Guess the Unexpected Decade-Defining Director

I’d like to write a little bit about a certain director. But let’s play a game. Let’s see if you, the gentle reader, can guess who it is. He’s an American director, born in Chicago. He has directed comedy, horror, musical comedy, comedy horror, gangster horror, and action that was sort of action comedy. He has one film on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs list and two more that were nominated. The French government honored him in 1985 by awarding him the Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which recognizes “significant contributions to the arts, literature, or the propagation of these fields”. Still having trouble guessing? His most recognizable work came from 1977 until 1988, with a peak from 1978 to 1983.

The person I’m talking about is John Landis. As you can tell from the intro, he’s had a surprisingly illustrious career. What makes it slightly more remarkable is that his name is not one that instantly comes to mind when cinephiles discuss accomplished American directors. How about a trusty infographic to show us how successful Landis was during his peak?

Above, you’ll see the Rotten Tomatoes scores from Landis’ films from 1977 to 1988. Obviously, a positive Rotten Tomato score doesn’t mean that one has made a great film. It does, however, indicate critical acclaim. Keep something in mind here. Generally, critics–and Tomatoes scores by proxy–are not kind to comedies and horror films. Yet that was the canvas Landis was painting upon. That list includes eight “fresh” scores, a 90, and four consecutive films that were 85 or higher, all while directing comedy and horror. This is no small feat. And I don’t even want to touch the mistake there of Three Amigos registering as “rotten” on the tomatometer.

You might say that Landis was on a mission from Gad.

More importantly, dig a little deeper into the list. The first thing that leaps out at me is how many of those movies are fun, lovable, and infinitely quotable. If you were making a list of movies that defined 1978 through 1988, it’d be impossible to make it without including at least three of those. You could probably include up to six and you’d receive no argument from me. Allow me to put this another way. If you held a John Landis weekend in which you watched all of the films on that list, you would have a lot of good times coming your way. You wouldn’t know which character you loved the most; which quote to rattle off; and you’d probably have a really hard time determining which movie had been your favorite.

The beauty of this is that Landis tends to stand out a bit from typical 1980s fare (and for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to roll 1978 and 1979 into that era). Films from the era were zany and wacky and full of mad-capped antics. Also, John Hughes. But–how shall I say this?–they lacked depth. They were a bit shallow. That’s not true of Landis. Animal House has booze and boob and dead horse jokes, but it works because it’s very much the college answer to American Graffiti. It plays on nostalgia. An American Werewolf in London helped shape and define the horror-comedy mash-up, carrying influence far beyond the initial release. Trading Places trades places with classic comedy, deriving a plot straight out of a Preston Sturges comedy. Three Amigos is a loving spoof and homage of silent cinema in most of its various forms. The one film I haven’t mentioned is The Blues Brothers, a film which had to be an almost impossible task. Landis–who also co-wrote the screenplay–had to take a brilliant pair of sketch comedy characters, suited for five minute segments, and flesh them out into a full-length feature film. Even one of his critical duds, Spies Like Us, aimed high. It  drew inspiration from the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby  Road to… films, while simultaneously mimicking spy movies and the Bond films.

Norbit, my ass

It must be noted that Landis worked with some incredible talents and coaxed their best work. John Belushi is a legend in large part due to his roles in Blues Brothers and Animal House. Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy have rarely enjoyed the success that they had in Landis’ films. Rick Baker has done a lot of amazing work as a makeup artist in Hollywood but his efforts for An American Werewolf are legendary, and earned him the first ever Acadmey Award for Best Makeup.

There’s a special quality that some filmmakers have. They can take you into their vision, their movie, and make you feel as enthusiastic about movies–all movies, including their own–as they are. It takes a unique brand of enthusiasm to do that, and it’s a quality I admire greatly. Landis possesses that quality. He’s a movie lover who wants you to love movies right there with him. It’s a part of what made him one of the defining directors of American cinema in a decade that thirsts for someone to fill the role. Hardcore baseball fans like to talk about “The Hall of the Very Good”. Baseball has a Hall of Fame, reserved for the all-time greats. But just below that is a secondary, fictional level of players who just weren’t quite good enough. They make up “The Hall of the Very Good”. If there was a Hall of Fame for directors, I’d nominate John Landis for the Hall of the Very Good. His name certainly isn’t brought up in conversations about the all-time greats but his wonderful track record speaks for itself.


15 Comments

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15 responses to “Guess the Unexpected Decade-Defining Director

  1. Staci Alexander

    While I think some of his films are great, I have to admit that my opinion of the man is very colored by his role in the “Twilight Zone” tragedy.

    • It’s really interesting you bring that up, because I didn’t know anything about it until I started looking things up for this article. It sounds like an awful, awful tragedy and I can imagine that’s at least part of why his name isn’t brought up as much as it could be. Pure speculation on my part, of course. Maybe it’s not brought up as much because of the run of mediocrity he’s had since the late 80’s.

  2. Haven’t seen very many of his films, but the ones I have seen were fuckin’ fantastic. He’s indeed a Very Good general director, and a Great comedy director. Love the guy.

    • I wish I could say he was better at horror because of how great American Werewolf is, but he’s had a lot of duds there over the last 20ish years. Innocent Blood was entertaining, but nothing I’d rush out and recommend.

      His commentary on the Universal Legacy copy of The Wolf Man is top notch.

  3. I am a huge movie buff, but i’m afraid to admit I have not seen any of his films…

    Nice post though! and blog.

    • Thanks! You’ve got some great times headed your way. You can’t go wrong with his sweet spot of Blues Brothers, Animal House, Trading Places, and American Werewolf.

  4. I didn’t guess. But I heard him on the radio the other day on the kermode podcast and he was amazing and really charismatic. Great write up dude!!

  5. Big fan of Landis actually, and I think people not thinking of his name when it comes to the greats is just a generational thing with people who weren’t old enough in his heyday to know that he was behind all of those movies. Hell, the guy even has the “See you next Wednesday” link to all of his films!

    Not to mention that we’re talking about the dude who directed one of the very best music videos of all time – one that went on to shape the medium. He deserves better.

    Great post!

    (PS – Small favour, but do you think you might be able to update my site’s link in your blogroll?)

  6. Wow! I forgot that he made all those films of my childhood memories; The Blues Brothers, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, Coming to America! Nice post!

  7. Nicely done John! Animal House, Trading Places (the fact that it was filmed in Philly and didn’t have a murder take place in 30th Street Station makes it particularly noteworthy given the train station bathroom murders in Blow Out, Witness, and Dressed to Kill), and Coming to America are three of my all time favorite comedies. They’re just SO much fun to watch!

  8. Pingback: John Landis: Reconciling the Personal with the Professional |

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