The attachment of John Landis’ name to Universal’s big redo of The Wolf Man is the latest step in the director’s long road of redemption, but if you were to go by the chatter on the internet, you might have the wrong impression as to why Landis has been languishing on the sidelines for so many years. Check out Ryan Stewart’s ill-informed piece at Cinematical (an otherwise smart and well-written site) today, where he says ‘Landis has been persona non grata in Hollywood for a long, long time — being negligent enough to allow Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dad to be decapitated on your movie set is a great way to have your phone calls go unreturned.’
Yes, Vic Morrow and two young children, Ryan – let’s not forget the really tragic victims – were infamously killed on the set of The Twilight Zone Movie. But to say that Landis’ career entered the wilderness after that is woefully ignorant. Yes, the specter of that horrible accident has hung over the man ever since, and rightfully so, but it isn’t like he stopped making great (and successful) movies after that. In fact I’d say that Landis went on to make three of his best movies after the death of Morrow, and he certainly made one of the most successful comedies of all time after that.
Leaving aside the fact that he released the greatest music video in history after the Twilight Zone accident (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, of course), Landis did have a misstep in the underrated Into the Night in 1985. But he bounced back in a major way that same year with Spies Like Us, one of the great 80s comedies. It’s never gotten the DVD release it deserves, but don’t let that fool you into believing the film didn’t perform; with a 22 million dollar budget and a 60 million dollar return, Spies Like Us was highly profitable. The movie also has one of the greatest cameo casts ever assembled – look for Terry Gilliam, Ray Harryhausen, Sam Raimi (before he was Sam Raimi) and Joel Coen (ditto), as well as Michael Apted, BB King, Costa-Gavras and Frank Oz. Spies Like Us is really undervalued because it has turned into a Saturday afternoon cable TV staple, but it’s a movie that should be too big, too shaggy, to work but it’s hilarious nonetheless.
After Spies Like Us Landis reteamed with Chevy Chase for the truly unappreciated classic Three Amigos. Another movie with a tragic DVD release and a devaluing cable TV rotation, Three Amigos is one of my favorite 80s comedies, a movie packed with great lines and moderately insane performances from Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short. Chase and Short would disappear in the coming years, and these days it’s hard not to sort of wish that Steve Martin would follow suit before signing on to yet another Queen Latifah movie, but here they’re just having a lot of fun as a trio of silent movie actors who accidentally become the Seven Samurai for a small Mexican town – except unlike Kurosawa’s movie, this film includes an invisible swordsman and a singing cactus. Three Amigos wasn’t as big a hit as Spies Like Us, but it was still profitable. Besides, Landis was about to blow the lid off the box office with his next film.
His next full film, anyway. Landis contributed segments to the spoof movie Amazon Women on the Moon, a film I admire more than I like it, and because of its skit-based nature it’s more hit and miss. Still, the guy who directed Kentucky Fried Movie knows a thing or two about skits. But it was Landis’ reteaming with Eddie Murphy that seemed to set him up as the living legend of screen comedy. The two had done amazing work together on Trading Places, but for my money their masterpiece together is Coming to America, the film that is the high water mark of Arsenio Hall’s entire life. The film itself is a surprising throwback to a more restrained, heartfelt sort of comedy, and it’s a movie that will grab you when you come across it, just about forcing you to watch the whole thing until the end. And the quality was surprisingly reflected in the box office – the movie, which cost 40 million dollars (Landis was on the cutting edge of inflating comedy budgets. Used Guys could never have been canceled without Landis blazing that trail!), made 130 million. Back when making more than a hundred million meant something.
Coming to America came out seven years after Vic Morrow died. Landis’ 80s were successful artistically and financially. In fact, it seems like Coming to America is what killed Landis’ career; his next movie was the awful Stallone comedy Oscar, and Landis followed that with a string of stinkers (although I know I can find someone who will defend Innocent Blood. Fool!), culminating in the horrible and expensive Beverly Hills Cop III. It’s hard to say what happened to Landis in the 90s; certainly it feels like all comedy took a hit in that decade as budgets became higher, stories became more frantic and less character based and movies were hinged on one star instead of the kinds of ensembles Landis had brought to fame in movies like Animal House and The Blues Brothers. In a lot of ways it seems like Landis’ career trajectory mirrors that of Hollywood’s comedy track record.
Landis’ return began in 2004, long after everyone had simply written him off. He directed a documentary called Slasher, about a shady used car salesman. Next came Masters of Horror, and while Landis isn’t really a horror guy (despite having directed the greatest werewolf movie of all time), he directed what might be two of the best episodes in the otherwise unwatchable series. Now Landis has another documentary, Mr. Warmth, about Don Rickles and suddenly I see him all over the place. The guy’s a natural raconteur, and he has been behind some interesting closed doors. It seems to me like Landis is right on the verge of a major comeback – although I don’t want to see him do it with The Wolf Man. He’s made his statement in that genre, and besides this film needs to be more serious.
So which John Landis was Ryan Stewart talking about? Not the one whose career I’ve been following since I was a kid, watching a copy of Schlock taped off of Wometco Home Theater. Obviously there are people who will never get past what happened that night on the set of The Twilight Zone movie, and that’s their prerogative, but letting a grudge against a filmmaker get in the way of reality is just plain stupid.