveal him to be as much of a film buff as his contemporary (and fellow Daily Variety "Billion Dollar Director" designee) Steven Spielberg. Natural allies, the two traded off cameos in each other's films--Landis in "1941"; Spielberg in "The Blues Brothers"--before collaborating as producers and segment directors on the ill-fated production of "Twilight Zone - The Movie" (1983). The broad comedy specialist, however, has not found even the qualified critical acceptance of his colleague. Pigeonholed as a vulgarian, Landis has yet to find a "serious" subject (e.g., "Schindler's List") or a universal hit in the manner of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial". A faithful adaptation of Mark Twain's satirical masterpiece "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" remains his unrealized dream project.
The standard take on Landis is that he is a solid, sometimes inspired, technician but a sloppy storyteller whose films tend to fall apart in the last reel. His yen for broad physical comedy and ambitious stunts may reflect his former career as a film stuntman. Early efforts like "Kentucky Fried Movie" and "National Lampoon's Animal House" gained Landis a reputation as a prime mover in the modern "comedy of outrage" though they now look surprisingly tame. "The Kentucky Fried Movie" first presented the delirious rapid-fire, hit-or-miss comic technique that Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker would further develop in their own "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" movies. Lacking even the patience of those jittery comic works, the Landis-helmed outing careened from genre to genre in its good-natured parodies. The highlight is "A Fistful of Yen", an extended (and inspired) parody of the Bruce Lee-starrer "Enter the Dragon". "Animal House" offered a gleefully vulgar update of the campus comedy with wildly successful results. Landis counts the "Porky's", "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Police Academy" franchises among his progeny.
In a slight stretch, Landis scored commercially with his ham-handed but accessible approach to social satire in the popular Eddie Murphy vehicles "Trading Places" (1983) and "Coming to America" (1988) but stumbled with his leaden attempt to recreate the character-driven farce of 30s screwball comedy in "Oscar" (1991). More typically, he guided familiar TV faces to big screen success: John Belushi in "Animal House"; Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the elephantine "The Blues Brothers"; Aykroyd and Chevy Chase in "Spies Like Us" (1985); and Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short in the amiably silly "Three Amigos!" (1986). In an effort to bolster Eddie Murphy's then sagging box-office fortunes, Landis directed the underperforming action-oriented sequel, "Beverly Hills Cop III" (1994). Though generally perceived as superior to the second installment, the feature failed to re-establish Murphy's prominence.
Landis deserves credit for his small but significant contribution to modern horror filmmaking. His work provided a bridge between the hard-hitting and arguably subversive horror films of the 70s and the campy horror comedies of the 80s as he provided genuine scares and gore while demonstrating a sharp sense of humor. Abetted by landmark (and subsequently Oscar-winning and much copied) special make-up effects by Rick Baker, alternately poignant and humorous performances from his leads, witty musical cues and his own strong screenplay, Landis gave new life to a stock horror film monster in the impressive horror-comedy "An American Werewolf in London" (1981). Easily his most sustained achievement, the film has acquired the status of a minor genre classic.
Starting out as a mailboy at 20th Century-Fox, the 18-year-old Landis made his way to Yugoslavia to work as a production assistant on the Clint Eastwood WWII comedy vehicle "Kelly's Heroes" (1970). That production also marked his screen debut as he played a tall nun. Remaining in Europe, Landis found work as an actor, extra and stunt man in what he has described as "hundreds" of German action movies and Spanish-filmed spaghetti Westerns. Returning to the US, he made his feature debut as a writer-director at age 21 with "Schlock" (shot 1971; released 1973), an affectionate tribute to monster movies, made with $60,000 of his family's money. Clad in a Rick Baker-designed gorilla suit, Landis starred as Schlockthropus, the missing link. The film received very affectionate reviews, the best of his career according to Landis.
In addition to their work on "An American Werewolf in London", Landis and Baker collaborated on what may well be the director's most widely viewed work, the landmark "longform" promotional video for Michael Jackson's song, "Thriller" (1983). The eccentric pop superstar was particularly well-served by Landis as "Thriller" revealed their shared love of special FX, monsters and horror iconography. The short film also playfully (and perhaps prophetically) suggested a dark side to the sexuality of the eternally boyish entertainer. ("I'm not like the other boys," Jackson confided to his date before transforming into the first of the film's several monsters.) The vocal "cameo" of horror star Vincent Price was comparable to the frequent guest appearances that pepper Landis' features. The duo re-teamed for Jackson's lavish video for "Black or White", an improbably controversial work that featured then state-of-the-art "morphing" effects.
Despite the brilliance of much of his career, Landis' professional and personal reputation may always be marred by his involvement in the tragedy that occurred in 1983 during filming of a sequence of "Twilight Zone - The Movie". Along with his associate producer, unit production manager, helicopter pilot and special FX supervisor, Landis was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors. The performers were killed when struck by a helicopter which had been hit by debris from an FX explosion during a Vietnam War sequence. All plead not guilty and were acquitted after a highly publicized year-long trial.
Landis has not enjoyed comparable feature success in the 90s. His "The Stupids" (1996) awaited distribution for over a year and was met with mostly negative critical reaction. Instead, Landis has been devoting more of his time to TV as a producer and director, enjoying his greatest success in the medium as the executive producer and occasional director of the ribald movie-mad sitcom "Dream On" (HBO, 1990-96). He also executive produced the first season of the sci-fi parallel universe adventure series "Sliders" (Fox, 1995-96) and became an executive consultant after the series returned from hiatus. Landis also executive produced "Weird Science" (USA, 1994-97) and the TV-movie "Here Come the Munsters" (Fox, 1995).
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